January 20, 2018

Why I Read Fiction, and Why You Should, Too.

As a boy of ten, I discovered “The Hobbit” in my grandfather’s basement in a dusty closet behind a bandsaw.

I remember finding the old, tattered, cover-less copy of the classic J.R.R. Tolkien novel and reading it like a long, lost treasure map.

With the discovery of “The Hobbit,” I opened Tolkien for the first time. Reading hooked me and in the years that followed, I lost more hours of sleep to reading than I did to playing video games.

From there it was only a short jump to other fantasy greats like Terry BrooksRobert Jordan and T.H. White.  Since science fiction is really just fantasy with technology, it wasn’t long before I was reading Joe Haldeman, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and Richard Matheson. And somewhere along the way I ran into Tom Clancy, too, as well as Robert Ludlum.

And yet, I can’t tell you how often I’ve been razzed for reading fiction. It isn’t uncommon for me to find my associates embarrassed to admit that they read fiction (if they read fiction at all).  I’ve even seen pundits mock and deride the readers of fiction for being lazy. Why read something that isn’t real? they argue. Serious people read serious books, and that means non-fiction.

So why read fiction?  Here are a few reasons.

1.  Self-mastery and empathy. It’s been argued that  what we read mirrors what we are. To a certain extent, we read what we think we will enjoy.  However, when we read we are, for a moment, in the hands of the writer, and no matter the genre, we are not choosing our own path. Their words are our guide, and we find ourselves in new places and situations and experiencing thoughts and emotions that would not otherwise be ours. As D.G. Meyers once argued

To read an author is to read someone different from ourselves. Reading is not a means of self-affirmation, but of self-denial. Any book that is any good challenges its readers: This is so, isn’t it? Did you know this? Have you considered that?

Ann Patchett says it even better:

Reading fiction is important. It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings. Following complex story lines stretches our brains beyond the 140 characters of sound-bite thinking, and staying within the world of a novel gives us the ability to be quiet and alone, two skills that are disappearing faster than the polar icecaps.

When we read, we step out of the noise of our mundane lives, and we enter the quiet of the mind.  They say that you shouldn’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Reading fiction might be a way to start that walk.

2.  Hone your social skills. An article in Scientific American last year noted that reading fiction might actually help you be more socially adept. In fact, it might even gradually alter your personality to “make you open to new experiences and more socially aware.”

Just as computer simulations have helped us understand perception, learning and thinking, stories are simulations of a kind that can help readers understand not just the characters in books but human character in general.

Jet pilots train in simulators, pollsters conduct focus groups to discover how people will respond to products and issues, and we all test drive a car before we buy it (not to mention dating our spouse before we marry). Why wouldn’t we want to expand our range of experience as much as possible, including through the medium of imagination and the pages of a book?

3.  To be “well read.”  This one is, admittedly, perhaps a less intrinsically oriented, but still an important by-product of reading fiction, especially when reading choices are wide and varied. One cannot fully appreciate and understand our culture without understanding our literary roots. How could you know what it means to have “Big Brother watching you” if you haven’t read “1984?” What is a Catch-22 without “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller? You might know “a Scrooge” because “A Christmas Carol” has been adapted for the screen so many times, but Charles Dickens wrote it first, and it is best in its literary form even today. And did you know that long before Yahoo was a search engine, it was a dull witted human ruled by horses from “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift?

Do you like movies? Can you imagine Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean or Jack Sparrow without Robert Louis Stevenson‘s Long John Silver from “Treasure Island?” Could Will Smith have been in I Am Legend without Richard Matheson? Or Tom Cruise in Minority Report without Philip K. Dick? The list goes on. Before they were blockbusters, they were novels, and I can promise you this: the book is almost always better than the movie. Don’t take my word for it…go pick up the book.

