“I don’t read fiction,” said a young tech entrepreneur at the dinner party I was attending. “I like to read practical books that have stuff I can actually use.” He smirked.
I bit my lower lip and considered taking on the project of persuading him that reading literature did in fact provide practical benefits. But, for the sake of our newly formed acquaintance, I resisted the urge.
This article is my outlet for that inner eruption of reasons that reading literature can help not only the poet or the dreamer, but the tech entrepreneur, the police officer, and anyone else who’s trying to successfully navigate and appreciate the complicated world we inhabit.
The three reasons I’ll discuss won’t be the ones you normally hear. Enough has been written about how it builds your vocabulary, increases your empathy, and reduces stress.
My focus is on how reading literature changes the way you view and interact with the world for the better. I guess you could say that’s the thread that strings these three reasons together.
Hope you enjoy it!
You Gain a New Set of Eyes
“He would be one of the eyes through which the world saw, one of the ears through which it heard, one of the hearts through which it felt.” — Jack London, Martin Eden
This is a quote from my favorite novel, Martin Eden,
It describes Martin’s thoughts at the moment he officially decides to become a writer.
When I first read this quote, I thought that it meant that he, as a writer, would record what he saw, heard, thought, and felt, and that people would read his books and thus see, hear, and feel what he recorded.
It was only later in my journey as a reader that this quote took on a whole other meaning, one much more profound.
I discovered that Martin was declaring that he would pass his eyes, ears, heart, and mind to his readers, and that they could use them when interacting with the world, not just when they were reading his writing.
He wanted to inspire his readers so much that they would take his brain with them in their daily life, consciously or involuntarily seeing the world as he would if it were him in their shoes.
I’ve had this experience before of channeling a writer I love to help me see the world in a different way.
Seeing a Groundhog as a Noble Greek Soldier
A few days ago my girlfriend’s dog was in a fight with a large groundhog that was almost its size.
When I ran out the door into the yard to try to separate the two, the groundhog was standing its ground, delivering pinpointed bites at the dog whenever it lunged.
I had a broom in one hand that I was using as a sort of wall between the two enemies.
And I was using the other hand to try to grab the frantically running dog, circling its victim. By the time I managed to snatch the collar, the dog was already bleeding profusely from its tongue and mouth.
As I dragged her resistant body indoors, I glanced back at the groundhog, standing there tall and proud. How honorable it looked!
I wanted to get out there and shake its hand for the way it stood with such composure in the face of almost certain death.
When explaining the event to her family later on, I spent what was probably far too much time recounting the bravery and heroics of the groundhog, for this was obviously not the part of the story that mattered to them.
But it was the part that stuck with me, and I was confused as to why that rodent left such a positive impression on me, especially when it was fighting a dog I dearly loved.
Upon reflection, I realized that the way I was viewing this groundhog, as some fearless ancient warrior, was strikingly similar to the way Thoreau viewed the fighting ants in his essay The Battle of the Ants, which I had read recently.
It was as if my mind had been replaced with Thoreau for that event, with great results — life was interesting, and I learned a bit about the importance of bravery from a rodent that in reality was only doing what was necessary.
Art and Literature Make the World More Interesting
This is but one example of seeing an event through the eyes of a writer I love. I often see people as Dickens might, as humorous, deserving of love despite their flaws, and most of all, deeply interesting.
And that, the ability to see things that are often considered ordinary as interesting, is a phenomenal superpower that makes life so much more fun and exciting.
“Victor Shklovsky argued that the essential purpose of art is to overcome the deadening effects of habit by representing familiar things in unfamiliar ways: Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war .. . And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stony stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.” — David Lodge, The Art of Fiction
Try it Yourself
If you’ve read anything good lately, go out into the world and try to see some of the quotidian elements of life as the writer might.
You might find yourself amused at the most ordinary of spectacles, having put on your new pair of glasses.
By the way, check my article on how to create an annual reading plan if you want to start reading more books each year.
You Become More Articulate
Have you ever wanted to express some lofty thought or describe some recent experience but lacked the words to do so?
How about struggling to answer a question as simple as “what did you think of Rome?”
Sometimes all that comes to mind for me are the basics — the weather was nice, the people were friendly, the food was amazing. It happens to me all the time.
These are fine answers for basic small talk, but in those occasional circumstances when you want to come across as considered and thoughtful, a bit of specificity is required.
I wish I could say that I always responded to questions like “how’d you like the film?” with an original and sophisticated opinion, but I usually just end up saying canned phrases.
However, I have noticed that the more I read great fiction, the greater my ability to say something unique about a place I just visited, a book I just read, or an event I just attended.
My suspicion is that it’s because I’ve been exposed to so many wonderful descriptions of such things in the novels I’ve read, and that these descriptions inspire my own.
After reading Donna Tartt write about her Classics professor, I feel that I now have some phrases to use to describe any professor in my life.
Essentially, she’s furnished me with vocabulary words that I now associate with professors and can draw the ones that match the given professor I’m tasked with describing.
Of course, helping you respond to questions isn’t the only way that fiction makes you more articulate.
By exposing you to lots of words and eloquent arrangements of them, great literature positively rubs off on your thinking and your speech.
Usually this happens gradually in a subtle way. Don’t expect to start talking like a 19th century British intellectual after reading a Dickens novel. I’m not sure that would be a good thing.
What will happen is you’ll notice yourself putting words together more effectively, and you’ll find that you have more words at your disposal.
Want a book-centric curriculum to self-learn English literature? Check out my 14-book reading plan for beginners.
You Notice More About the World & People Around You
The best writers also happen to be the best noticers, the keenest observers. As the great novelist and literary critic Henry James once wrote,
“A writer is someone on whom nothing is lost.”
— Henry James
When you read a great work of literature, you’re in essence watching a writer notice things about people, ideas, and society.
And just like an infant learns to speak by listening to and emulating their parents, you’re learning to notice whenever you watch the writer perform this act.
The writer pays attention to, thinks about, and sees aspects of reality that would’ve escaped your vision or imagination.
When the writer describes the way a tree sways in the wind, you now have a new thing to pay attention to, and a vocabulary to describe it to yourself in your mind.
This benefit often happens unconsciously. After a year of reading great literature, I’m sure that you’ll start to pick up on more going on around you.
If you read 100 books by nature writers, even the smallest discoloration in moss on the side of a tree may be enough to catch and hold your attention during a walk in the woods.
A Tip for How to Read More Books This Year
Want to read more books this year but can’t find the time?
Consider getting an Audible membership to listen to audiobooks on the go. They offer a 30-day free trial where you get 2 free books to start. I like using Audible for the less dense books on my reading list.
Right now I’m listening to The Eye of the World (a fantasy book), so I can spend my limited eye power and concentration on the harder books in philosophy, history and literature.
Self-Study Great Literature
I hope that this was at least slightly convincing to any of you who needed some motivation to read more fiction. I hope it changed some minds.
If you’re someone who wants to take your literary studies to the next level, I recommend reading my 12-step guide for how to learn literature on your own.
There you’ll find a systematic approach to studying the discipline along with helpful materials in the forms of novels, textbooks, and online courses.