Many successful businesspeople, celebrities, and entrepreneurs release reading lists of their favorite books and texts. I’ve noticed that many of these books consist of nonfiction texts, such as biographies, essay collections, and other popular science and psychology works. Sometimes a work of fiction is included, but it’s rare. This can create a perception that reading only nonfiction helps us improve professionally and socially. However, fiction has just as much, if not more, to offer. Let’s look at how reading fiction can improve our personal and professional growth.
1. Improving Focus
So many things compete for our attention these days. A world of news alerts, email, and social pings dilutes our ability to sustain focus on tasks we need to do. We want to believe we can do it all, but the myth of multitasking has revealed just how difficult this is. So, rather than poorly doing multiple things at once, learning how to better focus our attention on single items at a time (unitasking!) will make us more efficient in the long run.
While nonfiction texts do help develop a focus on logical argument (for example, Civil Disobedience or Self-Reliance), they often provide distinct breaking points for readers. Sure, the text has an overall thesis or claim, but generally it’s quite easy to read a section, put it down for several days, and pick it right back up where you left off. Reading fiction is different.
Reading fiction means following characters that develop, themes that evolve, and plot threads that twist and turn. Whether you’re trying to keep track of what’s going on in A Tale of Two Cities or remembering who’s who in Crime and Punishment, novels demand your attention and memory. While it can be daunting to delve into lengthy novels, take comfort in knowing that it gets easier. Our brains get better at sustaining focus over time. Not only will this make your reading more enjoyable, but the benefits of an improved attention span and memory will spread into your social and professional lives. While everyone else struggles at work to stay focused, you’ll already be done and onto the next task!
2. Expanding Vocabulary
This might be controversial, but I think it’s safe to say that knowledge and intelligence depend on vocabulary. For example, in law school, future litigators learn the jargon of that field to gain knowledge and expertise. In fact, each area of academia, business, and government operates within the confines of its own lexicon. Talking to specialists can be difficult simply because we don’t have access to all of the vocabulary that they have. Fortunately, reading fiction can help: it exposes me to words that are not a part of my daily lexicon and helps expand my vocabulary with alternative forms of expression.
Now, nonfiction absolutely does provide valuable linguistic information; this is not in question. Reading different and diverse writing styles from all genres is an excellent way to expand vocabulary and learn other forms of written expression. However, fiction by its very nature offers narrative and linguistic flexibility. We learn wordplay, puns, metaphors, and we discover meaning through context. By stretching our imaginations, fiction also stretches our linguistic abilities, showing us new ways that words can be used and introducing us to new concepts and forms of expression.
3. Training Empathy
Yes, empathy is a skill that can be trained! Empathy goes beyond acknowledging someone’s feelings; it’s when we can draw on shared experiences to provide compassion and understanding. When we share an experience with others, we can begin to empathize with them. Unfortunately, life is short and there are many different experiences that are beyond our reach. Again, reading comes to the rescue.
Where nonfiction has difficulty training empathy, fiction excels. Strong characters, blank characters, tragic characters: by having access to the thoughts and emotions of the main characters, we take their experiences with us. Through fiction, I’ve felt the triumph of subversive victory and the beauty of life and death. I also have a better understanding of tragedy: the sadness of not being valued, the melancholy of loss, and the insanity of unjust medical treatment.
While I have not experienced these tragedies personally (largely due to my own male privilege), reading provides me with an access point: a shared experience that helps develop empathy. At the very least, fiction is a starting point for listening to diverse views, reflecting on lives that are not my own, and embracing what makes us human.