How Reading Fiction Can Improve Your Life

If you have to choose between fiction and self-help, pick up the former. Here’s why

How Reading Fiction Can Improve Your Life
Photo by Daniel Corneschi on Unsplash

If you have to choose between fiction and self-help, pick up the former. Here’s why

I have had many friends scoff when I tell them I love reading fiction. It’s surprising that so many people assume that reading non-fiction makes one a “scholar” while reading a novel is just a hobby.

I beg to differ.

For me, reading has never been merely a hobby; it is a way of life, a part of my identity. I don’t read fiction for entertainment. I read it because it saved my life. And continues to do that. Every single day.

I have always been an introvert. When I was in school, I was painfully shy. I hardly talked to anyone and would think ten times before approaching someone for even the most necessary things. The harsh environment of bullying and segregating I faced as a teenager in school didn’t help much. It made me retreat into a shell.

At that point in life, if I didn’t have the “hobby” of reading, I would have considered myself to be alone in the universe — unloved and unwanted. Reading stories about people, specifically, teenagers, showed me that if their stories were worth writing about, probably mine could be someday too.

Of course, reading fiction is not only for the introverted.

Fiction can teach you so many things and make your life better in ways you wouldn’t have thought possible. In this article, I am going to address the oft-asked and very pertinent question: Why should one read fiction?

1. Understanding Your Core Beliefs

In the limited time, we are here on this planet, it is not possible to experience every single emotion known to humans. However, when we read stories about characters in certain situations, we tend to imagine ourselves in their place.

While reading through the thought process of a character in a particular situation, readers tend to question their actions. You inevitably imagine yourself in that situation, wondering what you would do if you had to face similar circumstances.

Introspecting so much about yourself in such an intimate manner can help you understand where your priorities lie and what are the core beliefs you hold dear.

In a way, it makes you mature beyond your years.

Helping you see the world better

When you read about the various characters in a novel, you sub-consciously analyse their behavioural traits and count the similarities and differences between them and you. It’s common to reach conclusions like “If I were there, I wouldn’t have gotten into this mess”, or “This character is as stupid as my friend Jenna.”

The characters in a book give you insights about yourself. They also help you know your friends better and appreciate the thought process behind their actions.

2. Different Perspectives

Youth can not know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young.
― J.K. Rowling , Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

When you are young, you cannot imagine how an older person might react to a situation. Likewise, when you get past a certain age, it gets more and more difficult to empathise with the younger generation.

Fiction comes to the rescue here — reminding you of things and emotions you had forgotten, and making you familiar with feelings you didn’t know existed.

I have read books that helped me understand my parents by giving me clarity behind several decisions they took. And then again, I have read stories (mostly young adult fiction) which helped me empathise with my students better — most of whom are teenagers.

Helping you get closure

When you see a character in a book stumbling through life and blaming themselves for things that are not in their control, you achieve a moment of epiphany.

Maybe you have gone through something similar?

Some special books might also help you get closure over some bad decisions you made in the past, helping you realise that you did the best with what you had. With your experience and expertise at that time, you couldn’t have managed better.

3. Accepting Differences

Books open your mind, broaden your mind, and strengthen you as nothing else can.
― William Feather

Your prejudices are based on your upbringing. It is natural to be biased against specific communities, people, or character traits. But, when you are reading a book and experiencing the world through the eyes of a character with that particular trait, it helps you get in their mind. When you see them facing the same prejudices you hold, you realise that they are being treated badly for something that isn’t even their fault.

Reading fiction makes you more open-minded towards accepting differences.

The books I have read in my life have taught me that a person’s sexuality isn’t their fault, and have made me understand that love is love, despite being raised in a highly homophobic society.

They have helped me understand that unmarried, widowed, or divorced women are not to be looked down upon, no matter how much society shuns them.

Books have helped me accept the fact that religion may not be the solution to all our problems. There can be situations where it is the only thing holding us back from being the best version of ourselves.

They have helped me understand that discrimination based on caste, colour, race, or gender is nothing but a social construct and that deep down, we humans are all the same.

