What is behind the notion that reading non-fiction is better than reading fiction? And is this notion necessarily true? Fiction may merely be enjoyable, while non-fiction is intellectually stimulating—but can curling up with a good book actually be better and more important for us to pursue?
The fuss over non-fiction stems from historical and political events that molded our culture’s view on how to communicate the stories of our state. From the catastrophe of World War I to the attacks of 9/11 to today, America’s sense of domestic security has often been fragile, introducing a sense of global insecurity. In the midst of political turmoil, writers and readers of fiction themselves questioned the vitality of fiction, confessing that “reportage and memoir [were] better equipped to allay their bewilderment and sate their reality hunger,” as author Pankaj Mishra wrote in the New York Times in 2013. But now, in educational and professional spheres, the prevailing notion that non-fiction is more relevant ignores the irreplaceable benefits of reading fiction.
Countless studies reveal that reading fiction increases empathy and thus makes one more likely to suspend judgment of different values and participate in compassionate behavior. A 2013 Emory University study of the brain discovered that those who read fiction, compared to those who did not, displayed heightened connectivity in the central sulcus region, which helps us visualize movement and also imagine the conditions of other individuals. Furthermore, psychologist Dan Johnson suggests that when subjects were more absorbed in reading stories, they were twice as likely to help an experimenter pick up “dropped” pens. Overall, heavy fiction readers outperformed heavy non-fiction readers on these tests of empathy.
In particular, when we read stories that center around marginalized communities, we view these traditionally-dehumanized identities through a humanizing lens that builds an emotional bridge between the reader and the character. We are moved by the depth of a struggle we may never experience ourselves. This power enlarges and deepens our perceptions of people in a global society, dismantling some of our innermost biases and assumptions. By simultaneously telling stories of differences and transmitting values of the human experience, fiction reminds us of our common ground. Jonathan Gottschall, writing in the Boston Globe, said that when we read fiction, we drop our “intellectual guard” and we are emotionally moved, and thus more moldable. On the contrary, when we read non-fiction, we read “with our shields up” as rigid critics.
Fiction not only shapes us into better people, but, according to Harvard Business School professor Joseph Badarraco, better leaders as well. He explains that literature introduces us to characters and their conflicts, revelations and dilemmas, and instills a perspective that helps us get inside individuals who are making decisions. Badarraco points to “Antigone,” a required reading in his class, as an example of how literature introduces readers to ethical complexities around competing values and competing obligations that leaders face daily.
On the other hand, upbeat contemporary business literature, as a form of non-fiction, operates as a how-to manual that often ignores the very ethical complexities that permeate business leadership situations. Fiction is realistic in an emotional and psychological way. It is a teacher on how to deal with people. After all, in any organization, people deal with people, where no step-by-step guide can easily repair a given case conflict. Non-fiction imparts knowledge, solely the body of facts and information, which does not necessarily enable us to envision strategies for adaption. Fiction imparts wisdom, or the ability to apply knowledge through an exposure to various complex, imagined situations.
Our college lives are fraught with heavy reading loads of periodicals, academic papers and non-fiction texts. Curling up with a good novel every now and then may not be “practical” in that it will not help us prepare for our next midterm, but it should remain a part of our lives. In an increasingly utilitarian, technological society, fiction has become ever more relevant. It is more relevant than non-fiction because it possesses the ability to humanize us. Novels, with each page, transform us into better versions of ourselves—as colleagues, friends and people.
Justina Wu PO ’19 hails from Bellevue, Wash., and intends to major in public policy analysis and sociology.