“I made it all the way through high school without reading a single book.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this statement (made with pride) from people my age.
It kills me that lots of my millennial peers do not read fiction. The National Endowment for the Arts (PDF) has found that “[r]eading has declined among every group of adult Americans,” and for the first time in American history, “less than half of the U.S. adult American population is reading literature.” Guys are even worse: some reports show that men make up only 20% of fiction readers in America today.
To me, this is a great tragedy and one that hits close to home. When my wife (then girlfriend) told me for the first time that she thought fiction was basically useless I nearly wept (thankfully, I’ve converted her to a fiction lover). Don’t get me wrong–I love nonfiction. I love reading books that are filled with practical wisdom and relevant insights that challenge me to grow in my relationships, my work, and my faith.
But if you never read fiction, you are missing out. In my opinion, it’s like using your television to watch instructional videos but never movies or shows or concerts. An instructional video might give you practical information, but a film could change your heart.
Some might argue that reading fiction is useless and child’s play. Many others (I among them) disagree, including J.R.R. Tolkien:
Among those who still have enough wisdom not to think fairy-stories pernicious, the common opinion seems to be that there is a natural connection between the minds of children and fairy-stories, of the same order as the connection between children’s bodies and milk. I think this is an error; at best an error of false sentiment, and one that is therefore most often made by those who, for whatever private reason (such as childlessness), tend to think of children as a special kind of creature, almost a different race, rather than as normal, if immature, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large. ― Tolkien on Fairy-stories
So, without further ado, here are seven great reasons to read more fiction.
1. Reading Fiction Makes You a Better Leader
“Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” This oft quoted phrase by Harry S. Truman still rings true. Why? Reading brings wisdom. Some have said that to read is to “commune with great minds.” Not only that, the best leaders are most often the hungriest–they never stop learning. They are naturally curious people, always seeking to grow in their wisdom and abilities.
Some of the greatest leaders in history have been avid readers. Listen to this article from Harvard Business Review :
According to The New York Times, Steve Jobs had an “inexhaustible interest” in William Blake; Nike founder Phil Knight so reveres his library that in it you have to take off your shoes and bow; and Harman Industries founder Sidney Harman called poets “the original systems thinkers,” quoting freely from Shakespeare and Tennyson. In Passion & Purpose, David Gergen notes that Carlyle Group founder David Rubenstein reads dozens of books each week. And history is littered not only with great leaders who were avid readers and writers (remember, Winston Churchill won his Nobel prize in Literature, not Peace), but with business leaders who believed that deep, broad reading cultivated in them the knowledge, habits, and talents to improve their organizations.
–For Those who Want to Lead, Read, by John Coleman
2. Reading Fiction Allows You to ‘See with New Eyes’
Consider this from C. S. Lewis, as he sought to answer the question of why we read fiction in a An Experiment in Criticism:
The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being.
We want to be more than ourselves.
Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself. And even when we build disinterested fantasies, they are saturated with, and limited by, our own psychology. To acquiesce in this particularity on the sensuous level—in other words, not to discount perspective—would be lunacy. . . .
[W]e want to escape the illusions of perspective on higher levels too. We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. . . . We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even of doors. One of the things we feel after reading a great work is ‘I have got out’. Or from another point of view, ‘I have got in’; pierced the shell of some other monad and discovered what it is like inside.
Good reading, therefore, though it is not essentially an affectional or moral or intellectual activity, has something in common with all three.
The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented…
Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality…
[I]n reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do. (140-41)
Joyce Carol Oates puts it another way, “Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”
3. Reading Fiction Helps You Understand the Truth when the Facts Don’t Do It Justice
Sometimes the facts don’t tell the whole story. If you were to look up the Vietnam War in the encyclopedia, you would get a bunch of facts: numbers of troops, countries, locations, generals, numbers of casualties. But these facts, while true, fall way short of explaining what the war was actually like.
Vietnam veteran and novelist Tim O’Brien (best known for his book, The Things They Carried) said it this way: “That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.”
4. Reading Fiction Adds Richness, Texture, Color to Your Life
There is a depth and color and richness and beauty and joy and sorrow to fiction that cannot be found on the pages of nonfiction. A life without fiction, trafficked in mere facts and reality, is a life lived in black and white. Sometimes I feel as if my soul needs more symphonies and fewer sound bites. Stories are not mere escape from reality, as some would say. On the contrary, fiction helps me to appreciate reality more fully.
As C.S Lewis once said:
[The fairy tale] stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: The reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.
5. Reading Fiction Makes You More Empathetic
Writer David Foster Wallace (best known for his book, Infinite Jest) said this in an interview published in The Review of Contemporary Fiction:
We all suffer alone in the real world. True empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with their own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.
Anne Lamott puts it this way:
What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.
6. Reading Fiction Reminds Us that We’re Not Alone
James Baldwin puts it this way:
You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.
7. Reading Fiction Makes You Alive to Wonder
Someone wise once told me that the realities of living life in a fallen world will squeeze the wonder and joy out of you, if you let it. Even at the young age of 25, I know this to be true.
Here’s the thing: you and I were made to feel wonder and awe. That’s why people pay thousands of dollars a year to visit the Grand Canyon, to watch stories on film that are completely made up, to jump out of airplanes and swim with dolphins.
There’s another way to feel that: read fiction. When was the last time you got lost in a story? When was the last time you felt joy, awe, and wonder? When was the last time you were so moved by some beauty or tragedy or victory that you wept?
That’s what fiction does–it makes us alive to wonder again. Tolkien said it this way:
Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves.
We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiares are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of “appropriation”: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them.
Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else (make something new), may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds.