The Social and Health Benefits of Reading Literary Fiction

Some people absolutely love reading fiction. Whether they enjoy popular page turners or works of literary fiction, you’ll rarely find such bookworms without a good book in hand. Yet, if you’re like me, a love for novels isn’t so natural or passionate. Personally, I’ve always preferred works of non-fiction: history, culture, sociology, theology, and the like. One of the reasons for my preference for non-fiction was that I didn’t see the value of literary fiction. I assumed reading fiction was just about entertainment and had little value beyond improving my vocabulary or language skills.  

Recently, however, I’ve discovered a plethora of benefits that can be derived from reading literary fiction. My first revelation came from reading a few books by Rene Girard, a literary critic and professor at Stanford University. His amazing insights about the truths that can be acquired from reading stories opened up a whole new world for me. Since then, I’ve discovered that reading literary fiction can provide numerous benefits, ranging from improved social skills to better mental health.

Before I get into the benefits that can be gained from reading fiction, I just need to distinguish popular fiction from literary fiction. While the differences are often subtle, they’re important. Works that qualify as literary fiction tend to revolve around the inner-working and thoughts of complex characters, rather than primarily around an exciting plot (as in popular fiction). The characters in popular fiction tend to be fairly simple and easy to predict. While popular fiction tends to be more entertaining and does provide some benefits, works of literary fiction more fully engage the imagination and critical thinking skills of the reader. The complex characters in literary fiction tend to force the reader to conjecture, imagine, and predict the thoughts and actions of the characters– skills that have application in real life.  To find good examples of literary fiction, explore the classics section at your local bookstore or look for National Book Award finalists.

Reading Literary Fiction Helps Improve Social Skills

A recent study by Professor of Psychology Emanuele Castano, from the The New School for Social Research in New York, found that when test subjects read literary fiction their social skills improved. Compared to people who didn’t read and people assigned to read a passage from a popular fiction novel, those assigned to read a passage from a work of literary fiction demonstrated an improved ability to “read people’s thoughts.” They were better able to interpret what people were thinking and expressing through body language and speech. Therefore, it’s believed that the practice provided by literary fiction in interpreting personalities and intents of characters carries over to the real world.  

The imagined world of “getting into characters heads” may also improve empathy, the ability to feel and relate with the emotions of others. Empathy is of key importance for building healthy relationships and forming cooperative partnerships. And, as discussed in the “Creation-Based Keys to Longevity,” healthy relationships ultimately reinforce good physical health.

Reading Literary Fiction Develops Creativity and Imagination 

Unlike television, reading activates the imagination. In other words, your mind has to create all of the images. This is an excellent exercise for the mind, that has consequence for health and daily life.  When the mind is active it is more likely to stay healthy into old age. Studies have shown that brain exercises like reading can help reduce the risks of Alzheimer’s.

Creativity is also a crucial part of coming up with new ideas, discoveries, and strategies for success in relationships and business. Popular fiction novels are definitely better than television in promoting creativity, but literary fiction can help you take your imagination skills to the next level. In great works of fiction, authors reveal their ability to create the illusion of great detail but often leave much to the mind for imagination. These gaps in detail force the mind to spontaneously create rich images and interpretations of the characters’ intents and future actions.

Literary Fiction can Reveal New Ideas and Truths

Probably my favorite benefit of fiction is that it can be a rich source of deep truths and new ideas. Good authors are usually good philosophers too, with significant insights into human nature, theology, or philosophy. Authors of literary fiction posses the unique ability to penetrate and reveal nuanced truths through the dialogues and thoughts of their characters. Take for example The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky — in this classic novel Dostoyevsky reveals stunning insights into human nature and the ability of Christ’s sacrificial love to overcome selfish delusion.

The Take Away: Far from being a luxurious waste of time, reading great works of literary fiction can improve your social skills, develop your creativity, and improve your mental and physical health! So what are you waiting for? Pick up a great book and find a park bench or pull up a seat at your local coffee shop.

What are some of your favorite works of literary fiction and why? 

What are you reading now?

References and Recommended Reading: Want To Read Others’ Thoughts? Try Reading Literary Fiction, NPR; Desire, Deceit, and the Novel by Rene Girard; The Humiliation of the Word by Jacques Ellul; The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
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Originally posted 2013-10-09 15:25:16.

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