Friday, November 3, 2017

We Need to Read Fiction Now More Than Ever

You’ve met them, I’ve met them, people who simply don’t read novels. They “don’t have time,” they say. Or, “Reading fiction is a waste of time," or “There are enough real problems in the world without having to concentrate something that’s not true.”

This kind of thinking shows a real misunderstanding of what fiction is and even who we are as human beings. It is precisely because there are so many problems in the real world that we need fiction now more than ever.

Imagine, if you will, a world without fiction, a world with no stories. The vast shelves of novels in bookstores and libraries would sit there  empty. When you sat down to read your child a book at bedtime, it would be a science book, or a self-help book about why we shouldn’t bully, or how to get better grades, for example. The only movies we would watch would be documentaries or science movies, and maybe the odd cooking or reality show.

There would be no Dr. Seuss, no Harry Potter, no Narnia, no Handmaid’s Tale, no IT, no Hercule Poirot, no James Bond. In other words, if we rid our world of fiction, we would rid ourselves of one of the very thing that makes us human—our love of story.

What makes us who we are is our ability to create and make things beautiful. We have the ability to make beauty out of ashes. Art out of nothing. We do that through art and design and story—made-up fiction stories.

If you google “the importance of reading fiction,” you will be rewarded with many, many links. 
Reading fiction is not a waste of time. It’s never a waste of time. It can turn us into healthier and better people according to many scientific studies.

If you are interested in scientific studies about what fiction reading does to the brain, here are a few important links to click on:

 - Why You Should Read Every Day

 - The Benefits of Reading Fiction 

 - The Benefits of Reading Novels 

Here are several of the points I gleaned:

• I was surprised to learn that reading fiction reduces stress. I had to read this several times. Really? But, apparently sitting back in your easy chair with a good novel reduces stress more than even going outside for a walk.

• Fiction gives us an understanding of others.

CS Lewis who wrote prolifically on the subject of creativity and fiction said:

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. 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…

And boy, don’t we need this today! As I write this seven people have died in NYC in a Halloween terrorist attack. This comes on the heels of the recent terrorist attack in Las Vegas in which 58 people died, and many more are still in hospital, which comes on the heels of 500 in a bomb attack in Somali. It goes on and on.

So, yes, “seeing through other eyes” would be of great benefit! One way of doing that is through fiction. Currently I’m reading Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. Through that novel I am gaining a new understanding of what it’s like to be an illegal immigrant from Limbe, Cameroon in the city of New York during the fall of the stock market in 2009. Walking in another's shoes—even through the pages of a novel—can turn us into more understanding people.

• Reading novels before bed improves sleep. Sleep is important to me. It’s something I crave, and yet so often it eludes me. Some studies say that immersing yourself in a bit of fiction for 15 minutes before you nod off can help. 

• It improves memory. Several studies suggest that novel reading has been proved to decline Alzeimers and memory problems. Novel readers have less mental decline as they age.

• It improves our understanding of difficult concepts—scientific and otherwise. Yes, fiction does this. Ten non-fiction books on the subject of hell, have not had the impression on me as CS Lewis’s short novel, The Great Divorce has had. It caused me to rethink just about everything I ever thought or believed or was taught about the subject of hell. It sent me on a faith journey that I still am on to this day.

What about television?

I need to mention here that I’m talking about reading novels and not “watching” novels on TV. No, I’m not one of those avid anti-TV watchers. I enjoy Netflix binging with the best of them, but I also know in my heart that better things happen to me when I’m reading a novel as opposed to watching one on television. It looks like scientific studies bear me out.

Here’s a fascinating link on the difference. It turns out that 
long hours in front of the television can decrease verbal IQ whereas reading a novel can increase brain activity and function. in other words, watching television is a passive activity and reading novels is an active activity. (Maybe it even burns more calories. Someone should do a study on that!)

And about fiction not being the truth? 

I’ve learned in my 25 years as a fiction author that fiction often has to be more truthful than nonfiction. 

One example: when I wrote Sadie’s Song, about a woman who was physically and emotionally abused by her up-standing, church-going Christian husband, my editors wanted the two to work out their differences, get counselling and get together at the end in a happily ever after. I said no. Yes, that sometimes happens. But more often than not, wives leave, and must leave, and should leave. I needed to write that story, the real story. I needed to make it truthful.

