I am a truly voracious reader. From the most frivolous BuzzFeed listicle to an eloquent book on mortality, there is almost no form of content that I don't enjoy. But if I had to play favourites, I'd definitely choose classic fiction as my drug of choice.
Yet time and time again, I meet highly intelligent people with a seeming antipathy for fiction. Without generalising, these are usually men, and they're hardly Philistines; some enjoy the Tate Modern, some devour the driest tomes on Keynesian economics, and others (apparently) delight in classical music. But they see novels, whether classic English literature or the latest detective thriller, as unworthy of their attention. While it's not for me to tell people what to read or how to spend their time, I have to disagree.
Reading fiction isn't just a highly enjoyable pastime; it also has significant value. On a completely personal level, I find that immersing myself in a great classic novel such as Bleak House provides respite from day-to-day stresses. It's no wonder why articles on sleeping better prescribe a small dose of fiction before bed! I've also found that this intrinsically solitary pursuit can be a great way to make friends. For instance, my love of novels led me to join a book club, which provided material for an earlier blog post.
Apart from enabling relaxation, a range of studies indicates that reading fiction provides other psychological gains. In 2013, two psychologists, Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd, published a paper in Science, which argued that reading classic literature could help foster 'soft skills'. Their experiment found that the subjects who read extracts from literary novels, and then immediately took tests measuring empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence (looking at photos of people's eyes and guessing what emotions they might be going through), significantly outperformed other subjects who read serious nonfiction or genre fiction. Another study found that engrossing oneself in a novel can enhance connectivity in the brain and brain function. While these studies obviously aren't conclusive, they do indicate that regular contact with fiction can foster greater emotional intelligence and improve brain plasticity, attributes that we'll need throughout our lives.
Considering its many benefits, it appears that it's not fiction, but rather our attitudes that need adjustment. I hope that we can distance ourselves from this hyper-masculine and rationalist attitude that views reading fiction as useless simply because it doesn't directly mirror real life. Whatever that is.
And, for once, I'd love to see public figures that encourage their fans to love reading novels, as opposed to catering to the lowest common denominator. Just imagine how many more young women would embrace fiction if Taylor Swift waxed lyrical about Dostoyevsky, for example, or if Noel Gallagher had praised George Orwell back in the day, rather than declaring fiction a 'fucking waste of time'.
Because it absolutely isn't. Without a shadow of a doubt, reading novels or imaginative poetry is one of the best sources of personal and professional enrichment out there.