Scott H Young

Should You Read More Fiction?


Over the last several months my reading habits have shifted. While I used to read almost entirely non-fiction, I’ve since made a switch to mix fiction and non-fiction. This was a strategic decision, and I believe it has been paying off. I’d like to share some of the benefits I’ve found of reading good fiction.

What’s Good Fiction?

I’ll admit that “good” is a purely subjective label. Movie critics and box-office numbers don’t always agree on that definition, and the same is true with books. My definition of good fiction is stories that force you to think.

Thinking is a lot harder than reading for sheer entertainment value. While I’d prefer to read a good book that is also entertaining, I’d rather not spend a week reading a book that doesn’t have any substance. I can watch a 2-hour movie with more concentrated entertainment.

Why Read in the First Place?

Several years ago I read about 4-5 books each year. The last few years I’ve read over 70. My reasons for turbo-charging by book consumption were simple. Books have ideas. Ideas give fodder for self-improvement. I don’t find reading to be incredibly entertaining (compared with films or games) but it is more thought provoking.

Are You Reading Non-Fiction for the Stories?

When I started reading books my goal was mostly non-fiction. I didn’t see much value in reading someone’s imagination when I could get the truth. It was only a few months ago that I realized that most of the ideas I read in non-fiction books couldn’t be acted upon. When you read 70+ books a year, only a handful have ideas that directly translate into daily life.

As a result, I ended up reading a lot of non-fiction books only for thought value. I couldn’t implement all the ideas I’d uncover, so I read mostly to broaden my understanding. Learning for the sake of learning, with no immediate benefit.

Should You Read More Fiction?

If I was reading a majority of my books for no purpose other than learning itself, I began to worry I was narrowing myself down. While I read books outside of business and self-help sections, most of my books had similar themes. The ideas and stories might change, but the philosophy of the people writing the books did not. If you’ve read a few self-help books you might notice they tend to follow a similar pattern.

Good fiction, on the other hand, has a far broader range of guiding philosophies. The Fountainhead centers around the virtue of human selfishness and ego. The Bhagavad-Gita centers around duty to your fellow man and dissolving the ego. The stories that guide these books center around completely different ways of viewing the world.

If you tend to read the same books, it’s likely that you tend to think the same thoughts. Reading the thirtieth book on creativity will probably make you less creative, not more. Seeking out good literature from different time periods, cultures and philosophies forces you to think new thoughts, instead of just churning old ones in your head.

Thought Diversification

With investments, diversification protects you against risk. Putting all of your money in one company or industry could be risky if a disaster hits that industry. By diversifying your investments, a single negative event can’t hurt you as much.

I like to view thought diversification in the same way. Every philosophy, idea and strategy has strengths and weaknesses. Literature can give you a broader spread of ideas, so a single flaw is less likely to damage you. When you can view a problem in six different ways, one inaccurate viewpoint is less damaging.

The Challenge in Thinking

The confirmation bias is a human tendency to look for information that supports our current beliefs. Thought diversification is hard because your natural urge will be to avoid books that contradict your view of life. I’ve worked hard to try avoiding this urge by deliberately picking books that challenge me to think from a different perspective.

After reading many books on Eastern philosophy that preach the value of selflessness and the evil of greed, I found it difficult to read through Ayn Rand’s books which preach the opposite. But getting past my initial reaction forced me to think harder about beliefs I had taken for granted.


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20 Responses to “Should You Read More Fiction?”

  1. Scott Munn says:

    What a wonderful post! While non-fiction is great because it can lay ideas out very pointedly for people, fiction is even better because it forces a reader to think hard about the ideas being portrayed and gather for him or herself how best to live their life.

    Sure, few of us are ever chased down by robots or speak to animals–but that doesn’t mean we can’t connect with the imagined character and situations of fiction. We all experience the simple concepts of struggle and growth, and if anything, all fiction is meant to be a metaphor to show how one person struggles and grows in one situation. As we see this character change, we can learn from their mistakes and mishaps to learn how better to change for ourselves, in decidely safer and more realistic situations.

    Ayn Rand is a great author, and there are many other great authors out there to experience. Naturally, there are many books which are less inspired by much less imaginative people, but I think that non-fiction inherently suffers from this problem much more than fiction ever will.

  2. Jeremy T. says:

    Any recommendations for books that will intrigue?

  3. gayle says:

    Thanks for an interesting post, Scott.

    Speaking from experience, it is really good to get out of your head once in awhile. Heart and Mind need balance. Reading with the intention of learning or diversity of thought is all Intellect, all Mind. Intellect out of balance is a limiting, dangerous place to be.

    Picking up a novel just for the sake of a good read may not enrich your Mind, but may indeed enrich your Heart.

    You never know where something may lead you. Sometimes it is enriching to follow a path without analyzing the path first.

    gayle

  4. dave says:

    only remember, just because it’s fiction doesn’t mean it’s not true.

  5. vinay says:

    Hi Scott,

    Thanks for a meaningful post. I would like to include fiction in my reading, but my dilemma is where do I start? How do I know what is good fiction before I finish reading it?

    Can I look up on amazon.. or can you suggest any other resources to help transition reading from self-improvement to good fiction?

    Thank you

  6. Ann M. says:

    You can actually learn lots from fiction, especially if it is well-researched historical fiction.

    I also agree with the previous comment about heart and mind. As you mentioned earlier, fiction opens you up to new perspectives. I feel like reading many genres of fiction is a great way to avoid the individual version of group-think.

