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The case for reading more fiction (from a non-fiction author)

Posted in the following categories: Creativity

For most of my life, I’ve been a non-fiction purist. I’ve found it hard to rationalize reading fiction to my left brain, reserving my reading time for “serious” books that would yield tangible benefits.

This attitude comes at a cost. For one thing, when I read non-fiction at night, I can’t sufficiently decompress for sleep. For me, non-fiction acts as a force amplifier and sends my brain on overdrive as numerous thoughts begin swirling (How does what I’m reading relate to the book I’m writing? How can I use this tidbit in a blog post?). But if I lose myself in a fiction book—in other words, in someone else’s story—I can stop my own from playing on an insomnia-inducing loop.

Aside from the sleep benefits (which, for me, are substantial), there’s a connection between fiction and creativity. Reading fiction is one way of collecting experiences without actually having them. A 2011 study in the Annual Review of Psychology found, based on fMRI brain scans, that “when people read about an experience, they display stimulation within the same neurological regions as when they go through that experience themselves.” Fiction transports us to a reality far different from our own and jolts us out of our current perspective—without ever leaving our couch.   

Each fiction book is a thought experiment. Stephen King’s 11/22/63 asks what might happen if someone traveled back in time to stop the JFK assassination. Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale sketches a dystopian fundamentalist United States where, in the face of plummeting birth rates, women with viable reproductive systems are forced into slavery. Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter puts its protagonist in a reality that adopts the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics—where every choice we make creates an alternate universe, and anything that can happen has happened.

These thought experiments marry science and literature. They’re the same kind of “what if?” questions posed in physics, philosophy, biology, economics, and beyond to generate breakthroughs. Thought experiments have powered rockets, toppled governments, developed evolutionary biology, and created innovative businesses. They stretch the boundaries of the mind. Through reps and sets, you train your cognitive muscles to imagine new possibilities and find different ways of looking at the world in your personal and professional life.

Fiction books are sources of epiphanies awaiting your arrival. The science fiction of Jules Verne, for example, inspired many early rocket scientists. Elon Musk, the iconic modern rocket scientist, credits Isaac Asimov’s books for spurring his thinking about the future (so much so that Musk launched Asimov’s Foundation trilogy aboard SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket in February 2018).

Although movies also transport us to different worlds, their capacity to boost our creativity is far more limited. As Jess Walters, the author of the great novel Beautiful Ruins, says: “A great film plays before you a couple of hours while you sit there passively. . . . Everyone sees the same movie. But every reader experiences a different book, because reading involves you in hours of active, creative work, the characters, their movements and thoughts re-created in your own mind, their struggles and triumphs connecting to your own.” In other words, in a fiction book, the characters, the setting, and the plot are all incomplete. Unlike a movie director, the author does some, but not all, of the descriptive work. There’s far more uncertainty in fiction, which forces your mind to fill the gaps.

Conventional thoughts lead to conventional results. As Haruki Murakami says, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” If you’re interested in “thinking outside of the box,” resist picking up the trendy non-fiction book on everyone’s nightstand and browse the fiction aisle instead.

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