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The Importance of Reading Fiction


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My journalist friend, Shubhasree Desikan, made a perceptive comment on a blog I had posted on Medium, “A Hero’s Journey (Nov 19, 2022),”: “Reality is a pale shadow of fiction — a contrast to the usually held view… perhaps the very complexity of life dulls the impact of character and the comparative simplicity of fiction sharpens it like a cut gemstone adding to its lustre.”

This is an acute observation about fiction. Fiction allows you to assume various identities in different circumstances, which is a great luxury denied to you in your paltry real-life existence. Fiction is a great simplifier enabling abstraction. It discards the non-essentials and highlights what matters. Events that take years, in reality, are distilled into a few chapters. Changes that take place over the years — the evolution of a relationship, the emergence of a crisis, the dissolution of a character — can be seen in a matter of hours. Reading gives you a broader perspective and makes you understand the absurdity of the world. Imagined lives are more colourful than real ones because imagination transcends knowledge and embrace the world as a whole.


In Abraham Verghese’s “Covenant of Water”, Philipose explains to Ammachi about his reading the Moby Dick: “I’ve lived through three generations and learned more about the world and about myself than I do during a year in school. Ahab, Queequeg, Ophelia, and other characters die on the page so that we might live better lives.”


While writing this piece, I googled to find out why we relate to fictional characters. I got 45,60,00,000 results. I read some of the results. They discuss the deep psychological reasons for this type of transference. I believe that we love fictional characters because deep within our minds, we want to be like them, colourful, forceful, and adventurous. Because we know that we are nothing like that, struggling to live our drab, ordinary lives and not succeeding in even that.


To quote Ernest Hemingway(1): “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.”


Autobiographies and fiction enable us to see the world through other people’s eyes and to think about the world as others think. “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” says Albert Camus.


Readers of literary fiction acquire an altered world view through its presentation of difference — different minds, different contexts, and different situations — creating a belief that the social world is complex[2]. Many surveys reveal that those who read fiction tend to have more empathy and are sensitive to what others are feeling.


Christine Seifert [3], writing in Harvard Business Review, quotes Joseph Badaracco, Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard, “fiction provides an opportunity to complicate standard good versus evil tropes. Good literature presents characters with competing and often equally valid viewpoints. Unlike business books which have to boil everything down to a binary point of view, literature allows us the validity of conflicting points of view. Future business leaders won’t encounter the exact scenarios they read about, but they will be able to use an expanded ability to understand and respond to multiple competing viewpoints.”

Experts say that reading fiction effectively enhances one’s capacity to be unbiased and keep an open mind when you process information. This can be seen as a necessary skill aiding effective decision-making. Scientists have recognized the existence of something called the ‘need for cognitive closure’. This is desire to “reach a quick conclusion in decision-making and an aversion to ambiguity and confusion [3].” Need for ‘cognitive closure’ makes people prefer minimum information and fewer perspectives. On the other hand, people who fight the desire for cognitive closure are more creative, and more comfortable with competing narratives and more contemplative. Such people exhibit a higher emotional quotient and empathy.


Scientists from the University of Toronto found that people fond of reading short stories displayed a lower need for cognitive closure. This is not a strange result since reading fiction makes us process considerable amount of information which makes our mental perspectives change. There are no clear answers and often different perspectives are presented. Many studies indicate that all kinds of reading were associated with more empathy and perspective-taking.


Many studies on the benefits of reading fiction suggest that fiction readers develop social cognitive abilities and critical thinking [4]. There is a general belief that reading serious books is essential to garner factual information. However such books do not aid in the development of what is termed emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is a measure of how you manage your emotions and your ability to be sensitive to the emotions of people around you. It is not surprising that readers of literary fiction are found to be better creative thinkers than nonfiction readers.


Reading fiction broadens our imagination and thinking process. By transporting us into different worlds, it liberates our minds to new concepts and situations and opens our minds to new imagined realities. This practice strengthens our mind and helps us in understanding new things. The imaginary worlds of literary fiction are fanciful interpretations of the real world. By analyzing the problems of imaginary worlds of fiction, we become able to critically analyze our real world.


“Empathy is about transposing into another person’s self, feeling and seeing like that person. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place (5).”


In a world full of self-interests, there is a dire need to increase the ability to have empathy. If we want to make the world a better place, we must teach people to empathise with each other. And read fiction!


[1] Papa Hemingway [1966] by A. E. Hotchner

[2] Nicholas Buttrick, Erin C. Westgate and Shigehiro Oishi, Reading Literary Fiction Is Associated With a More Complex Worldview. OnlineFirst, [https://doi.org/10.1177/01461672221106059](https://doi.org/10.1177/01461672221106059)

[3] Christine Seifert, Harvard Business Review, The Case for Reading Fiction, March 6, 2020, [https://hbr.org/2020/03/the-case-for-reading-fiction](https://hbr.org/2020/03/the-case-for-reading-fiction)

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