When people poke fun at me for my love of fiction, I know they mean it as a good-natured jest, but I do think it's indicative of an underlying mindset amid various adult circles.
I often come across people who say things like, "Oh, I stopped reading fiction in middle school. Nowadays I only read non-fiction." Or, "I do read fiction, such as [insert some work of classic literature], but I won't read mindless beach-reading material."
Now, there's no small merit in consuming non-fiction, and anyone seeking to grow in their craft, expand their mind, and partake in the journey of lifelong learning, would be a fool to ignore the genre. I also tip my hat to the iconic "classic" fiction writers such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky and John Steinbeck, as the stories and ideas they wove together do nothing short of make my head spin in wonder.
But we shouldn't be too quick to throw genres such as fantasy and science fiction out the window, either. While many may view them as a colossal waste of time, or for the intellectual lightweights in the crowd, I respectfully disagree.
Here are four reasons you should read fiction, including the fantasy and science fiction kind.
1. Reading Fiction Makes You a Better Writer
In today's techno-centric age, you are a writer, whether you want to be or not.
Email, social media, websites (marketing), text messaging, blogging.....online words are your currency, and if you can't convey your message with words, then you'll be heading upstream without a paddle.
So you may as well work to develop your writing skills. And what's an extremely effective method of doing that, you ask? Reading the works of great writers, of course!
But here's the thing: non-fiction authors don't necessarily write because they're good writers. Rather, they write because they know a lot about a particular subject, and then decide to write a book on the matter.
Fiction authors, on the other hand, almost always write for the very reason that they're gifted writers.
So read their work. Learn from them. Observe how they synthesize ideas, how they describe emotion and human behavior, how they use metaphor and illustrations to capture the heart and mind, how they convey messages in a clear, empathetic, and logical manner.
Good writers can move the world with their words, and anyone with a modicum of wisdom will take at least a little time to observe and learn from their work.
2. Reading Fiction Improves Your Public Speaking
Reading fiction will upgrade your public speaking for many of the same reasons it improves your writing, but there are a few nuances I should highlight.
When public speaking - especially if the purpose of the talk is to instill some kind of change in the hearts of the listeners, or at the least, make the talk/presentation easier for them to remember - it's critical to engage the imaginations of the audience, rather than simply give them raw information to intellectually assent to.
There are a few ways to do that, but one surefire method is to connect abstract principles to sensory experiences the listener can relate to.
In other words: provide illustrations.
Stories, examples, analogies, and metaphors are all common and useful illustrative forms. And an often overlooked yet simple type of illustration is the "word picture," which uses a phrase or just a few words to connect the abstract to the concrete. These will all elicit images, sounds, smells, and tactile sensations in the mind of the listener, which makes the information more "real" to them.
Fiction writers are masters of illustrations. To provide some quick examples, below are just a few word pictures, analogies, and metaphors I pulled from Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicle series:
"Then he relaxed, like a sail when the wind leaves it." (Compare that to, "He became less tense.")
"Attend to me as I draw back the curtain to reveal a long-kept minstrel's secret." (vs. "Let me tell you something.")
"I felt all my elegant, half-planned persuasion fall to tatters around my feet." (vs. "I was left speechless.")
"I could feel [his] satisfaction radiating outward." (vs. "He was happy.")
"I burned another three hours of time and five hours worth of energy." (vs. "It was tiresome work.")
"The room seemed to hold its breath." (vs. "It was silent.")
Now of course, during a public speech it wouldn't always be advisable to replicate verbatim many of the examples you find in fiction, as they may be out of place (or over the top) in the context of the talk.
BUT, you can glean many insights for how fiction authors employ them, and then "connect the dots" over to the specific context of your talk, drawing upon the principles of using illustrations to make a message come alive.
3. Reading Fiction Will Teach You About Life
Fiction authors pay careful attention to things, and they're extremely adept at nuancing the human condition.
Read Ender's Game to learn about strategy, leadership, capitalizing on your strengths, and discerning your opponents' weaknesses.
Read A Game of Thrones to learn about human nature, the moving target of "success," and paying attention to those everyone else seems to ignore (Tyrion, for example). Not to mention, George R.R. Martin is a savant of all things description and illustrations, as well as an expert of giving you more questions than answers to mull over.
Read The Name of the Wind to have your socks blown off on all levels and to have your heart moved. Also, if you're looking to experience absurdly good writing but without the gratuitous sex and violence you often get with George R.R. Martin, then Patrick Rothfuss is your guy.
I'll stop there, but you get the idea.
4. Reading Fiction Will Help You In Your Job
Reading fiction is a form of "play," something that's so natural for us as children but yet becomes seemingly unproductive, useless, and childish as we grow up.
But playing, in all its various forms, actually helps us in all areas of life, from creativity to our health to our professional lives. Here's an excerpt from Greg McKeown's fantastic book, Essentialism:
"The value of play in our lives can't be overstated. Studies from the animal kingdom reveal that play is so crucial to the development of key cognitive skills it may even play a role in a species' survival. Bob Fagan, a researcher who has spent fifteen years studying the behavior of grizzly bears, discovered bears who played the most tended to survive the longest. When asked why, he said, 'In a world continuously presenting unique challenges and ambiguity, play prepares these bears for a changing planet.'"
McKeown continues by describing how play, or reading fiction, can help all of us in our professional life, whether we're students or lawyers or entrepreneurs or full-time moms:
"Play stimulates the parts of the brain involved in both careful, logical reasoning and carefree, unbound exploration. Given that, it should hardly be surprising that key breakthroughs in thinking have taken place in times of play. Hallowell writes: 'Columbus was at play when it dawned on him that the world was round. Newton was at play in his mind when he saw the apple tree and suddenly conceived of the force of gravity. Watson and Crick were playing with possible shapes os the DNA molecule when the stumbled upon the double helix'.....Play doesn't just help us to explore what is essential. It is essential in and of itself."
Also, Albert Einstein said:
"The gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge."
So there's that.
We could continue by discussing various other benefits, but I'll end here with this: there are often drawbacks to consuming nearly anything in excess, and fiction-lovers can always fall into the trap of reading so much that they neglect to live "real" life. But ingested in healthy doses, fiction will do much to wake you up, expand your world, and enrich your day-to-day activities.