In Defense of Reading Fiction

Is reading fiction a waste of time?

A statement made by the frontman of the band Oasis caused quite a bit of controversy in 2013. In a British GQ interview, Noel Gallagher stated:

I only read factual books. Novels are just a waste of f–king time.

Fiction-lovers were quick to call Gallagher the Big Bad Wolf.

It was a blunt statement, but Gallagher is not alone in his controversial thoughts. I’m sure a portion of the readers of this article have similarly stopped reading fiction altogether.

If you’ve given up on literary fiction, this article is for you. Reading fiction may actually present more usefulness than Mr. Gallagher would have you believe.

This article is not intended to slight non-fiction, which can certainly be beneficial. It appeals to our thirst for knowledge – we look for statistics, systems, and approaches that can help us improve our work and personal lives. While reading non-fiction can help quench our thirst for knowledge, it often isn’t associated with the benefits that ‘deep reading’ – slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail, emotional and moral complexity – can provide.

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Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University, and Keith Oatley, a professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, reported in studies published in 2006 and 2009 that individuals who often read fiction are better able to understand people, empathize with them and view the world from their perspective. Time Magazine reported on their findings in 2013. To summarize, Mar and Oatley found that deep reading is becoming an endangered practice and that, “Its disappearance would imperil the intellectual and emotional development of generations growing up online, as well as the perpetuation of a critical part of our culture: the novels, poems and other kinds of literature that can be appreciated only by readers whose brains, quite literally, have been trained to apprehend them.”

Cognitive studies have shown that deep reading is a unique experience, different from the mere decoding of words. While this does not necessarily mean it’s impossible to get lost in words on the screen, reading a conventional book has been shown to be more conducive to the deep reading experience. A book’s lack of hyperlinks, for example, allows the reader to truly get lost in the pages. There are no distracting advertisements or click-bait that beg the question – Should I click on this link or not? – allowing the reader to become fully immersed in the narrative.  

What’s even more interesting is the increased amount of emotional intelligence reading fiction provides. Mar and Oatley found exposure to fiction to be positively correlated with social support. Reading non-fiction, in contrast, was associated with loneliness, and negatively related to social support – maybe Jay Gatsby and Holden Caulfield could have benefitted from picking up a novel once and a while.

Exposure to fictional short stories, as compared with exposure to non-fictional essays, also reduce the need for cognitive closure. The need for cognitive closure has been found to be associated with a variety of suboptimal information processing strategies, leading to decreased creativity and rationality. Mar and Oatley’s findings suggest reading fictional literature could lead to better procedures of processing information generally, including those of creativity. The researchers say the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuances and complexities.

shutterstock_195945998 600So there you have it – these studies demonstrate that the real world benefits of picking up a piece of literary fiction are not fictional. Don’t feel guilty about getting lost in the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes or A Tale of Two Cities, they may just improve your life as much as the latest Elon Musk biography.

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