To Read Fiction, or Not to Read Fiction: That is the Question


To read fiction, or not to read fiction: that is the question.

Whether you are an avid reader, easily ensnared by the mysteries of an ink-stained page, or whether you simply partake in the activity as a direct result of school, it is almost certain that you have posed a similar question – fiction, or nonfiction: which is truly more beneficial?

The answer may seem clear-cut, as many prominent international figures such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates have long favoured the informative genre of nonfiction over its more fanciful counterpart, and with good reason. Non-fiction, whether documenting historical events, elucidating scientific and technological theories, or evolving philosophical debates, is a vital source of knowledge which enables both the understanding and development of ideas. It also perfectly suits the Cambridge Dictionary definition of reading, namely “the skill or activity of getting information from books”. Research, however, suggests that whilst non-fiction may offer a wealth of information, the true benefits of reading are hidden within the age-old pages of fictional novels – giving credit to Sherlock Holmes’s warning: “It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgement.”

Fiction, although written from the perspective of imaginary characters, has proven to be effective in improving individuals’ emotional intelligence (EQ) and empathy towards other members of society. Research, conducted in the Princeton Social Neuroscience Lab, found that reading fictional novels increases cognitive activity within the part of the brain responsible for interpreting what others are thinking, resulting in higher emotional intelligence and improved empathy. The ability of a literary novel to introduce readers to characters with contrasting viewpoints and thought processes within a certain situation is also significant, as it not only increases their empathy and social awareness, but also improves their ability to take a more open-minded approach to critical thinking and problem solving. This exposure to alternative opinions throughout a novel compels a reader to take different perspectives and experiences into account, something which cannot easily be done in a real-world context where there is no indication of another person’s thoughts or emotions.

Another notable difference between reading fiction and non-fiction lies in a concept known as ‘cognitive closure’ – essentially the need to have an instant answer to a situation or question. The factual, straightforward nature of non-fiction results in a reliance on instant cognitive closure, as readers are quickly given all the relevant facts and answers which they seek, without much need for forming their own opinion or gradually coming to a conclusion. Novels, in contrast, require readers to attain facts and opinions at a much slower pace, consequently reducing the need for cognitive closure, which in turn contributes to a more thoughtful, creative and open-minded disposition. These improvements in the social characteristics of readers are not only beneficial in their private lives, but also in the field of business, as in the 21st century, it is more important than ever to have individuals who can think critically and solve problems – whilst also taking different social issues and situations into account.

Perhaps this research comes as a surprise, but the concept of using a story to convey knowledge, ideas, or morals has accompanied the human race throughout history – whether in the form of oral tales, or written fables. The majority of children grow up with stories well before they attain any factual knowledge in the schooling system, and global society has long recognised the important role which literature plays in expressing historical concepts, cultural identity and political or social issues. It has been, and foreseeably always will be, a fundamental constituent of human nature.

Whether you find yourself drawn to the factual realm of knowledge, or the mythical pages of make-believe, the question remains: to read fiction, or not to read fiction? The decision is yours.