I’m a bit of an oddball among writers, because I don’t condemn the television set. On the contrary, I think everyone, and especially serious writers, should watch plenty of TV, including TV comedies and dramas, because the audio/visual format provides a perspective that you can’t get from reading a novel. This flies in the face of the common rant, that TV is a scourge that should be eliminated from the entertainment landscape.
On the other hand, the recent trend has been to watch more TV and more movies and read less, and when one reads, to read non-fiction instead of fiction. The reasons given range from “Reading is hard” to “Novels are uninformative.” But what most people don’t realize is that the written word, and fiction in particular, provides benefits you can’t get from other media. For example:
- Reading fiction can help you improve your people skills. A 2008 study by Raymond Mar found that people who read more fiction score higher on tests of empathy and social acumen, and that people who read more non-fiction score lower. This is perhaps because through fiction, you experience the characters’ social interactions and relationships in a way impossible with most non-fiction.
- Reading fiction stimulates the imagination. While reading fiction, your mind reconstructs each scene in much more detail than the author described it. It does so by visualizing the non-existent people and places of the story, often basing these visualizations on actual people and places you’ve seen. This is the human ability to imagine, to daydream, to speculate, to ponder. The ability to imagine separates us from other animals. It allows us to strategize, to plan, to reason, to learn, to create a better world than existed before.
- Books are cheaper hour-for-hour of entertainment than movies or DVD’s. Especially in tight economic times, it makes sense to foster the enjoyment of written fiction. For the same amount a 2-hour movie or DVD costs, you can get a book that will entertain you for days, or weeks. Or you can borrow it from your local library for free.
- Reading relieves stress, and does not overstimulate like TV can. Most modern television programming is designed to capture your attention by constantly pinging your brain with abrupt sounds and transitions. This gears your brain up and creates stress. Research at the University of Sussex found that reading can reduce stress levels by up to 68 percent. Or as cognitive neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis put it, “Losing yourself in a book is the ultimate relaxation.”
- Fiction allows us to enter into the narrative, imagine ourselves there, in ways that non-fiction can’t. Even a biography is already finished before you begin reading it, because it’s about a real person. Even if you don’t know the specific history of a particular biographical figure, biographies are seldom written about losers, whereas the loser is the staple of the fictional story. Or as one English teacher from Wichita, Kansas put it, “Fiction’s unknowability causes it to be a whole lot like Life as we experience it.”
- The mind absorbs new information most easily through stories. Humans are by nature story creatures, learning through experience and metaphor. Teaching through storytelling is a tradition as old as human thought itself. This is one reason why, even though fiction is about people who never existed and events that never happened, all fictional people and events are based on reality. As psychologists Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell explain in their book Dreaming Reality, “The reason that stories are so satisfying and illuminating is that they tap into the same process that nature uses for the transmission of knowledge.”
- Reading, and reading fiction in particular, can make you a better speaker and writer. In modern times, communication skills are more important than ever. And because storytelling is such a key skill in transmitting knowledge, you will become a better communicator if you learn how to tell stories. And the best way to learn how to tell stories is to see them being told. In general, exposing yourself to the language, as happens when you read, will instinctively improve your own language and communication skills.
Still can’t imagine yourself reading through a whole novel? Try the short story. Yes, the short story has been dying for some time, but that’s because readers have been uninterested. Even so, classic and newly released short story collections continue to be published, and for the busy, 21’st-century citizen, the short story offers the benefits of fiction in bite-sized portions that he can more readily enjoy.
Fiction should be a staple of every person’s lifestyle, because anyone who doesn’t read it at least occasionally is missing out on the benefits it offers.