The Practicality of Reading Novels

Empathy, social acumen, storytelling.

We think of practicality as actions that have a direct, quantifiable payoff. The said payoff of reading books “should be” things like learning necessary facts, building “hard” skills, earning certificates of achievements, and the like. This thinking is along the lines of a vending machine: you put in a dollar and you get a soda can out of the machine. Otherwise, it’s a waste of your time, right? We have to live in the real world and be practical!

Reading novels does little of the above. Yet it gives you even more. It develops life skills, the stuff they don’t (and can’t) teach you in school yet deeply affects your future happiness and productivity.

The Practicality of Empathy

As George R. R. Martin writes in the often plodding, but occasionally thrilling A Dance with Dragons, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies.The man who never reads lives only one.” That’s empathy, ladies and gentlemen.

Science agrees with lil’ Georgie here. Emory University’s Center of Neuropolicy published a study in 2013 showing increased brain connectivity in the left temporal cortex and the central sulcus during and after reading a novel. These areas are associated with language receptivity and sensory motor functions, respectively. The heightened connectivity in these regions lasted up to five days after reading a novel.

Brain connectivity refers to the “patterns” of neural activity. In this case, reading novels (but not non-fiction) stimulated both the language and the sensory areas in the brain … just as visualization does. Which means that as you read a passage from a novel, your brain reacts as if you were actually experiencing the written events and by extension, feeling as if you are the person in that situation. That means that when you’re reading Anna Karenina, you’re experiencing Anna’s loneliness and isolation as she lives with her aloof husband.The fancy neurological term for this is embodied cognition, but I just call it empathy.

Now we must confront the question of the practicality of empathy. It’s such a hippy-dippy and new-ager term that we have lost all sense of its usefulness. But it is useful. In an increasingly diverse workplace and society (thanks to immigration and globalization), we can no longer assume that our colleagues and neighbors come from similar backgrounds as we do. More likely, they’ll be quite different people and we better learn how to relate to them or risk unnecessary strife. (More on this later.)

Living a thousand lives also might inoculate us to extreme emotions and improve mental health. A New Yorker article attributes the mental health benefits of reading to increased empathy and the mediative effect elicited by reading. I think it goes even deeper. Since reading novels allows your mind to experience a dizzyingly wide range of situations and emotions as if you were there, you gain experience in managing these emotions. You might feel any emotion from anger to joy in the safe confines of your reading chair. When life takes a turn for the worse as it is wont to do, you have enough emotional armor to deal with it without a nervous breakdown. As they say, practice makes progress. Maybe reading novels will prepare you for the inevitable dips in your life.

The Value of Social Acumen

The power of empathy gives you a very valuable skill in our inherently social world: social acumen.

A sharp sense of empathy lends itself to well-honed social skills. If you can “put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” you can also read subtle social cues better. A 2013 study confirms this logical corollary. After reading literary fiction — sorry, no popular fiction or literary non-fiction — subjects performed significantly better on empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence tests.

Social skills have become as essential in the workplace as the ability to operate a computer. It’s hard to get around working with others in today’s increasingly complex and sophisticated workplace that relies on teamwork to generate output. Social acumen enables you to interact with others more productively and avoid poisonous relationships that could tank your career. Being a good judge of a person’s character can reap unimaginable rewards. (All of the above also applies to your personal life. Picking the wrong spouse wreaks havoc on your mental health and bank account.)

Instead of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, try Austen or Chekov. (Yes, I just discredited the entire self-improvement industry right there.)

Storytelling as an Invaluable Skill

I like to say, “If you want to change someone’s mind, tell them a good story.” This ability to change people’s minds is a superpower indeed.

Fiction has a much deeper emphasis on storytelling compared to non-fiction (although exceptions apply). It employs storytelling devices such as structure, narrative, dramatic pauses, and so on. If you read enough fiction, you’ll absorb some of these storytelling flairs.

We now live in a world where we must often persuade others to get things done. Maybe you’re an entrepreneur who wants to convince a VC to invest in your company. Maybe you’re a salesperson hawking anything from insurance to helicopters. Or maybe you’re simply trying to get a raise or get onto a certain team. This truism also extends to the personal realm. Maybe you want to ask that beautiful man or woman out on a date. Or perhaps you want to resolve a family conflict that has divided your family for years. Whatever it is that you want to achieve, telling a damn good story will help you achieve that goal.

The esteemed investor, Charlie Munger, understands the power of emotional storytelling. In his speech, ”The Psychology of Human Misjudgment,” he tells the story of Gutfreund, the infamous CEO of Salomon Brothers, and his very white-shoe general counsel, Feuerstein. When Gutfreund consulted Feuerstein about a “little irregularity” and Salomon’s duty to report it, the lawyer gave a very lawyerly and dry answer. “It’s not our legal duty to report, but you have to do it as a matter of prudence.”

Gutfreund didn’t report it. The little irregularity turned out not to be so little and embroiled the whole company in a scandal. Gutfreund went down in a ball of flames and took Feuerstein down with him.

Charlie Munger says that Feuerstein should’ve said, “You have to report it. If you don’t, you’ll be ruined, utterly ruined.” If Feuerstein had been a better storyteller, he would’ve known that simply saying something as weak (and lawyerly) as “matter of prudence” wouldn’t cut it.

You have to appeal to people’s emotions to persuade them, not their reason. Reading fiction will teach you how to do that.

Although I do wonder if the media has learned this lesson too well. Use this skill wisely and in moderation. Otherwise, we’ll have everyone orating at the grocery store when they want to reach for the ketchup.

I’m not even done listing all of the benefits of reading fiction. So far, we have increased empathy, potential fortification of one’s mental health, heightened social acumen, and powers of persuasion. Sounds pretty piratical to me. So … why don’t you pick up a nice novel instead of watching TV tonight? Happy reading!

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