At a neighborhood barbecue the other night I struck up a conversation with a couple of intelligent young professionals. The conversation eventually turned to reading and I asked them what books they had been reading lately. They both sheepishly confessed to reading fiction. I assured them that there was no shame in reading fiction. It’s not as if fiction were a second-class citizen of the reading world. In fact, the case for fiction is strong. I gave them my best short answer: “Fiction readers know more, understand more and feel more,” but of course, after dwelling on it for a few days I have thought of better ways to reassure them.
Reading fiction is the fastest and purest way to understand the human condition. No other mode of communication delves as deeply, thoroughly or as truly into the human psyche. Fiction cuts out all of the fluff and gets down to the meaningful stories of our lives. Even in science fiction and fantasy, not everything is made up. The reactions are real. The character types are real. The responses of certain types of people are real. There is better insight into the human mind to be had from reading fiction than from wading through thousands of pages of psychological journals.
There is also more science, both hard and soft, in novels than in almost any other genre you will find. Studies suggest that fiction readers know more about the world and how it works than non-fiction readers.
in my book Meaningful Reading Comprehension Checks (available as an eBook at https://www.brycehedstrom.com/product/ebook-meaningful-reading-comprehension-checks) I make the case for fiction.
Read a sample of the book here: https://www.brycehedstrom.com/wp-content/uploads/Meaningful-Reading-Comprehension-Checks-Sample.pdf
Here is the expanded case for fiction from that book:
“I don’t know how one develops imagination without reading fiction.” —Diane Ravitch
For light reading we encourage students in world language classes to read novels. These are not classic literature in the target language… yet. Rather, they are a special genre of language learner literature: vocabulary controlled and interesting stories of between 2,000 and 10,000 words. This is one of the best ways, if not the best way for students to grow in the language and as human beings. Reading novels is advantageous to students both as language learners and for a well-rounded life. Here are some reasons why:
- FICTION BUILDS MORE VOCABULARY and MORE GRAMMAR
Readers acquire more vocabulary and grammar from novels. In a novel the vocabulary tends to repeat itself more than that in non-fiction texts because the setting and the situations are revisited and referred to over and over. This repetition of contextualized vocabulary helps a reader to pick up both high frequency vocabulary as well as the specific words used in the novel. The repeated vocabulary and grammar become automatic. Contextualized, interesting and repeated comprehensible input is what gets students to acquire language. Studying vocabulary lists and practicing grammar with drills is neither as effective nor as enjoyable simply reading a story for pleasure. And the more you read, the more language you acquire:
“Less frequent words… may best be learned by reading extensively, because there is just not enough time to learn them all through conscious study.”
―Norbert Schmitt, Vocabulary in Language Teaching
“The study of complex grammatical constructions does not help reading (or writing); rather, mastery of complex grammar is a result of reading.”
―Stephen Krashen, The Power of Reading
“Picking up word meanings by reading is 10 times faster than intensive vocabulary instruction.”
Creating Lifelong Readers
- FICTION IS MORE FUN
Reading novels is easier and more fun. For most students reading novels is more enjoyable than reading other kinds of materials. Reading novels can be easier because stories lend themselves to prediction. Once you understand the genre, the setting and the characters, you can often guess where a story is going. This natural interaction with the text makes reading fiction easier and more pleasant than non-fiction, especially for young readers and for language learners. It is this element of pleasure that leads students to develop a life-long pleasure reading habit. This ease of access creates what psychologists refer to as “flow.” Reading is the most popular flow activity in the world.
“There is overwhelming research showing that recreational reading in a second language is a powerful means of improving grammar, vocabulary, spelling and writing ability ― and it is far more efficient and far more pleasant than traditional instruction.”
―Stephen Krashen, Taipei Times editorial, Sept. 14, 2004
Build Your Vocabulary the Novel Way:
- FICTION BUILDS BETTER RELATIONSHIPS
Fiction readers have better relationships. Reading fiction serves as a relationship simulator. It helps readers to develop real-life social skills by giving them low stake rehearsals for the complicated relationships they will encounter in real life. In novels we can preview the social situations that we will encounter to prepare us to meet them better.
Your Brain on Fiction, by Annie Murphy Paul
- FICTION PROVIDES BETTER LIFE LESSONS
The life lessons in novels are easier to understand. It is easier to pick up the life lessons in fiction than those in non-fiction texts. The lessons in non-fiction may be more direct, but they are not absorbed as well as those in fiction. Fictional stories can change the reader’s views and reinforce understanding because the lessons are absorbed subconsciously along with the story. Counter-intuitively, the focus on the story in a novel helps readers to understand the author’s core message more clearly than straightforward non-fiction.
“Reading emails, newspapers, magazines, company reports, and messages on cellphones may extend our knowledge… but they don’t change us. Reading stories can make a difference to our life.”
─Frank Smith, Reading FAQ, p. 30.
Why Fiction is Good for You, Jonathan Gottschall
A Leadership Author on Why You’re Better Off Reading Fiction for Lasting Lessons, by Craig Chappelow https://www.fastcompany.com/3013003/dialed/a-leadership-book-author-on-why-youre-better-off-reading-fiction-for-lasting-lessons
- FICTION CREATES MORE EMPATHY
Novels help readers to develop empathy. In a novel we are allowed to peek inside the heads of others and explore their motivations. Novels help us to develop perspective or Theory of Mind, which is the ability to understand the ways others think and feel rather than just our own selves. In our virtually connected, but emotionally isolated, digital age we all need help with empathy. Reading novels that we enjoy and can understand is a good way to encourage the growth of empathy in us all.
How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation (2013) P. Matthijs Bal , Martijn Veltkamp
- FICTION BUILDS MORE SMARTS
Reading fiction makes you smarter. All fiction has elements of real life in it. Even though the story is fictional, not everything is completely made up in a novel. The setting is often factually correct and much of the background information is real as well. As students read fiction they pick up tidbits about the real world. Every fiction author infuses the work with morsels of real psychology, sociology, philosophy, economics, history, geography, biology, linguistics and many other subjects. When students read a novel, they learn something about how real life functions along with the story and this gives them greater understanding of the world. As Stephen Krashen puts it, “Those who read more fiction know more about a variety of subjects.”
Those Who Read More (Fiction) Know More. (2012) By Stephen Krashen http://www.schoolsmatter.info/2012/05/those-who-read-more-fiction-know-more.html
- FICTION IS MORE ENGAGING AND MORE PERSUASIVE
These all add up to the fiction being more engaging and more persuasive than non-fiction for most readers. Fiction tends to be more emotionally powerful than non-fiction. Empirical facts are probably more important, but fiction does a better job of reaching, teaching and persuading readers. Fiction can change their minds because it touches their hearts. Good stories show us what really matters by engaging our emotions and our subconscious minds.