TO BE honest, I was surprised at what I found when I first started researching this topic. By searching the simple “reading fiction vs. non-fiction” query, I was inundated with far more results indicating reading fiction was better for you than reading non-fiction. Yes, I tried reversing it (“reading non-fiction…”); the results were the same. It seems public opinion – and a good amount of research – leans more toward fiction literature being better for your brain than, say, a biography or travelogue.
In order to better understand this question, we must first understand what we hope to gain from our reading. We must also understand what each type of literature can offer.
Not Much Of A Reader? Pick Your Poison, Then.
Before you click away to something more interesting – “I’m really not much of a reader…”, consider this: reading in general greatly improves your brain function. Reading helps you sleep better, have less stress, and have less mental decline later in life.
With those kinds of positives going for it, why not? Many of us will do much harder things for the sake of our physical health: Force ourselves to eat things we don’t really like, go to the gym and exercise (when we’d really rather be home relaxing). Reading is easy, you just sit there and do it! It takes less willpower and energy than drinking a green, gross super-smoothie or hitting the weights for an hour…AND it can improve your quality of life.
A Tale Of Two Stories
But back to the original question – to Fiction, or not to Fiction? For those of you looking to expand your intellectual skill set, reading fiction helps to develop empathy, problem solving, adaptiveness and theory of mind, among other highbrow, academic traits.
But…you can’t beat non-fiction for boosting productive brainpower…here’s where type As rejoice. From learning valuable life lessons to concentration to you’ll just be flat-out smarter, non-fiction is a fountain of educational possibilities.
Non-fiction gives us practical enlightenment. Fiction provides the abstract knowledge that we need to be real, well-rounded people. Sixteen years ago, Daniel Pink wrote in his book A Whole New Mind that we had moved from the Industrial Age (factory workers) to the Information Age (knowledge workers), and were moving once more into the Conceptual Age (creators and empathizers).
Employers are putting as much emphasis on associates with creative and empathetic skills as any technical skills. I’ve personally seen in my own career journey: the practical skills of the job can be learned, but you can’t provide on-the-job training for people skills. You either have them or you don’t.
Working in automotive quality for 20 years, I’ve had times where I’ve been able to accomplish as much or more with diplomacy and empathy than with statistics and number-crunching. A phone call, and especially a face-to-face meeting with a distraught customer can do more to defuse a major issue than sitting at a desk and sending an e-mail with a report attached. Why? Because they want to know you care.
When you call and they hear a reassuring voice; or better, when you show up and they see your kind, understanding face, you’ve just taken the world’s weight off their shoulders. You sit down and talk it out with them. The problem solving is secondary; it happens as a natural part of the conversation. But it’s the conversation, the contact, that matters. And reading fiction can help develop those intangible, abstract skills that have become so highly sought after.
When I was younger, I devoured fiction. I thought non-fiction was too stuffy and boring. As I grew, I developed an affinity for “realistic fiction” in the form of Michael Crichton. If you’re not familiar, think Jurassic Park. He wrote some amazing novels, usually backed up by real scientific research. He work was really a fusion of the two genres.
Since about 2017, I’d switched course and read almost exclusively non-fiction. Now, as of 2021, I’m consuming a balanced diet. I’ve typically got one to two non-fiction books going, and then I relax before bed with a good work of fiction…currently, a Dean Koontz novel. The non-fiction is educational, for my own benefit. I love learning new things, always have. The fiction is to help me relax, and to (re)develop those intangible skills that make us better people. The world is sorely lacking in creativity and empathy, and we can all do better at developing those traits.