The Benefits of Reading Fiction

Reading fiction has surprising benefits. We get entertained, identify with characters and experience empathy. We follow characters’ paths through trials and difficulties we sometimes haven’t encountered ourselves.

Watching characters go through their daily lives, readers may come to understand that they aren’t alone with their problems. Everyone has difficulties, whether with parents, siblings, friends, or bosses. Stories often help us realize there are alternatives to what characters experience and  alternatives for us as well. Visualization in problem solving trains our minds and enhances our imaginations (Brain Connectivity, Emory University).

Identifying with characters we read about helps us understand that we’re not alone in our lives.  Pretty much all stages of life appear in fiction: aging and its problems, the quarrels and betrayals of youth, lovers’ crises like jealousy, break-ups, divorce, grief, illness, even loneliness.

There is no better feeling than sitting in a chair by a window or in front of the fireplace reading a book. The time is ours alone. If nothing else, reading makes us comfortable with being alone and that in itself is a valuable life lesson.

Reading can put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, kind of like meditation, and reading can bring the benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. A research study at the University of Sussex in 2009,revealed that  regular readers slept better, had lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers. Why is that so? Because reading fiction lets us escape from ourselves and vicariously enter the world of the characters, and that’s something we all need on occasion (Carol Fitzgerald, Book Report Network).

Reading fiction helps us disengage from life’s problems and slows our heart rates. Researchers have found that people “…desire to unplug from a constant stream of visual information.”

What’s interesting about reading stories is that we have the unique opportunity to share vicariously in the characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives, and track their encounters with friends, enemies, neighbours, and others around them. A readers, we engage in empathy as we step into a character’s skin. Fiction simulates reality, lets us identify with problems and successes, helps us prepare for our own interactions in life. As professor Keith Oakley, a University of Toronto Cognitive Psychologist, says, “… novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life”.

Fiction readers also tend to tolerate life’s uncertainties better. Stories often present characters with dilemmas for which there are no obvious solutions or, alternatively, a variety of solutions. Watching characters evaluate their choices, we evaluate with them. In that way, we understand how different circumstances present different problems. As readers, we become more tolerant of others, less judgmental.

Science Fiction, whether scientific or fantastic, presents ideas that go beyond known boundaries. It postulates that change is all around us. It shows us changed worlds and fosters the idea that we can live through change and survive. It presents social models, utopian or dystopian or something in the middle that’s more like us. Through its polar social visions, science Fiction helps us understand our place in our particular world and offers models of future possibility. That expands our perception of the changes that are possible.

Reading fiction  keeps our brains active: readers anticipate events and outcomes, piece together possibilities, and learn what characters learn. “It’s a mind stimulant”, says Jerome Boateng. “I love being exposed to ideas and being able to experience so many times, places and events.”

That’s not to say that non-fiction reading doesn’t have benefits. Of course, it does. We all read manuals, textbooks, newspapers, magazines like the Economist, articles on specific topics, but reading fiction gives us a time-out. We’re allowed to suspend our sensibilities and sink into the story.

Fiction contains tons of facts, only they’re packaged differently. It presents information in the guise of entertainment. Readers can relax and keep their minds open. The benefits of reading stories range from improving mental agility, processing information better, and acquiring a richer vocabulary. Reading fiction makes us more rounded as human beings and therefore happier.


Literature and Identity

Literature and Identity

Exposure to reading fiction provides a foundation that initiates in us greater awareness of ourselves and of our culture; that helps to liberate us from provincialism; and that provides the potential for the kind of personal growth that leads to mature identity.

We learn through familiarity, through repeated exposure, and it’s important to expose ourselves to the best that has been thought and said. Such exposure fosters a quality of open-mindedness, a respect for the integrity of systems of thought, and through analogous application, alleviates our own moral ambiguity by developing in us a disinclination to too readily accept a pervasive utilitarian relativism which tends to ignore moral issues.

If we learn by example, by repeated exposure, is not the literary work under consideration then the best teacher for us? It is infinitely more patient; it repeats the same words, however often one consults it; its hero commits the same acts, articulates the same dilemmas, and discovers in the same manner the nature of his world, the limitations to which he is subject as a man, and the wisdom to which he can aspire.

To sift and file and sort through the vicarious experience literature provides, for example, helps us gain sophistication in the use of language in order to articulate our experience, to convert it, to use it to better comprehend the environment in which we find ourselves and our place in it.

Those who never have that exposure often have difficulty forming a meaningful relationship between themselves and the world around them. Many are rendered inarticulate and can only turn within themselves in silence. Such people remain unable to judge the morality of Dostoevsky’s inquisitor because they are unable to judge the morality or immorality of their own acts. They see Dostoevsky’s Jesus simply as a man who smiles within his cell, and the Christian archetypal figure simply as a man who died in a particularly nasty way.

