As an English lecturer, students frequently ask me if it is preferable to read fiction books rather than non-fiction. At first, I am especially thrilled that my students are interested in reading, but I also find the question to be intriguing, if not baffling: What is behind the idea that reading non-fiction is better than reading fiction? And is this necessarily true?
It seems that there’s a perception that fiction may “merely” be enjoyable, whereas non-fiction can be intellectually stimulating. But would being engrossed with a good book actually be better and more important for us to pursue than choosing to read a non-fiction book over literary fiction?
Well, I’ve found out that reading fiction can also bring a host of advantages to readers. Several studies reveal that reading fiction improves empathy and thus makes one more likely to suspend judgement of different values and participate in compassionate behaviour. Isn’t it true that those fairy tales that were read to us when we were young helped us with our concept of what is right and what is wrong?
Through reading fiction, our imagination and creativity can blossom. Literary fiction is an incredible example of art because it allows remarkable room for our own interpretation. Simply put, you’re given a direction, but you create the path. With expanded creativity, you discover new ideas that can take any idea to the next level.
More than just arousing our imaginations, it is also by reading fiction such as Jane Austen’s novels that I have found myself, and in the process, I have realised my true emotions when reading, as well as my wants and needs. When we read, the fetters of social pressure are released, and we find ourselves looking at life from the perspective we’ve always believed to be true but hid from ourselves and others. This helps us discern our most important priorities, including goals for personal improvement.
Reading can also provide us with a sense of calm in just a few minutes. A 2009 study by researchers from the University of Sussex revealed that reading for six minutes can help us reduce our stress levels by up to 68%. This could be because, as we focus on the emerging plot, our minds begin to wander and relax.
But I still have to give credit to non-fiction works because it is from them that we gain knowledge (useful facts and information). It is fiction that reveals wisdom, or the ability to apply knowledge, through exposure to various intricate and imagined situations.
Whether you are a student or otherwise, you will read: be it a newspaper, poem, biography, etc. Arguably, curling up with a captivating novel every now and then may not be ‘practical’ in that it will not help us gain “practical knowledge”, but it should remain a part of our lives.
In an increasingly utilitarian, technology-oriented society, fiction has become ever more relevant. It is more relevant than non-fiction because it possesses the ability to make us humans. As a lecturer, I certainly believe that novels, with each crispy page, help us discover a better version of ourselves.
Rona dela Rosa is an associate professor at the Polytechnic College of the City of Meycauyan.