Over the past few years I’ve mainly read non-fiction books; self-help books about psychology, entrepreneurship, productivity, all within the ambit of self-improvement. But what I hadn’t realized is that reading fiction is also highly conducive to self-improvement.
Reading fiction can improve your creativity and develop your critical thinking and communication skills; it’s a good way to momentarily disengage your brain so that you can get back to peak productivity, and it helps to boost your memory.
Let me explain how I came to find this out, and why I’ve prioritized reading more fiction over the past couple of months. If you’re someone who, like me, has neglected fiction for a while, I recommend 4 addictive page-turners that you could consider.This year, I wanted to gift my parents something meaningful. We have countless photo albums from our childhood, but not one that provides a full timeline. So, I’m making them exactly that. I’m making an album that they can browse through to see photographs from when they began dating 30 years ago, to today.
It’s been entertaining. What’s with mullets? Also, I’m amazed I had any friends growing up. I spent 50% of my childhood looking like a mushroom, and the other 50% in fancy-dress.
Anyway, I also came across countless photos of me reading to my brother and sister. I completely forgot that I used to do that! Ever since I learned how to read, up until I was about 12, I use to read to my siblings almost every night.
I found countless photos of the three of us with our faces pressed against a picture book in a single bed, reading Harry Potter in the cupboard under the stairs, and reading ‘Narnia’ on the drive from the UK to Spain.
A melancholy feeling clouded over me; those were good times. But it dawned on me that — I never read fiction anymore. I used to love it. But as I got older, I found that I “didn’t have any time”.
In high school, the last thing I wanted to do after my homework was read. At university, the last thing I wanted to do after a full day of studying was read. When I started to work, the last thing I wanted to do after a long day at work was read.
I did read non-fiction books — mainly self-improvement books, memoirs, and psychology-related books. But I lost the habit of reading fiction. It had been years since I got lost in a book and escaped reality. It’s sad, I thought.
We all have busy lives, we all want to be successful, we all feel like there’s more that we could be doing. Sitting down to read a book that doesn’t provide any actionable information seems pointless, and you might even feel guilty at times for not investing your time ‘wisely’. But this isn’t exactly true.
The argument for reading more fiction
If it brings you any peace of mind, you should know that there are many good reasons why reading fiction is productive.
- Research in Neuroscience suggests that reading fiction helps you develop empathy and communication skills; one of the most valuable skills that managers look for in employees, and critical to developing healthy relationships.
- It also helps you develop other valuable skills, including critical thinking, creativity, and build a rich vocabulary.
- According to research, reading fiction improves your memory, and regular readers experience slower memory decline later in life.
- Plus, your brain can’t operate at full capacity 24/7. You need periods of disengagement to rest your cognitive capabilities and get back to peak functionality. Reading fiction is a great way to achieve this. It has a calming effect on your brain similar to meditation, so regular readers on average sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression.
In short –
“Do not read non-fiction prior to bed, which encourages projection into the future and preoccupation/planning. Read fiction that engages the imagination and demands present-state attention.” — Tim Ferriss
If that doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will.
Here are 4 fiction books that I have especially enjoyed over the past few months, to help you get started:
Potentially one of my favorite books of all time — Jeanine Cummins’s ‘American dirt’ is guaranteed to get you hooked from page 1. It couldn’t possibly not; the first couple of pages paint a shocking scene that is likely to make anyone near you wonder what the hell is happening to your face. And the momentum keeps building throughout the book. In fact, you can read about how it made me petrified of reading here.
The book starts off with a bang — quite literally — and Cummins leaves cheeky little cliff-hangers at the end of every chapter that make it almost impossible to not start the next.
It tells the story of Lydia Quixano Pérez, owner of a bookstore in Acapulco, Mexico, and her son Luca. I don’t want to give too much away since the book dives straight into the plot, but in two words: drug cartels.
One thing leads to another and Lydia and Luca have to run for their lives. The only place they’ll find safety is the US — or so they hope. Their journey is gripping, heart-throbbing, and tense. If you want to get back into fiction, I can’t think of a better book.
“When I was sixteen, two of my cousins were brutally raped by four strangers and thrown off a bridge in St. Louis, Missouri. My brother was beaten and also forced off the bridge… I’m interested in characters who suffer inconceivable hardship, in people who manage to triumph over extraordinary trauma.” — Author’s Note; Jeanine Cummins.
Small Great Things tells the story of Ruth Jefferson, an African American labor and delivery nurse in Connecticut hospital, with over 20 years of experience. She is banned from attending one of her newborn patients; the son of white supremacists who refuse to let Ruth touch their child. Ruth complies.
However, the next day, when Ruth is the only nurse in the nursery, the baby goes into cardiac distress. Ruth hesitates — should she follow orders? Or should she save the baby?
Ruth performs CPR. But as a result, she is charged with a serious crime.
The book digs deep into issues of race, privilege, prejudice, justice, human compassion, and raises more questions than it answers. Picoult tells the story of Ruth’s trial and her relationship with Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender who takes Ruth’s case.
It’s a book that has spurred many deep conversations over the dinner table lately and one that I couldn’t recommend more in today’s climate.
“Bad things happen to good people every day.” ― Jodi Picoult, Small Great Things
I read this book in Spanish, so I admit I don’t know what the English translation is like. But so long as it even comes close to the original, it’s a book not to miss.
It’s not particularly current, so unlike the two above, it probably won’t spur further discussion. This is very much what I call ‘a dream book’; one of those that transports you to a different world, a different culture, and a different time.
If it were a film it would be a ‘Legends of the Fall’, or a ‘Gone with the Wind’. It follows the character’s life for several years and covers all almost aspects of human emotion — love, heartbreak, fear, betrayal, abandonment, hope, excitement…
The novel tells the story of Sira Quiroga, a poor Spanish seamstress who inherits a fortune from her estranged father and flees to Morocco during the Spanish Civil War to protect herself and her inheritance. When her lover abandons her and leaves her penniless, Sira forges a new identity and against all odds, becomes a couture designer for the socialite wives of German Nazi officers.
There’s mystery, there’s more love, and it’s the most vivid account of history you could ask for. It’s gripping, it’s colorful and it’s passionate.
“My fear didn’t want to be left behind, so it came with me.” ― María Dueñas, The Time in Between
I had read this book twice already. This year, I read it for the third time. It’s a breathtaking story told against the backdrop of the volatile events of Afghanistan’s last 30 years. It’s an account of two generations; a story about two women — two wives to the same man.
Mariam, Rasheed’s first wife is only 15 years old when he is sent to Kabul to be married. The book first delves into her story; her trauma, her suffering, and her love. Nearly two decades later, we’re introduced to Laila, a local teenager and Rasheed’s second lover.
The two women develop a friendship as strong as the bond between a mother and a daughter. Their lives become unbearable when the Taliban take over. They have no freedom and their life becomes a desperate struggle against starvation, brutality, and fear. But their love leads these women to act in an unexpected way; they become heroes.
This book too is an amazing page-turner. It covers friendship, love, violence, and highlights the strength of the human psyche. It’s a real testament to humanity, and a book not to be missed. I guarantee that every page will leave you wanting more.
“Learn this now and learn it well. Like a compass facing north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam.” ― Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns
Reading fiction is one of the best things that you can do to get out of your own head and practice placing your thoughts, your to-do lists, and your anxiety to one side.
It’s hard to let yourself go and be taken away into the depths of imagination. But it’s one of the most constructive things you can do for yourself.
So take some time over the holidays to unwind for the year; travel to a different part of the world and to a different time.
“I will follow you to the ends of the world.” ― Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns