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What We Gain From Reading Fiction

Its a “snow day” in the ATL today. That means that the temperatures may dip below freezing and the cold rain may solidify into ice or snow. In an an abundance of caution (and probably a fear of a cluster this close to the Super Bowl), the local schools have all decided to implement Online Learning Days.

Since my internal alarm clock still woke me up at 4:00 am and my students will likely not begin their online assignments until later this evening, I’ve been granted the much-needed gift of some unexpected time this morning.

I walked the dogs, wrote some quizzes, did my taxes and went to the gym. But my inbox for work was still silent. So I picked up my Kindle, took a trip to the virtual library and spent the last few hours reading a fictional narrative.

The writing was unremarkable. The characters somewhat unlikable. And the story was somehow confusing and tedious at the same time. (I guess that the library gets runs on ebooks just like the grocery store runs out of milk and eggs during a storm).

But even though the book wasn’t great, the experience was. Because reading fiction has benefits that we often fail to recognize.

Fiction Allows for Distance and Distraction

When we’re sad or anxious or just generally unhappy with our current circumstances, it’s natural to seek escape. Some escapes are certainly healthier and more effective than others.

Surrendering your mind to a story is a wonderful way to give it some rest from whatever is troubling it. Because books demand our attention, they are often more immersive than video or other more passive means of mental escape.

Books allow a free (or cheap) vacation with no packing, no preparation and no TSA lines. The trip away can occupy you for a few minutes or several hours. And as with any holiday, you often find yourself restored upon your return to normal life.

Fiction Provides a New Perspective

Most of us live a relatively homogenous life. We live near people that are like us. Then, we go to work alongside those with similar values and goals. On the weekends, we watch the same shows and visit the same shops. So even when we talk to others, it can sometimes feel as though we’re conversing with a reflection.

Fiction provides a break from the monotony and offers the gift of novelty and a fresh set of eyes. You get to experience what Earth is like from Mars or what it’s like to be a strapping man if you’re a diminutive woman. You’re able to experience new worlds, myriad narrators and countless motivations and backstories.

Once the book is set down, the experience of a different perspective often stays with you, allowing you to be more flexible and open in how you perceive things.

Fiction Encourages Empathy

At the start of this school year, we used a study of the book, Wonder, to anchor our social and emotional wellness lessons. My 6th graders still struggle to identify and analyze their own responses to situations, but they could easily put themselves in Auggie’s shoes and discuss how he might be feeling.

Because so much fiction is written from a first-person perspective, it truly gives us the opportunity to occupy the shoes – and thoughts – of somebody else. It’s much harder to judge somebody’s actions when you’re also privy to their internal world.

When you read a lot of fiction, it primes your brain to ask questions about people you encounter in the world before you jump to conclusions about what is behind their actions.

Fiction Subtly Inspires

So many “self-help” style books can come across as critical and preachy. They have a way of declaring that you’re doing it all wrong while the one doling out advice has advantages that the rest of us mere mortals can only dream of. That tone can be a turn-off as the advice falls on deaf ears and the inspiration rings flat.

Fiction is different. Instead of whopping you upside the head with some positive and trite message, it slowly and surreptitiously makes it way into your consciousness. As a result, you don’t rally your defenses. And you just might close the book feeling inspired by the messages woven explicitly throughout the text or the whispered encouragement from the character’s actions.

Fiction Ignites Curiosity

I’ve long held the belief that we should all strive to respond to the world with more curiosity and kindness. Narratives are crafted to make us ask questions. We are driven to turn the page by a desire to know what will happen next. Perhaps we form a conclusion before it’s revealed, but we always hold the door open to possibly being wrong.

Fiction creates wonder. It prompts us to ask, “What if?” Books may take the form of boxes, but they are limitless in their reach once they’re opened.


Fiction Speaks of Broad Stroke Truths

When I was going through my divorce, I read lots of fiction. Lots of dumb fiction since my brain was still sputtering. Yet even though the selections were far from literary masterpieces, the basic storylines all spoke of life truths for all – love, loss, transformation, redemption and overcoming obstacles.

It doesn’t matter if the story is about werewolves or Civil War soldiers, these broad stroke truths are the heart of every tale because they’re the heart of every life. And sometimes it’s good to reminded of that. That no matter the setting, we’re not alone in our experiences.

Are you aware of the power in YOUR story?

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