Letter to a Friend: Is Reading Fiction A Waste Of Time?

I saw your question the other night, and my heart began to palpitate. Nothing serious. After drinking some water, I am calm and steady, but I need to answer your question: is reading fiction a waste of time?

It seems simple not to read fiction, and I am worried about the things you’re missing.

I want to tell you why you should read fiction, but I can’t start explaining to you all the ways fiction had value to me without talking about a point in my life when I read a fiction story and screamed, “this is so pointless.” 

It was the first time I read One Who Walks Away From Omelas. It felt so pointless. It’s like reading something in a language you don’t understand.

I put the story down and blamed myself for reading it. The sad part is that an author recommended it. I could not understand why Zadie Smith would want to punish me like that. 

So, I left it.

I believe you have felt this way before, and it can ruin your desire for anything that has fiction on the book cover, but I can’t stop slapping myself for the intellectual value you’re missing out on if you are not a fiction reader.

I reread the short story some months later. This second read was the beginning of a wild revelation. I could see the pictures of the great writer Ursula K. Leguin was portraying. 

Omelas isn’t just a city. Omelas is life. It is our world as it is right now, our world as it has always been — divided, sacrificial, and unfair. But that’s another post entirely. Let’s get to the point of my letter to you.

Benefits of Reading Fiction

Some say fiction is just for entertainment. This is so wrong.

But I understand why you probably have said that, and I will try my best to give you reasons to start rereading fiction.

#1. Fiction Presents the Details and Lets You Do the Math

Dear friend, do you remember the biggest mistake you’ve ever made? Most importantly, how did you realize the lessons it taught you? 

You reflect on it on your own.

It’s how life works. If you start a business or go on a journey, no one will hold your hands and tell you the lessons life teaches you. Instead, it is up to you to pause, reflect, and realize the lessons the story presents. And usually, they are highly intellectual. 

I know this is hard. It’s why many people say fiction has no intellectual value. It is hard to think, reflect, and detect the lessons embedded in the story without someone pointing them out. But it’s something you can practice by paying attention to when you find an exciting line  — that makes you pause and take a deep breath —  and recognize it as pure gold. 

Looking for recommendations on what to read? Try East of Eden.

For me, I underline them and reflect on them again and again. Then, when I finish the whole fiction book, I reflect on it. I am a writer, and fiction inspires me. I see it as an opportunity to seek something extraordinary.

So, is reading fiction a waste of time? The answer is no. Unlike non-fiction, fiction gives you the freedom to interpret a book the way you like. My interpretation of The Handmaid’s Tale can be different from yours, which is the beauty of literature.

#2. Fiction makes you an interesting person

When you ask me why you should read fiction, I wonder if you are serious. But when you take it further and say fiction is a waste of time, it makes me remember this joke about university professors.

I like university professors, but we shouldn’t hold them up as the high watermark of all human achievement. They’re just a form of life; another form of life. But they’re rather curious, and I say this out of affection for them. There’s something curious about professors, in my experience; not all of them, but typically. They live in their heads. They live up there and slightly to one side. They’re disembodied in a kind of literal way. They look upon their body as a form of transport for their heads, don’t they? It’s a way of getting their head to meetings.

Ken Robinson, Do schools kill creativity?

Every interesting person I know is a fiction reader, but that depends on what I mean by interesting. If I invite you for dinner, will you flirt and talk about an interesting scene from a book? Or will you talk about physics and the astrological importance of the cosmos? 

You can’t be interesting when you seek intellectual value from everything you read. Sometimes, read for fun, give your brain the room to relax, and the opportunity to live in another person’s world. 

Fiction is a way of learning about things without clearly declaring the topic. For example, Things Fall Apart is an educational masterpiece about the Igbo culture. Like Teju Cole said, after reading fiction, take a step further to educate yourself about the theme, and you have cemented your knowledge on a deeper level. It is like experiencing the same information through different lenses. I like to imagine an aerial view, and the other puts you on the ground where things are happening. The latter is fiction, but that depends if the point of view is third person limited or just a third person omniscient.

Researchers say reading fiction helps you develop empathy and helps you perform better in interviews.

Reading better can improve your writing skill as well as critical thinking.

They also say reading short stories improves open-mindedness and creativity. People who read fiction regularly don’t need to be taught to be as open to new ideas, topics, things, races, activities, etc., as people who don’t. How else do you describe an interesting person? 

So, is reading fiction good for you? The research says, ‘absolutely.’

#3. Reading fiction stretches your subconscious mind without boring you.

In my opinion, to truly understand someone else’s problems is to live in their head for a while and monitor their thoughts and views about specific topics. Fiction helps you do that on a deeper level. 

And, as I said, fiction just presents you with the info. You must interpret it as you please, significantly benefiting your cognitive thinking

Some of us have imagined — however briefly — what to do in case of an apocalypse, Zombies invading the earth, or how to fight vampires. But 99% have never witnessed an apocalypse and will never witness one. So instead, we are taught how to imagine strange scenarios and deal with them — such as what to do when one is shot accidentally or how to start a fire without having matches. 

One reason why fiction is better than non-fiction is that we do not set out to be educated. Mostly, we pursue entertainment and get educated along the line. Of course, everyone with a funny teacher will know this is an effective form of teaching, but you often get carried away in the laughter.

Lessons can be memorable when reading fiction because it goes side by side with entertainment, but since you may never need this info in real life, you push it to the back of your mind. And if you act on instinct in certain situations in the future, you’ll wonder where you learn that from, forgetting if you ever read from a fiction book. 

Do you still think is reading fiction a waste of time?

#4. Fiction is a game between a couple of minds

To finalize why you should read fiction, I want you to imagine again the most inciting fiction you have ever read. 

You enter an arena without knowing it’s an ambush. You care about your life, your dog, and your mother; if you get killed, your world will be shattered. We can’t see a way out for you, but somehow, an opportunity emerges. 

The above paragraph is from my short story. The thing is, I wrote it in first POV, and the thoughts of the characters become that of the readers. It’s a game. 

Fiction gives you all the details, and then you start playing the game of what happened next, what is he doing, why is he doing that ridiculous thing, and the more you think now, the more it leads you down the road to one mighty revelation or fights. Here, you start breathing faster and hope a resolution is reached on time. 

You are in a game. You are playing against the mind of an imagined being — and if you like to think about it deeply, the mind created the book. 

The surprising power of reading fiction is many, but this is where you think of yourself as a detective, adventurer, traveller, or moth. Simply put, you are living another person’s life, fighting battles, and running their race. Yet, whatever lessons or mysteries they uncover, you are doing with them. 

Dear friend, is that not an intellectual value? 

I hope you pick a fiction book that interests you and change your mind about it. 

It’s okay if you don’t mind. So many people live one life and enjoy it to the fullest. 

Learn how to write a novel.

One more thing: Is reading fiction better than watching television?

Well, yes. It often depends on what you’re watching and how you’re watching it, which is also the same for fiction. It’s all about quality.

However, this argument is not the same for non-fiction. It’s like being in a classroom with one teacher, and it doesn’t allow you to explore your imagination in fun ways.

A Final Suggestion

So, is reading fiction a waste of time? The answer is no.

Now that you have realized the benefits of reading fiction, I have some advice for you. First, pick something interesting whose plots promise a theme. These are the ones that usually spell out the intellectual benefits more clearly. Overall, fiction books demand more from you regarding reading between the lines and reflecting on them. Read as many books as you want, and stop saying fiction is a waste of time. It’s not.