September 27

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Why Fiction Is Important to Humanity and Good for You

Fiction has always been important to humanity but modern cultures seem to have forgotten that.

Whereas works of non-fiction get lauded and recommended, contemporary readers of fiction often feel the need to justify spending time on it.

For instance, while I used to love reading fiction as a child and teenager, I stopped doing that soon after entering adulthood, instead opting for a seemingly more “useful” blend of non-fiction that basically boiled down to glorified instruction manuals, technical writing, and the news (here's why reading the news is so bad for us). 

It was a toxic mixture and I only realized that over time. In fact, it was only recently that I started to read fiction again. 

While it initially felt like a guilt pleasure, I’ve since come to realize that there are many benefits of fiction and that there’s no reason to apologize for reading it.

Ursula Le Guin on why fiction is important for humanity

I think nobody has ever made or will ever make a better case for the importance of fiction than the late, prolific science fiction writer/legend Ursula Le Guin in her brilliant essay: “Why are Americans afraid of dragons?”

(Side note: in her essay, Le Guin states that it’s not just Americans who are afraid of dragons but many other cultures as well. She also mentions the German and English culture as examples of people who have a lot of fiction.)

In her essay, Le Guin explores why Americans (and specifically American men) reject the idea of reading fiction. According to her, this is related to several aspects of American culture: “our Puritanism, our work ethic, our profitmindedness, and even our sexual mores.”

Le Guin concludes that:

“For fantasy is true, of course. It isn't factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons, because they are afraid of freedom.”

Ursula Le Guin

In other words, reading fiction is important because it can liberate you from inauthentic aspects of your life. And since we can’t change ourselves without changing what we interact with, in so doing, it also changes the world.

If that sounds too abstract or fluffy, let’s look at concrete benefits people can get from reading fiction. 

Benefits of fiction: How reading fiction is good for you

When I once again started reading fiction, here are some of the benefits I received:

  • more happiness as I really enjoyed engaging with the stories I was reading,
  • I became a better writer even when writing "non-fiction," such as blog posts,
  • it broadened my world and helped me place myself in other environments and the shoes of other people,
  • reading fiction improved my imagination and visualization skills,
  • I reclaimed a part of myself that had been lost.

That reading fiction comes with significant benefits is not just my personal experience, it’s backed by research. For instance, a study by the University of Toronto found that

“reading fictional literature could lead to better procedures of processing information generally, including those of creativity.”

Another study discovered that

“participants who read fiction most often also showed the strongest social cognition performance.”

According to another study,

“fiction print-exposure positively predicted measures of social ability, while non-fiction print-exposure was a negative predictor. The tendency to become absorbed in a story also predicted empathy scores.”

In other words, reading fiction can not only make us more creative, it also makes us more socially competent.

There's just one more point I wish to make about the importance of reading fiction:

Debating the importance of fiction is a moot point because non-fiction doesn’t even exist

Every book is a piece of fiction, even if it contains facts that are true. That's because books don't just present facts, they put those facts into a narrative (otherwise, it would be too boring for us to read them). And that narrative is always, to some extent, a work of fiction. 

For instance, do you think that an autobiography or even a biography is a completely accurate portrayal of the person… or instead a flattering or dramatized highlight (or lowlight) reel of their lives, told in a way that makes sense to the reader (even though life is way too complex to fit into neat categories)?

Do you think that history is being told accurately… or is the portrayal of history itself an act of politics, teaching (or indoctrinating) us on how to see the world and often portraying one’s own culture in a more positive light than is merited?

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(By the way, seeing history as at least partly fiction also explains why our way of telling the story of our past changes as humanity evolves.)

If you pick up what is allegedly a piece of non-fiction (such as business books or self-help books), you will see that the most popular ones contain stories upon stories. While those stories are generally based on real-life events, they are told in a way to support the case that is being made in the book.

In other words, the non-fiction genre doesn’t really exist. What is sold to us as non-fiction is just often more boring than works that proudly wear the fiction label.

Start your reading quest: pick up a fiction book and change your life

You don’t have to be afraid of dragons and the freedom that comes from engaging with them. (Here's how to slay your dragon.)

There's a reason (well, multiple reasons) why fiction is important to humanity. 

Reading fiction can change your life. It can change yourself and it can change the world.

You can start reaping the benefits of reading fiction today, simply by picking up a book and immersing yourself in an epic story.

What's your favorite work of fiction? I'd love to hear from you in the comment section. 

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  • “I became a better writer even when writing “non-fiction,” such as blog posts” – What an awakening piece of advice, Bere! Thanks for underlying this! Indeed, we tend to reproduce what we read most! Most of Technical / Academic / Journalistic columns and books are as insightful as limiting, aesthetically. However, the most appealing, impacting ones are built upon fiction!

    Here comes one of my favorites : Prisoners of Paradise by Arto Paasilinna, a story of a plane crash survivors in a lost island who managed to keep.. surviving, cohabiting, creating a kind of a society with its own set of rules.. we can see how legislation is born, and how complex and diverse the human nature is.. Boundaries between fiction, human and exact sciences vanish by times.. A pleasure to read!

    Speaking of Visualization, I am absolutely in! Getting immersed in a novel or even a very short story, I can’t help but to imagine the plan of the house or the place, the faces, .. this is where, I believe, written fiction wins over movies!

    • Oh wow, Khalil, thanks for that thoughtful comment! The book you mention sounds fascinating! I might want to check out “Prisoner of Paradise.”

      Yes, I so agree with you about the benefits of written fiction. I like great movies and there’s something to be said about that immersive experience… however, there’s also so much pleasure to be found in having to imagine the story play out in front of our own eyes and it really trains the mind!

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