4. It’s better for you than television. Unlike watching television, reading actually takes effort. Rather than passively staring at the screen, your brain stays active and alert. Studies have found that watching television can engage Alpha waves, a more relaxed state for the brain, but one that is more passive and open to suggestion. One commentator said that

While Alpha waves achieved through meditation are beneficial (they promote relaxation and insight), too much time spent in the low Alpha wave state caused by TV can cause unfocused daydreaming and inability to concentrate. Researchers have said that watching television is similar to staring at a blank wall for several hours.

Blank wall, eh? I’m not suggesting that you should stop watching television–I enjoy a good show myself–but that reading is better for your brain. It allows you to absorb more information, use more imagination, and more thoroughly create a response all your own.

There’s science to support it, too. A recent study suggests that metaphors–without which good fiction might be almost impossible–make the brain “touchy feely.”

Researchers have found that textural metaphors—phrases such as “soft-hearted”—turn on a part of the brain that’s important to the sense of touch. The result may help resolve a long-standing controversy over how the brain understands metaphors and may offer scientists a new way to study how different brain regions communicate.

Again, we empathize through our imagination, spurred on by reading. We read, we connect, and when we connect we understand others.


Why read fiction, then?  It helps us disconnect from the stresses of our lives and connect with other human beings in an active, empathetic mental process. We learn to connect and experience what we would not otherwise sense.

The other reason I read, and it’s just as important: reading is a lot of fun.

This week we celebrate the anniversary of one of the finest masters of the English language. On April 23, 1616, William Shakespeare died, leaving us an immeasurable gift in his plays and poetry. In celebration, April 23 is designated as World Book Night.  In honor of “the Bard,” take a few minutes and find a good novel, open it up, and dive in.

For me, it’s been two and half decades since I found that tattered copy of “The Hobbit” in Grandpa’s basement and I’m a better and happier man for it.

Says D.G. Meyers:

If reading is the key to self-mastery, fiction is the master key. […] But fiction demands that you either identify with the characters’ decisions or distance yourself from them, and this has a powerful effect. In doing so you shape your own moral experience. Although it may seem to be far removed from the center of the culture right now, fiction remains the best form of reading — the single best way to achieve all of reading’s goods.

[Commentary][NYT][Scientific American][11 Points][Yahoo][Science Now]

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About Daniel Burton

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. You can follow him on his blog PubliusOnline.com where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas. He is active on social media, Republican politics, and has been named to PoliticIt’s list of the “Top-50 Utah Political Opinion Leaders” on Twitter. You can reach him directly at dan.burton@gmail.com

  • Allison Bowen

    Great article, Dan, excellent quotes. I’m not the best reader but I’m constantly wishing I was better, and you’re inspiring me to get back on track.

  • Havalah Turner

    well said. Makes me love reading even more. I had no idea that you found “The Hobbit” in grandpas basement…

  • Anjuli Merry

    I glad that you bugged me enough to read The Hobbit…even though it took me years. I am planning on reading it to the Boys this summer.  Thanks for all the reading recommendations of the year.

  • Harmony

    Great words Daniel.  Love that you discovered “The Hobbit” in Grandpa’s basement.  I found treasures down there too, but not that one. 🙂

  • Seegy22

    Several comments: 
    If you think reading fiction is good for you in all the ways listed (and more), try writing fiction!

    If you read more fiction and read (watch,listen) to less pseudo-science from our warped media, you won’t be tempted to use references like “disappearing faster than polar ice caps.”

    Reading fiction in a home inhabited by a spouse who is fixated on family history and genealogy gives me potent guilt feelings.  The only way I’ve been able to partially suppress them is to listen to audio books while I cook, eat, wash dishes, clean, drive and do yard work.  I’ve been logging and rating books for over six years (285 and counting), about ninety percent of which have been in the audio format. It’s the only way I’ve ever been able to multi-task.

    • There’s no doubt. I should write more fiction. 

  • Pingback: Contributor post on KSL.com: "Fiction is good for you..." | Publius Online()

  • MJ

    Although novels are important, I feel that poetry is the apex of fictional prowess-a good poem is like reading many novels simultaneously. 

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