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.