When you spend so much time in someone else’s head (a character in a book), you are bound to be influenced by their thoughts and experiences. That is how powerful fiction is — it can teach you invaluable life lessons no self-help book can preach.

4. Being A Friend

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.
― Groucho Marx, The Essential Groucho

Life is tough, but you don’t have to face it alone.

When you read a story about a character undergoing the same problems as you (or different problems on a similar scale), you understand that you are not alone. The fact that there have been stories written about it means that other people must have gone through something similar.

If they have bounced back, so can you.

Such stories give you hope that no matter how insurmountable your troubles seem at the moment, you can overcome them someday. That no matter how completely darkness engulfs you today, there is light at the end of the tunnel. It might take you longer than others to see it, but you will see it soon.

When you are feeling alone and friendless, a book has the power to (metaphorically) hold your hand and tell you that it is going to be alright. It can be your friend and lead you to the light.

Books have saved me during the darkest times of my life. Trust me when I say this: the healing power of fiction is overwhelming.

5. Adding Items to Your Bucket List

Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home.
― Anna Quindlen, How Reading Changed My Life

From places to visit to cuisines to try out, from performances to experience to monuments and museums to see — books keep adding valuable items to your bucket list.

In a magical way, books help you understand what to expect from all the new places you travel to.

I know I want to visit Paris and go to the Louvre because I read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. I want to see the performance of the whirling Sufi dervishes in Konya, Turkey because I read Elif Shafak’s The 40 Rules of Love. I want to visit a tea house and be served by a Geisha in Kyoto, Japan because I read Memoirs of a Geisha.

There are so many places and experiences books have filled my heart with a yearning to see their magic for myself.

That is the extent to which fiction can grip your imagination. It can make you long for places and people you never even knew existed. It can fill your life with colourful experiences that you would have otherwise deprived yourself of.

6. Living A Thousand Lives

A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.
― George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

Books bring out compassion. They help you become empathetic for several issues you might otherwise have not given a second thought. In other words, fiction helps you become a better person.

For example, I live in Assam — a north-eastern state of India that shares a border with Bangladesh. For the past fifty or so years, several refugees from Bangladesh have crossed over to settle in India. I grew up with elders who taught me to look at the refugees in disdain, as if they are infiltrators encroaching on our land.

This perspective changed when I read When the Moon is Low by Nadia Hashimi. It is a story about refugees from a terrorism-torn Afghanistan who leave behind their country to seek a home in England. Through her words and her masterful depiction of the pain refugees face, she opened my eyes to the plight of immigrants in any country (more specifically, the Bangladeshi immigrants in India).

Refugees didn’t just escape a place. They had to escape a thousand memories until they’d put enough time and distance between them and their misery to wake to a better day.
~Nadia Hashimi

Different worlds, different experiences

Because I read fiction, I know how an American gay schoolboy bullied by his friends feels (Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli).

I know how deeply a Kashmir Muslim freedom fighter of India desires for the liberation of his homeland (The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy).

I understand that no matter how difficult life might be for a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz, there is always room for hope and love to blossom (The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris).

I have never visited these places or lived in those times. But, because I have delved so deep into the minds of characters who have, I can gauge how hard such emotions must have hit people experiencing them.

The Bottom Line

When you read non-fiction (especially self-help), there is no doubt that you come to terms with some fantastic concepts and secrets for success and productivity. But, when you read fiction, it opens up horizons within yourself that you didn’t know existed.

Fiction has the power to take you by the heart, give you a good shake, and change your life forever.

Books are a friend, books are an escape, books are a means to empowerment and books are a means to understanding yourself better and in a world around you. They are everything.
― Emma Watson

Fiction helps you see yourself and the world around in a new light. It has the power to change your life forever and make you a better person. And that is why, my friend, no matter what anyone else might tell you, you should never quit reading fiction.

Here are some recommendations to get you started:

The Most Jaw-Dropping Epic Fantasy Recommendations to Keep You Hooked
If you only read 10 fantasy books, read these.
10 Books You Can Finish In A Day
Read a lot of books in a few hours.

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