The Case for Reading Fiction

I love this article from the Harvard Business Review! It’s another article documenting the neurological, psychological, and social benefits of reading fiction. There have been several such over the past few years.

The Case for Reading Fiction” by Christine Seifert
Published by Harvard Business Review, March 6, 2020

I love that we’re beginning to accept reading fiction as something that’s good for us on a deeper level than just entertainment and escapism (not that entertainment and escapism aren’t valuable in-and-of themselves!) Complex fiction builds empathy, connection, social intelligence, and theory of mind. It boosts creativity, both for new ideas and for problem solving. It improves our ability to grapple more productively with the complexity of the world we live in.

I love that businesses are beginning to realize the value of having employees who are educated beyond the requirements of job training.

And it’s not just reading fiction which presents these benefits: it can come from powerful storytelling in any format. Oral stories, theater, movies and television, music, visual arts. All of it, so long as it’s complex and nuanced. Stories are how we know who we are, how we’re both the same and different from one another, and how we relate to our world.

But this article also frustrates me. This is where I turn into a curmudgeon and tell you all:

I told you so!

Storytellers have known all of this for millennia. None of this is new wisdom. This is why I got into theater when I was younger: I believe with all my soul that stories make the world a better place. It’s why I’m a librarian now. It’s why I’ve always wanted to be a writer.

But for most modern history, especially since the Industrial Age, and certainly for my entire life, arts and humanities have been disparaged and devalued as subjects unworthy of serious study or work.

We’re beginning to understand the value of storytelling now mostly because we’ve become aware of how it can benefit business. Why does our culture only take these ideas seriously when they’ve been co-opted for bottom line profit?

This growing awareness of how storytelling is good for us is welcome. I’m especially grateful for the new scientifically rigorous understanding of the brain processes underlying it. But I wish we would learn to see storytelling as valuable for its own sake. Because it’s good for us to be better people and not just because it makes business better.

Not that business endeavors can’t be good and important, too. There are reasons why so much human effort and ingenuity are put toward it. Anything which makes the work of business more humane is to be celebrated! And it’s not like we can’t engage stories for multiple—and even contradictory—reasons concurrently…

See, it’s complex and nuanced and here I am trying to force the issue into an reductive binary. This is exactly what engaging with stories can counteract.

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