Should you read just any old novel?

No. Not really. Not unless you want to be bored out of your head. Yes, there are some pretty crappy novels out there. Picking up a novel that is boring or not well-written, or doesn't capture you from beginning to end, isn't going to provide all of those benefits. More than two years ago 
I started this blog because I was sick of crappy books. I wanted to make a list of all the good books I could recommend. Scroll back through more than two years of book recommends here to find a novel you might enjoy. And, how to tell if a novel is going to do you any good? It's the one you can't put down. If the novel isn't "grabbing" you after three chapters, put it down.

Author Densi Donaghue in The Practice of Reading writes:

The purpose of reading literature is to exercise or incite ones imagination: specifically one’s ability to imagine being different.

Oh man, would that we could have a day where everyone in the entire world would stay home from work and read a novel. 

Next time: a look at deaf culture in Train Go Sorry by Leah Hager Cohen


  1. Wonderful blog post! Those of us who have always been drawn to literature feel its importance at a gut level. Thank you for articulating some of the reasons why it matters so much. Another reason for encouraging reading fiction is that it teaches empathy. C.s.Lewis famously said, "We read to know we're not alone."

    1. Thank you, northernpoet! You are so right. It teaches empathy - something so needed today.

  2. So true. Fiction is a way of telling the truth.

  3. hmm, there is a real theme here! I love fiction. I read slowly, far too slowly for my liking, but I enjoy exploring themes and stories. We are, in one sense, defined by our stories.
    Great article!

    1. Thanks Barb! I'm not the speediest reader, either. I do this blog - but it's only 2 books per month. I know there are some people that read that many books in a week. I'm not a speedy reader. I'm not a speedy writer.

  4. Very true. I've run into people who believe fiction is frivolous whereas non-fiction is worthwhile. In fact, fiction makes people more empathetic and more capable of connecting with and understanding others (and even themselves). Quality fiction helps to develop our brains and actually makes us smarter.

    1. That is SO true, Eva! We would be poorer without fiction!

  5. To say you don't have time to read a novel is already giving up. Personally, I prefer short stories but when I read novels, even though I'm a fast reader, I do it in stints. There! Time problem solved.

    Reading fiction is not a waste of time. Look at the famous leaders and scientists of the world. They read novels. The creative ideas expressed in fiction can influence anyone's thinking and perhaps even generate more creativity. So, that myth can be dispelled.

    I don't necessarily agree that reading fiction "improves our understanding of difficult concepts—scientific and otherwise". In some cases, yes. But fiction draws upon ideas from the author that may skew the actual facts and give people a false understanding of difficult concepts.

    "fiction often has to be more truthful than nonfiction". That is another point I disagree with. MORE truthful than nonfiction (providing that the biography, sports essay, science report, historical narrative, etc. of nonfiction is not outright purporting a lie, then I think the quote above was not worded very clearly. The example makes a good point, but if you compare that book to a nonfiction one on counseling, the fiction one has less material that is not made up. The conviction of what was written may be good advice and based on sound principles, but I'm talking about how MUCH truth material is in the novel vs. nonfiction counseling book. Picking nits, maybe, but that's my view.

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments, Glen. "More" truthful than nonfiction? Okay - maybe I overstepped it a bit there - maybe what I should have said was 'just as truthful' as nonfiction in its concepts. I often have told my writing classes to leave the 'miracle stories' out of fiction. Yes, sometimes great feats and miracles happen, but they are rare and should be left for the memoir. Fiction is about how life generally unfolds - and I gave the example of my editor wanting to add a 'miracle' ending to a story of mine. Yes, characters develop and grow in fiction. They have to, but to have wonderful external things come in and 'save' them throughout just doesn't fly in fiction.

      There could be quite possibly exceptions to this - and maybe books on counselling are one. I gave the example of my concept of hell being greatly altered came about because of a novel, rather than ten theology books on the subject. These are only my examples.

      Also, the points I have made in my blog here are not from my head - but from the various bits of research I did on the topic.

      Thanks again for taking the time to write your thoughts here.