The Case For Reading Fiction

I saw a meme floating around social media recently that read:


I disagree.

I probably read more non-fiction than fiction but here are a few reasons why I like to balance things out with a little of each:

Storytelling is important. Sociologist Murray Davis wrote a research paper in the 1970s called That’s Interesting! where he laid out a theory that ideas survive not because they’re true but because they’re interesting:

It has long been thought that a theorist is considered great because his theories are true, but this is false. A theorist is considered great, not because his theories are true, but because they are interesting. Those who carefully and exhaustively verify trivial theories are soon forgotten; whereas those who cursorily and expediently verify interesting theories are long remembered. In fact, the truth of a theory has very little to do with its impact, for a theory can continue to be found interesting even though its truth is disputed-even refuted!

Storytelling ability has helped much of history get passed down from generation to generation. It’s also enabled us to build massive cities, companies, religions, and political movements with millions of people. Will Durant once said, “Most history is guessing and the rest is prejudice.”

The ability to sell a good story can get you much further than intelligence alone.

Everyone is in sales in some capacity. And selling involves crafting a narrative around your product or service.  When selling intangibles such as a service you don’t want to lie to prospective clients but you do want to tell a compelling story about yourself or your firm. You can learn a lot about storytelling through a good work of fiction or a great author.

Process-based jobs require a high tolerance for repetition. French author Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for literature a few years ago. When asked how he’s been able to write more than 20 novels in his career, Modiano replied that in some ways he’s “always writing the same book.” He claims it is always the same novel:

Modiano says that like every other novelist he is always writing the same book, ‘on faittoujours le même roman.’ (translation: it is always the same novel) Modiano more than most, perhaps. The mania for looking back is always there. His characters collect shreds of old evidence, handwriting, photographs, police files, newspaper cuttings. They follow the footsteps of vanished people, snooping on the world of others like unemployed private detectives who can’t find anything else to do. They have what I take to be Modiano’s own interest in Paris streets, particularly those of the outskirts, and they ceaselessly list addresses, consult old directories, make calls to telephone numbers no longer in service.

There are authors I’ve been reading for years now who have written about the same character for decades. I’ve easily read 20+ books apiece from Lee Child (Reacher), Robert Parker (Spenser), John Sandford (Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers), CJ Box (Joe Pickett), Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch), and Randy Wayne White (Doc Ford) over the years.

I could give you the basic plotline for each of these series before reading the next one. But I enjoy the character development, dialogue, and trying to understand the motivations and incentives behind people’s actions. I’m always amazed at how these authors have been able to keep myself and other readers coming back for more with these series.

People in financial services are forced to say the same thing over and over again because the basic building blocks don’t really change that much. Figuring out how to make those same messages resonate is not an easy task. Reading fiction has helped me in this regard.

Fiction can be a gateway for building a reading habit. I’m not gonna lie — I barely read anything in high school or college beyond the assigned textbooks (and even those were few and far between). I didn’t develop my love for reading until I was out of school and realized I didn’t really know anything.

Fiction was the gateway for me to actually turn regular reading into a habit. Once I turned reading into part of my routine with a few fiction books I was slowly able to sprinkle in some non-fiction and grow it from there.

I suppose fiction will take a back seat to Netflix, HBO and the thousands of streaming shows and movies available these days. And you could learn these skills elsewhere.

But I still think it makes sense to leave some room for fiction in my entertainment time budget. There are benefits beyond the obvious entertainment value.

Further Reading:
The Power of Narrative