I am going to begin this article by posing an argument: reading fiction is important.
Everyone can agree that reading is an important component in developing a successful life. Consuming content sharpens your intellect and builds your knowledge set. It seems almost universal that the more successful you are, the more you read.
But this focus on reading is one-dimensional. People get caught up in nonfiction — self-help books, business books, books on sales and health and psychology and relationships. These are all valid books to spend your time reading — they’re filled with information that can help better you in your career and your life — but it’s a mistake to leave fiction in the dust.
Fiction is a forgotten gem, an untapped well of knowledge and information. A person developing and aiming for success should steep themselves in fiction, and read it copiously.
I’ve made my argument. Now to answer the question that follows all such bold claims: why?
Fiction helps you understand other people’s perspectives
Fiction has a power that no other form of communication does: the power to insert you fully and completely in someone else’s mind. It is a meld between the mind of the reader and the writer, and the minds of reader and character.
When you read fiction, you’re seeing the world through a character’s eyes.
Watching a character interact with the world around them is powerful. When studying history, a history book gives you a series of dry facts and anecdotes, but historical fiction sets you down in the middle of the time period, allows you to touch and taste the world around you, interact with contemporaries, solve problems. You understand the period contextually as you never could from the removed perspective of a history book.
Good fiction runs deep into the realms of psychology and philosophy. It explores and uncovers paradigm. It allows you to understand perspectives you’ve never seen before, both psychological and physical.
When you read fiction, you can be someone you’d never otherwise have the chance to become — another gender, another age, someone of another nationality or another circumstance. You can be an explorer, a scientist, an artist, a young and single mother or an orphaned cabin boy or a soldier.
When you take off the guise again — set down the book — you walk away changed. You understood things you didn’t understand before, and that shapes your worldview.
Fiction deepens your understanding of evolution
Everything evolves — individuals evolve. Paradigms evolve. Cultures evolve. Technology evolves. To study history is to study the evolution of civilization.
All stories have narrative arcs — a beginning, a middle, and an end. This arc marks an evolution — be it of a character or a series of events. Something comes out changed.
This phenomenon of evolution is important on multiple levels. On a conceptual scale, watching evolution occur in fiction is valuable, because fiction deals in expedited timelines. You can see things from a zoomed-out perspective and see things you wouldn’t observe in normal day-to-day life. Watching the evolution unfold helps you begin to understand the process.
On the level of an individual, watching characters evolve helps us understand individual human evolution — both that of those around us, and our own.
On a broader level, fiction allows us to see the evolution of events, narratives, trajectories — even societies.
When we look at the world, we see it in pieces, and it’s hard to understand how those pieces fit together. On a linear timeline, how did we get from point A to point B? Fiction gives us context.
Fiction allows you to see the big picture
Point A to point B applies not only linearly, but in our day-to-day lives. All things in our world fit together, and fiction allows us to see how.
Fiction gives us the rare opportunity to look at the world from a removed perspective.
Fiction, in its narration, condenses. It pulls out the things that are important and highlights them, juxtaposes them against each other, elaborates on them, paints them clearly as we don’t usually see them. An evolution that can take years — the building of a relationship, the unfolding of a war, the deterioration of a strong young man into a weak old one — can be observed in hours.
In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck highlighted truths about the Great Depression that those in the middle of its dust couldn’t clearly see. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald draws a picture of a man with an overdeveloped persona in a way that one cannot see interacting with him at the surface, but can only discern from a distance.
It makes the world clearer to see all of it at once — like flying high above the trees to see the forest, or looking at the world via a map — instead of on the ground where you can’t tell if there’s a street running parallel to the one you’re on.
Fiction allows you to look at the world in an entirely different light
When you read fiction, you’re looking at the world through someone else’s eyes. It could be argued that this is true of all writing — or even all forms of communication — and this argument would be true, but fiction does something unique that all other forms cannot. It takes us inside — inside the mind and the perspective of the character. You’re seeing a world defined on their terms: their metaphors used to describe their surroundings, their context for events, their perspective on happenings and relationships.
Looking at the world in different lights is one of the most vital things one can do in the pursuit of growth. Our perspectives are limited, but they’re constantly evolving. When we look at the world through someone else’s perspective, we try on the elements of their paradigm — and when we find something we like, we adopt it and make it our own. In doing so, our own paradigm grows.
Fiction makes our lives rich
Fiction deals with the things that make us fundamentally human. Conflict, passion, love, lust, fear, hatred, jealousy, exaltation. The things we crave, the things that move us most.
Fiction makes us feel, and that feeling makes us richer.
On a very basic level, it makes our lives better to fill ourselves with fiction.
Fiction helps us understand
The definition of fiction is something made up, but fiction ultimately deals in truth. Remember that Hemingway quote I opened with? There’s another, equally as compelling as the first:
“All good books have one thing in common — they are truer than if they had really happened, and after you’ve read one of them you will feel that all that happened, happened to you and then it belongs to you forever: the happiness and unhappiness, good and evil, ecstasy and sorrow, the food, wine, beds, people, and the weather.” — Ernest Hemingway
I confess that I’m biased. I am a literature person — I see the world with a literary mind. When I read fiction after a spell of abstinence, it’s like taking a long drink of cold water on a hot day when your mouth is dry.
Acknowledgement: not all fiction is valuable. Poor writing, shallow plots, and petty drama have little value — at least, little that I’ve found. But not all nonfiction books are valuable either. Shoddy “dime store romances” aside, fiction has endless potential to bring value to your life.
Next time you see someone reading fiction, don’t turn up your nose and sniff under your breath. Go read some yourself.
Hannah Frankman is a writer, videographer, photographer, educator, and creative. You can find more of her work at hannahfrankman.com, and find snapshots of her story at instagram.com/hannahfrankman.