The novel has a hard time competing with the visual stimulation of cinema. The novel taxes our imaginations and our time because we must be actively involved with it and committed to it. But this article discusses why it is still important and practical to read fiction: it makes us better thinkers.
A Canadian study demonstrates that fiction readers are more comfortable with ambiguity, while those who read non-fiction demand certainty. Unfortunately for the nonfiction readers, the world does not work in such black and white terms.
This double release—of thinking through events without concerns for urgency and permanence, and thinking in ways that are different than one’s own—may produce effects of opening the mind," write the researchers.
How has fiction helped you become a better thinker?
I see fiction and nonfiction as equally able to expose me to new ideas and world views. I enjoy reading both, but prefer reading fiction.
I don't yet have the time to commit to reading the article in full, but I agree with the other poster who sees value in both fiction and nonfiction. I love reading about historical events and things that really happened, but I also enjoy fiction, so long as it tells a story that's easy to follow without too many characters and isn't dragged out too long, and the story is teaching a moral or principle or making some kind of point. That last is very important to me in both what books I read and the few movies I watch. It's not enough to be told a good story through books or movies for me; I need to take some kind of value or lesson from it. What is the author trying to teach or show or illustrate by the telling of the story? What can I learn from it? J.D.
Some stories are trying to say something about art, and not morality. Some demonstrate that morals aren't so straightforward or black-and-white. In fact that was the major point of most 20th century literature. What about stories like these?
I personally believe fiction gives more insight into human emotion and how decisions are made. I've read a lot more fiction than non-fiction simply because it's more entertaining (in most cases). When I say entertaining, I don't mean in the car-chase shoot-out kind of way. I like fiction because it shows how complex people are and makes you have to reason and empathize with characters. There are some good non-fiction books but most are a little too dry for my liking. I wish more non-fiction were wrote in the same style that Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood. It was a true story but he added A LOT to the story by telling it almost as a fiction.
Don't they also say that those who read fiction have a far better understanding or ability of empathy?
I never go more than a week or two without picking up some fiction book, even if I am trudging through a non-fiction.
I think it promotes a more open mind, both to adventure and to the differences between people.
The study was actually about short stories, and a lot of the effects were seen in those who read seriously in fiction or non-fiction.
I say often that law school killed fiction for me, and I'm not sure why. I usually say that it's because the true stories in the case books are so compelling, I don't need fiction any more. Certainly the "thinking through events without concerns for urgency and permanence, and thinking in ways that are different than one’s own" can apply to lots of reading without immediate practical application.
I mostly stopped reading fiction about a decade ago. I don't know if it's that I'm less tolerant of poor fiction, but I am sure part of it is I feel uneasy about losing focus on practical matters long enough to live in a fantasy for a while. I think this is a bad thing, mostly; I miss that world.
But sometimes a novel will be good enough to pull me back in.
Stats are so easy to interpret and misinterpret. It's possible that this result is only a temporary effect. Or perhaps they'd have gotten different results from different stories and essays. And, of course, it's not clear that being happy with ambiguity makes someone a better thinker; if the task at hand is solving a math problem, for example, it's for the worse. In a situation in which things are not black and white, still, resolving ambiguities can be a good thing, or a bad one, depending on how it's done.
Fiction is a delight, and helps us populate our minds with ideas, which may be good ones. But the best argument for it may be the argument I find best for philosophy: that the alternative to good philosophy is not no philosophy, but bad philosophy. We tell ourselves stories. We can't stop it. Better if they're good ones -- and especially better if we know that's what they are!
Reading, especially novels, helps develop key intellectual skills like empathy. People often conflate empathy and feeling sorry for somebody. Really, empathy is the ability to put yourself into another person's shoes. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Reading a novel that tells a story from the perspective of somebody other than yourself, allows you to see through their eyes and understand the world from a different perspective. This increases your ability to empathize with real people, to be able to listen to what they're saying, listen to their experiences, and understand the conclusions they've drawn based on those things. Empathy is one of the most important tools in intellectual discourse. Without empathy, intellectual discourse is replaced with modern politics, the exact opposite of intellectual discourse, where instead of seeking understanding, people seek only to shout the loudest and longest.
Reading novels written in a different historical context can often give the reader a better understanding of the life and truth of history in that age than a modern textbook. Textbooks often present a simplified understanding of the historical context they address, and remove the human element, giving you few people to empathize with, and replacing that element with facts that can be manipulated to present history from a modern perspective instead of a true perspective. Novels, though they are not about real events, often more closely reflect the mindset of the time in which they are written because they are written to express the art of somebody living in that time, and to resonate with people also living in that time.
Of the top of my head those are two of the most essential contributions of reading novels to an individuals intellectual life.
I think the perceived ability to see things from others' viewpoints is something book lovers (especially SF lovers) tell themselves and feel good about it, but when we actually see how versatile this or that literary mind is, it's a different story. Read the nonfiction of Bradbury or Heinlein. See the political commentary of Anne Rice. Read the crabbiness of Jack Vance. They can't see things from another POV as well as an average person, I think, despite their creativity. They're as messed up as the rest of us. Put up a picture of Jerry Falwell or Rush Limbaugh and see how willing they are to explore different views. (Or if it's Heinlein -- RIP -- or Pournelle, put up Hillary Clinton, say.)
It's a worthy goal, though. We just shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking we're good at it.
And some fiction pushes us toward this. We considered The Reluctant Fundamentalist for our freshman reading program: a book which convinced the reader that even if you're from the opposite side of the world (Afghanistan), speaking a different language, worshiping in a different religion, you still think just like an upper middle class secular white American.
But some doesn't. The Warriors, a short by Larry Niven, is specifically about this issue: blinders.