In the literary universe, providing our exposure is long enough, we can gain in awareness as we discover a coherent pattern in experience. If we can learn to imitate Coleridge and suspend our disbelief, we will discover that a work of literature is a total body of verbal creation, that it has a shape, that there are elements of formal design like the circle and the cross that have become cornerstones of literary creation. We will discover that literature builds allusively, by reference to itself, and that this allusiveness is significant because it proves that we don’t just read one novel after another, but that we enter into a total universe, as Frye suggests, of which every work of literature forms a part.

We will, through exposure, develop a healthy tolerance for the integrity of the completed form, and will sense that judgement depends on how well the images and metaphors an author uses to build up his meaning validate themselves. We will discover in our investigations some of the reasons why literature does not develop; we will discover that nature never really changes much, that the human mind tends to react in a uniform manner when faced with a problem of design. We will discover that the material the writer uses is essentially simple and visual, that in visual terms, at least, both we and the writer continue to live on a flat earth where the sun rises and sets, and where there are four seasons that continually repeat themselves.

A French-Canadian philosopher[1] has defined human identity as a form of coherence attainable only by osmosis in some sort of universe or environment that is itself coherent. Individual identity can be fostered, by osmosis if by no other way, through a study of such a universe, for it brings order and relationship to human activity and engenders in us a quality of open-mindedness, an attitude that recognizes the integrity of systems and patterns, and a new sensitivity toward our own values, capacities, and limitations.


[1] Jacques Dufresne, Education and Indifference, Canada Studies Cultural Exchange, Montreal, Quebec, January, 1973.


Indifference: Does Life Have Meaning?

An existential philosopher once wrote about the benign indifference of the universe, i.e. the meaning in life, and the dread that idea caused in most people, the existentialist excepted, of course.  Richard Dawkins has taken that one step further suggesting that if the universe is not only indifferent but also has no purpose, then human life must be equally meaningless and without purpose. That doesn’t preclude, I don’t think, the obvious drive in life to become, to realize potential. We see that every spring in renewal. We see it in the drive in everything to reach full potential. Perhaps that isn’t purpose exactly, but it’s something other than indifference. To me, it offers some assurance even if it is a rote response, an instinctive drive.

A corollary to this idea is the age-old question of meaning: does life have meaning or not?  Social systems certainly subscribe to the idea that life has meaning as do religious systems, albeit with very different outcomes. But if the universe is indifferent as the existential philosopher suggests, and life is without purpose as Dawkins suggests, perhaps meaning and significance and purpose are all a product of the human imagination. Thus reality is determined, as far as purpose and significance go, by each of us if we so choose.

Of course, most of us escape into custom, habit, or the expectations inherent in social norms, which Beckett’s Vladimir says are only “a great deadener”. Maybe too, his characters are right: all we can do is wait for Godot who will never come, and we play all the games we have to while away the hours and days while waiting. It’s a pretty pessimistic view and dovetails nicely with the idea of an indifferent universe and the idea of purposelessness.

Continue reading “Indifference: Does Life Have Meaning?”

Cyclic Theory

Every Heard of Cyclic Theory?

When I was teaching classes in literary structure, one of the things I looked at was the idea that seasonal and solar flux impacted literature whether writers intended it to or not.  If one stood back a little from the narrative, one could sense the structure of images on which the narrative depended. Each of the seasons, then, provided a kind of objective correlative for abstractions like the feelings and inner nature of characters.

At its simplest, villains were always dark, heroes always blue-eyed and blond. At its most complex, the story produced a rain of images that gave it its strength, its universality.

Okay, if that idea has merit, I should be able to see it in what I write myself. And when I look at my first novel, sure enough, colouration comes from the setting most definitely. The first time Harry runs into trouble, it happens in an alley. When he’s beaten, it happens in an alley. Both of these places are negative in nature, dirty, littered, filled with the detritus of illicit love. The center of the book, the war in Chinatown where darkness and death are concentrated, also happens in an alley, and the description is indeed an objective correlative for the mass of emotions flooding the place.

Sometimes the settings are subtle, sometimes more blatant, but I’m convinced the idea of seasonal and solar flux has merit. I suspect many of our social institutions stem from the same source: erecting a green tree with lights on it in the depths of winter at the darkest time of the year, holding weddings in June, putting parks, green spaces in the cities, on land that is immensely valuable. All these things stem from the link between our imaginations and the cyclic world around us: spring into summer into fall into winter, then rebirth into spring again, morning into afternoon, then evening and night, only to have the sun reborn each morning.

No wonder our central myths contain images of  death and rebirth, wasteland and garden.  The dark has always made us uneasy; it robs us of knowledge because we can’t see. Eeven though there is nothing to fear, the dark echoes our uneasiness and becomes a material representation of how we feel.

Storms have been used forever to symbolize violence of one sort or another, sometimes foreshadowing, sometimes part of the action.  And the juxtaposition of garden and wasteland, so central to our biblical myth, seems to be a part of every city I’ve ever been in.

So maybe we should read that way, a little deeper than simple narrative. Let the images and symbols work, be more conscious of them. wouldn’t that make the experience richer?