Yes, Reading Fiction Really Matters

June 17, 2013

Thomas Jefferson famously declared he couldn’t live without books, but while he was enthusiastic about classical languages and scientific information, you might be suprised to know that he had this to say about reading novels:

A great obstacle to good education is the inordinate passion prevalent for novels, and the time lost in that reading which should be instructively employed. When this poison infects the mind, it destroys its tone and revolts it against wholesome reading. Reason and fact, plain and unadorned, are rejected. Nothing can engage attention unless dressed in all the figments of fancy, and nothing so bedecked comes amiss. The result is a bloated imagination, sickly judgment, and disgust towards all the real businesses of life. This mass of trash, however, is not without some distinction; some few modeling their narratives, although fictitious, on the incidents of real life, have been able to make them interesting and useful vehicles of a sound morality… For a like reason, too, much poetry should not be indulged. Some is useful for forming style and taste. Pope, Dryden, Thompson, Shakespeare, and of the French, Moliere, Racine, the Corneilles, may be read with pleasure and improvement.—Thomas Jefferson to Nathaniel Burwell, 1818. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson Memorial Edition (1903) 15:166. Web 17 June 2013.

There are probably many today who would agree that fiction is fluff – a private and personal indulgence with no practical utlity beyond maintaining the basic reading skill itself, perhaps. There is accumulating evidence, however, that this view is wrong.  For several years there has been intriguing research into the ability of fiction to increase empathy in readers. What suprised me, however, is a recent story on Salon.com that fiction reading has been linked in a University of Toronto study to improved thinking skills as well:

A trio of University of Toronto scholars, led by psychologist Maja Djikic, report that people who have just read a short story have less need for what psychologists call “cognitive closure.” Compared with peers who have just read an essay, they expressed more comfort with disorder and uncertainty—attitudes that allow for both sophisticated thinking and greater creativity.

In a recent session I attended on “Why Fiction Is Dangerous,” Neil Gaiman talked about participating in an international science fiction and fantasy convention in China in 2007. Gaiman asked hosting officials why the 180 degree change in attitude toward these genres, which had been suppressed as potentially subversive.  He was told China was now encouraging reading science fiction and fantasy because they believed it would lead to greater innovation and inventiveness after surveying the top talent at American companies like Google, Microsoft, and Apple and discovering many had grown up reading those genres. 

So even the most pragmatic world powers focused like laser beams on economic development see serious value in reading speculative fiction.  It clearly goes way beyond idle entertainment.

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2 Responses to “Yes, Reading Fiction Really Matters”

  1. Jeanne Says:

    Hmmm… Short stories, science fiction and fantasy… I was hoping for some justification for all the mystery stories I like to read. I wonder if there’s merit in those?

  2. Darren Says:

    I’m thinking those would make you more devious? 🙂


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