  7. Scott Young says:

    To respond to a couple key comments:

    1) Fiction isn’t necessarily better than non-fiction. There is a lot of fiction that doesn’t inspire a lot of thought just as there is a lot of non-fiction that doesn’t inspire a lot of action. This article was meant to promote a mix.

    2) As for books I’ve enjoyed, I’m trying to read through classic works of literature (or modern classics in the case of Ayn Rand). You can get some of my books from the Friday Links lists but here are some recent reads:

    The Fountainhead
    Atlas Shrugged
    Faust
    1984
    The Bhagavad-Gita
    Infinite Jest

    A few things I would like to read in the next 6-12 months:

    Shakespear (eventually I’d like to have read them all)
    Ulysses (James Joyce version)
    Slaughterhouse Five
    Animal Farm
    Brave New World
    The Communist Manifesto (considering Atlas Shrugged could basically be called the capitalist manifesto)

  8. Cathy says:

    I am about to take a University paper that is all about fiction but written by women! There are 5 prescribed novels to read and I have read 3 of them with 4/5 in the pipeline. I think it’s a bit odd to be studying novels @ Uni :-)

    Last semester revision time saw me mix up the text books with novels because I found myself getting overwhelmed (I’m a mature 1st time student). A couple of my peers were shocked I was reading novels but my marks showed that was a good idea so I will continue to do this sort of thing

    Some of the novels/fiction have been autobiographies or interesting short stories on a theme. Some funny, some sad. Sometimes even after a few short pages unreadable!

    I also found that if I took a book from the library about something slightly off-edge from my paper I would find a crosslink which gave a deeper understanding (this wouldn’t be fiction as such)

    At the moment I’m reading the 2 prescribed novels, a book about transgenders, a book about a mature student who decided to get a nursing degree and I’ve just finished a laid back book about the art of knitting……..

  9. Diego says:

    This is odd that I was just thinking about this subject today. I believe there are a couple of very good reasons to read, both fiction and non-fiction.

    Reading uses a different part of the brain, in a different way than using a computer or computer-devices; this might be compared to analog versus digital. Both are valuable in their own way, but they work at different speeds and sensitize different parts of the brain.

    Reading fiction and non-fiction seem to have a similar function. A previous comment stated “just because it’s fiction doesn’t mean it’s not true”; however, the reader has to discern what is true inside the fiction. In Non-fiction the opposite might be said.

  10. Brett McKay says:

    Great post. The New York Times ran an interesting article a while back ago about how most of the top CEOs read more fiction than non-fiction.
    Here’s the link:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/21/business/21libraries.html?ex=1185681600&en=caab541e2182a66d&ei=5070&emc=eta1

  11. Scott Young says:

    Brett,

    Thanks for the link. I think I’ll add that to the next Friday Links!

    -Scott

  12. gayle says:

    What is “good” or “bad”?

    Just walk up to a bookstore shelf, find a title that jumps out at you, crack it to any page and read a paragraph. If it strikes you, read it. If not, keep browsing.

    I am a reading addict, so I read anything you put in front of me, including cereal boxes, trade papers (from outside my trade), whatever. I can’t remember everything I’ve read. But whether “good” or not, I can say that I’ve gotten a least a little something out of every single thing.

    Don’t make it so complicated! Enjoy it.

  13. Nicely done. I see you had once fallen into the same trap that many non-fiction readers do: the assumption that “fiction” is synonymous with “lacks truth”.

    I expect by now you have been surprised by how much “truth” there really is in fiction. The mark of good fiction is that it has the fingerprint of truth smeared all over it.

    While its settings and characters may not be true, good fiction is loaded with themes and ideas that strike the very core of ourselves.

    I have been reading a mixture of fiction and non-fiction since I was in high school, and I’ve found that sometimes 300 pages of fiction can teach you things whose value can surpass that of 3,000 pages of non-fiction.

  14. [...] and clear advice on managing one’s life.  Naturally, his post earlier this week called Should you read more Fiction? guaranteed his place on my blog roll for this week.  Well played, [...]

  15. Maria says:

    Have you read Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Power of Myth’?
    Or ‘The Hero with A Thousand Faces’?

    I’d highly recommend =)

  16. [...] Link: Scott Young – Should You Read More Fiction? [...]

  17. arnuld says:

    Good to read your blog. Just a few months ago I started to read for the same reasons. I broadened mu understanding much from Sci-Fiction. These days I am inclined much towards Non-Fiction.

    I have really broadened my understanding about this world and the way it works. Right now I am reading books to solve find the patterns of problems and resolve some issues like Political and Social structures and the way 95% and the rest 5% of the population think.

  18. [...] Should You Read More Fiction? – I used to be 95% non-fiction, but in the last year, I’ve made the switch to about 50/50 fiction and non-fiction.  This article explains my reasoning behind the ratio shift. [...]

  19. Ivan says:

    Cool post, Scott! I definitely need to start balancing out my reading schedule to include some more titles that aren’t so “grounded” in “reality”.

  20. Maribel says:

    Hi!

    I just wanted to comment that I find some books more entertaining than videogames or movies. I recommend the following:

    Isaac Asimov’s Foundation
    James Clavell’s Shogun
    Robert Grave’s I, Claudius
    Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
    Christian Jacq’s The Judge of Egypt
    Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind

    I envy anyone who is going to read any of this books for the first time.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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