Is Reading Fiction Important?

I said, more than a few times, that I prefer non-fiction books over fiction ones. Why? Because with non-fiction, if you get 100 pages in and realize you don’t like it, you can just stop reading it and move on. Not so with fiction. If you are 100 pages in, even if the writing is horrible, you are committed. You want to know how it all plays out.

Maybe not for you, but it’s true for me, and I read relatively little fiction, because of it. (Although, I probably could be happy reading a mix of Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft over-and-over. :-))

Stolen Focus book cover
Image from

That’s why I had to take a step back when I read something about a beneficial effect fiction has (that non-fiction does not) in Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention–and How to Think Deeply Again, by Johann Hari. After writing this:

I like the person I become when I read a lot of books. I dislike the person I become when I spend a lot of time on social media.

He continued…

But I wondered if I was getting carried away—these were just my hunches, after all—so later, I went to the University of Toronto to interview Raymond Mar, who is a professor of psychology there. Raymond is one of the social scientists who has done most in the world to study the effects that reading books has on our consciousness, and his research has helped to open up a distinctive way of thinking about this question.

This is where it gets tricky to elaborate on, without copying too much. 🙂 Basically, Mar and his mentor, Keith Oatley, wondered:

When you read a novel, you are immersing yourself in what it’s like to be inside another person’s head. You are simulating a social situation. You are imagining other people and their experiences in a deep and complex way. So maybe, he said, if you read a lot of novels, you will become better at actually understanding other people off the page. Perhaps fiction is a kind of empathy gym, boosting your ability to empathize with other people—which is one of the most rich and precious forms of focus we have.

(Emphasis mine.)

So they figured out a way to study it…and…

When they got the results, they were clear. The more novels you read, the better you were at reading other people’s emotions. It was a huge effect. This wasn’t just a sign that you were better educated—because reading nonfiction books, by contrast, had no effect on your empathy.

Hari then shares Mar’s explanation for why this is true, including:

Each of us can only ever experience a small sliver of what it’s like to be a human being alive today, Raymond told me, but as you read fiction, you see inside other people’s experiences. That doesn’t vanish when you put down the novel. When you later meet a person in the real world, you’ll be better able to imagine what it’s like to be them. Reading a factual account may make you more knowledgeable, but it doesn’t have this empathy-expanding effect.


I’m convinced enough that I am going to purposely mix more fiction into my reading. You?

I would buy Stolen Focus and read it…even if you already imbibe plenty of fiction. Perhaps you’ve avoided the attention-ruining effects of modern Internet, social media, and smartphone apps, but I suspect not. Although I haven’t finished the entire book yet, it is helping me understand why it is such a battle for me to sit and read more than ten minutes, and will give me some tools to correct it.

Well, enough writing…time to prep for my next podcast!

(Cross-posted on my Data Guy (Me) blog.)

PLEASE NOTE: My reposting, quoting, or linking to items from social media, other sites, et cetera, does not equal endorsement. Please also see "What Really Matters."

1 comment

Comments are closed.