I read everything. The best in every genre has something to offer, even if the overall genre doesn’t match my core tastes (after all, at its heart Anna Karenina is a romance novel…). Thus it always surprises me when people proudly say, “I only read nonfiction.” The result of bad experiences in high school English courses? Perhaps, but I also wonder whether they’re aware of what fiction has to offer:
- The Truth.
I once had the great privilege of attending a writing seminar taught by Madeleine L’Engle. Perhaps best known for A Wrinkle in Time,she won awards for both her fiction and nonfiction books. She pointed out that often through fiction, the truths about human motivations and the causes of events, both personal and historical, can be much more deeply explored and conveyed than in nonfiction. Nonfiction, remember, is written from a point of view that doesn’t convey all sides of an issue, event or idea. If learning truth from fiction seems crazy, try The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. It’s a deep exploration of the mindsets, motivations and emotions of the generals on both sides at the battle of Gettysburg.
- Emotional Intelligence. Studies are showing that reading fiction increases our ability to empathize with others, one of the key components of emotional intelligence that is tied to overall leadership success. Fiction helps you step into other people’s shoes and understand why they did what they did. As more research concludes that the “soft skills” of leadership are truly the hardest to learn, adding high-quality literary novels to one’s reading list may make more sense than another tome on leadership (the ones I’ve written being an exception, of course!)
- Creativity. Let’s trust Einstein on this one–he recommended that to develop a scientific mind, children should read and reread fairy tales. Why? Because true science requires imagination, creativity, and a drive to understand, all of which are found in fairy tales. You’ll be hard-pressed to find careers that don’t require creativity these days–even assembly line workers are encouraged to and rewarded for finding ways to improve systems and processes. Fiction allows you to envision what might happen, what might be, and other big what if’s in ways that nonfiction can’t.
Don’t get me wrong: nonfiction is wonderful, too. However, the true merit of reading fiction seems to have gotten a bad rap. How about if those of you who have learned great lessons from fiction list the titles you’d suggest to those who are wary of wasting time on stories? I’ll start with The House of Niccolo series by Dorothy Dunnet, from which I learned through multiple readings how carefully we need to watch and listen and empathize to truly understand why someone does what he/she does.
Other lessons from fiction?