On the Usefulness of Fiction

We've talked before about the non-fiction books that have shaped my worldview, but today I want to talk to you about fiction. A lot of my high performing, hard charging friends find it challenging to “waste” time with fiction, but you’re doing yourself a huge disservice if you agree with them. You need fiction in your life. Since I’m wrapping up a vacation where I’ve been able to read some great books, I want to share a few reasons why I think so.

First off, let’s get something out of the way: high school English may have left you with the impression that you don’t like fiction. If so, let me propose an alternate interpretation: you don’t like the kind of fiction high school teachers think you should read. I can barely stand most of the literary fiction considered worthwhile by serious English types. Fortunately, pretty early on, I discovered the kind of fiction that gets my motor going. So if you are a self-identified fiction hater, bear with me.

Okay, so let’s jump into why fiction is good for you. First and most obvious, you can enjoy fiction, and believe it or not, enjoying yourself is important. I’m not even just talking about abstract fulfillment (though there is that) - you need enjoyment for straight-up productivity and maximum achievement. You have to recharge sometimes. Sure, you can do that in a lot of ways, including binge watching something great on Netflix, but reading a good book presents a different cognitive and emotional experience than watching a movie or TV show. I make a point to read at least a few minutes of fiction every night before bed to “turn off."

Okay, great, enjoyment is all well and good you say, but you need something more practical to win you over. Well, fiction exercises your creative and emotional muscles the same way non-fiction exercises your analytical and memory muscles. You get to practice seeing the world from someone else’s viewpoint or imagining it a different way. The former is especially good for empathy and the latter for creativity. Whether you immerse yourself in the emotional experience of someone utterly unlike you, dig into the details of an imaginary world, or slowly piece together whodunnit, fiction lets you stretch your conceptual space. With this wider field of possible thoughts, you free yourself to have more and better ideas. Fiction is like interval training for creativity.

Speaking of interesting new thoughts, if you want to have them, you need a steady diet of intellectually and emotionally resonant material. You’ll find the biggest boost to creativity with stuff that is seemingly unrelated to any practical concern of yours, because it will present novel juxtapositions instead of tired and well-established relationships. Fiction gives you a smorgasbord of such material. Not only does fiction provide the raw content of people, places, and things that are unfamiliar, it embeds them in stories. Stories are not only easier to remember than raw facts, they are also more emotionally resonant. Emotional resonance is what allows your subconscious mind to engage with topics in a way unaccessible to rational analysis, which is the stuff eureka moments are made of.

My favorite benefit of fiction though, is this: just because something is fiction doesn’t mean it isn’t true. That may sound like some woo-woo nonsense, so let me unpack it a bit. Sometimes concepts, whether emotional, political, scientific or otherwise, can better find their way into your brain and stick there when they come wrapped up in engaging stories. If you read a book where vastly different alien species live and work together with respect and it makes you realize that the same thing should be much easier when we’re all the same species, you’ve learned something true and good. If a world of elves and dwarves ignites a passion for language, culture, and mythology, you will be better equipped to travel the world. If you empathize with the plight of a slave in a fictional world, you are a better person in the real one. This is the real power and beauty of fiction: it can sneak in under the guise of pure entertainment and plant important truths deep within our psyche.

So, let’s assume I’ve convinced you that you need more fiction in your life: where should you start? I’ll recommend a few of my favorites, but I’ll warn you, my tastes run pretty nerdy. If you suspect that yours don’t, you may want to look for recommendations elsewhere - maybe ask a friend whose tastes you trust, poke around Goodreads or Amazon, or if all else finds, pick a movie you like based on a book and go for the original. At any rate, if you’re ready for serious nerdery, here’s some of my favorites:

  • Anathem by Neal Stephenson - If you are at all worried about your attention span, don’t start here, because this book is big. I debated including it in a piece aimed at those new to fiction, but it is one of my very favorite books of all time, and y’all are smart people, so I kept it in. It has deeply influenced how I think about science and physics and pushed me to learn more in those topics than I ever would have otherwise. It’s an adventure story set on a world much like our own that starts out in a monastic retreat dedicated to learning and then sprawls out into the world, exploring philosophy, math, and quantum physics along the way.
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein - The godfather of science fiction, Heinlein wrote several enormously influential books, but this one is my favorite. By telling the story of a prison colony revolution on the moon, it helped to invent Libertarianism here in the real world. Lots of deep political philosophy, but it never gets in the way of an engaging story with men of action, sexy ladies, and a friendly computer named Mike. 
  • Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett - My first exposure to either of these authors, I have since gone on to enjoy both quite a bit. The comedic tale of an angel and a demon who team up to make sure the antichrist turns out as average as possible because, well, they both rather like earth and aren’t too keen on the war between heaven and hell actually getting resolved. If you read it and enjoy the humor most, check out more Terry Pratchett, but if you like it more for the otherworldly weirdness, check out more Gaiman.
  • Makers by Cory Doctorow - Set in the next few years, this book explores many of the exciting possibilities inherent in the burgeoning “maker” culture once high quality 3D printing becomes ubiquitous. It will make you want to head out to your garage to start tinkering as soon as possible.
  • The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian by Robert E. Howard - You’ve probably seen the Ahnahld movie, but did you know Conan started life in the pulp magazines of the 30’s and was created by a brilliant but melancholy Texan? Howard wrote phenomenal action scenes, and he used the Conan stories as an excuse to write about all the coolest parts of real-world ancient cultures mashed together into one super sweet fictional world. Lots of dark magic, monster fighting, and getting the girl, but with surprising depth and quality. Added bonus: it’s got some rockin’ sweet illustrations by Mark Schultz.
  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien - Okay, since you are reading this in English, I know you've at least heard about the movies. Many people find the books slow to get going, but I have found them enchanting since I was in junior high, and I re-read the whole trilogy every few years. I may not be able to go toe to toe with Stephen Colbert or James Franco in a trivia-off these days, but I have maintained my life-long interest in language, linguistics, and mythology that this book implanted in me. For a shorter, faster paced taste, give The Hobbit a try.

Clearly I’m not saying you should toss out the business or self improvement books, but if you find a way to build regular fiction reading into your life, you will not regret it. If you’re already a fiction reader, I hope you found some new insights here. In any case, let me know what your favorites are!


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