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.
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.