Books

Why you should read more fiction.

painting

If you take a philosophy class, most of the writing is pretty dense. Most ancient and modern philosophers can be tough to read, even when their ideas are fascinating.

I didn’t have that problem with Plato, because he took a different approach. Instead of writing plain old philosophical arguments, he wrote “dialogues” — where he would have Socrates debate random Athenians about the definition of virtue, the social contract, and more.

Plato’s dialogues felt less dense and easier to understand, because the narrative gave me a map of what was going on. There was a sense of place: when I read Aristotle, I was off in an idea-cloud, but when I read Plato, I was in a courthouse in Athens, or a jail cell in Athens, or in a public market in Athens.

Fiction vs. Non-Fiction

Most successful people read a lot — but they mainly read non-fiction. That’s because it’s more “serious”: stories are for kids, and non-fiction is for learning, they say. That’s one reason why nonfiction sells so much better than fiction.

How do people learn from non-fiction books? Non-fiction is really good at putting information into the front of your brain. Non-fiction can help you logically understand an idea.

The problem with that is, you don’t always learn best by understanding things logically. The human brain is made of layers upon layers upon layers of brain, each one from a different stage in our evolution. The prefrontal cortex, the “human” layer, is the only one that understands logic. But most layers of our brain understand things like time, place, narrative, and emotion.

In other words, we can comprehend an idea a lot better if we have some sort of concrete example to represent it — like a person, a place, a conversation, or a story.

Non-fiction is considered more “serious” today. But for most of human history, we imparted knowledge via stories — because we remember stories better than we remember random facts. They “stick” to our brains better, the same way that chewing gum is stickier than soap.

Plus, stories are just more fun to read than dense text walls. If you’ve ever stayed up all night reading a novel or binging Netflix, you know what I mean. In fact, studies show that when people get immersed in a story, their brainwaves actually change.

Many bestselling nonfiction writers have figured this out. 90% of a Malcolm Gladwell book is stories, for example.

Michael Lewis’s writing is similar: he talks about important stuff in narrative style, so his books feel like fiction, even though they’re nonfiction.

Reading “The Big Short” can feel like reading fiction, even though it’s nonfiction.

Nassim Taleb took this a step further: he invented 2 fictional characters to illustrate the points in his nonfiction books. In Fooled By Randomness, for example, we see Taleb’s character Nero Tulip suffer for being too careful an investor — at first. His colleagues all get huge bonus checks and drive Ferraris, while Tulip is chided for his poor performance.

But then, when the economy crashes, all his colleagues are sent packing while he keeps his job.

This drives Taleb’s point home a lot harder than if he had just told us straight-up, because we empathize with Nero Tulip. We feel his emotions at every stage. And we remember emotions much better than we remember facts.

Better Lessons

Carl Sagan spoke out against religion his entire life. But in his one novel, Contact, he’s actually fairly friendly to religion.

Palmer Joss, the scientist main character’s religious confidante, is an honorable and virtuous person. The protagonist grows to trust him.

And then at the end of the novel, the protagonist has what basically amounts to a religious revelation — but no one believes her. This helps us understand people who believe they’ve had bona fide religious awakenings. This is the sort of thing Sagan never would’ve done in a nonfiction book.

When you read nonfiction, you have to take whatever the author says for granted. If they have an agenda then they will impart that agenda on you. And if you walked into the book without an existing opinion, you’ll walk away from the book agreeing with the author.

But when you read fiction, you have to make up your own mind. There’s not always a clear “lesson”. Instead, you’re left to interpret the facts for yourself and make up your own mind

The flaw in that is that nonfiction can only teach you a lesson you’re already prepared to learn. But the advantage is that with fiction, you can often learn a lesson that the author didn’t really intend.

That’s because fictional stories have to reflect the real world, otherwise people find them unrealistic and put them down. When you write a novel, it has to make sense, meaning you have to include details that don’t necessarily make your point. Often these details give your work meaning that you didn’t intend to give it.

That means a right-wing author can accidentally put a left-wing lesson into their books, and vice versa.

The best example of this is probably the All In The Family character Archie Bunker. Archie Bunker is an outspoken supporter of Richard Nixon and a grouchy family-values conservative. Archie Bunker is played by Carroll O’Connor, a staunch democrat who doesn’t respect people like Archie Bunker in the real world. Archie Bunker is meant to be a caricature of a casual racist.

But instead, a lot of people saw him as a working-class hero. Even Sammy Davis Jr., who was both black and Jewish, said he liked Archie because he was honest and open and because he was tough. They could forgive him for some of his prejudice because it was clear he was a good person at heart.

On the other side of the coin is Lisa Simpson. Lisa’s meant as a parody of a smug liberal girl who thinks she knows everything. She wasn’t meant to be a likable character, yet a lot of people like her.

The same thing happened with Ron Swanson, the libertarian character in Parks And Recreation. He was meant as a satire of libertarianism, and Nick Offerman, who plays Ron Swanson, has tried to publicly distance himself from a lot of what Ron said. But a lot of people loved Ron Swanson. Today, if you go in a libertarian social media group, you’ll see lots of memes about Ron Swanson.

Fiction Books Can Say More Controversial Stuff.

In 1961, Joseph Heller published Catch-22, one of the most seditious novels of all time.

He says that the military is a self-serving institution and that most of the generals who call the shots only want to save their own skin. He criticizes the absurdity of military contractors and loyalty oaths. An old man in a whorehouse tells us that America will collapse one day, probably sooner than we think. And the main character rebels against his superior officers and eventually runs away to Sweden, and we’re supposed to cheer him on.

Heller even goes so far as to suggest that patriotism itself is a scam, and that people should fight for themselves rather than their country.

If Heller had written the same ideas at the same time in a nonfiction book, he would’ve been a pariah. They would have called him a traitor, and they would’ve denounced his book as scandalous. But instead, he became a beloved bestselling author. At one point, he was even invited to a military college to discuss Catch-22 with their English department.

In nonfiction form, it would’ve felt like he was forcing his ideas down your throat. But in fiction form, people loved him. It was kind of like a dog whistle: you only understand the parts you’re ready for, and you don’t get threatened by the parts you’re not ready for.

In the 1950’s, the right became incredibly culturally powerful, and they used their cultural power to censor their political opponents. You could get fired from your job for saying something that the right interpreted as “seditious”.

Today, the left is incredibly culturally powerful, and they use their cultural power to censor their political opponents. You can get fired from your job for saying something the left interprets as bigoted.

But we give good satire a pass. The right didn’t go after Joseph Heller for saying this stuff. The left doesn’t go after South Park for mocking social justice.

This is really important, because society kinda needs a little criticism sometimes. We need to be able to say stuff we’re not allowed to say, otherwise we will morally stagnate. And doing your criticism in narrative form helps soften the blow and reduces triggeration.

What’s The Right Balance?

Today, most of the best ideas are in nonfiction books. That’s because nonfiction writing is more straightforward, and because it pays a lot better.

That means if you’re reading to learn, you probably want to read more nonfiction than fiction.

However, fiction books can tell you things that nonfiction books can’t… so you can’t just dismiss them. They’re an important part of your information diet.

Plus, reading fiction feels less like work than reading nonfiction. It gives you a little prize you can look forward to.

I think the right nonfiction to fiction ratio is probably 70/30. If you read 12 books a year, try to make 3 or 4 of them novels.

Adding Narrative

If you’re writing a nonfiction book, try to make it as much of a narrative as possible. Instead of hitting your reader over the head with facts, use examples from real life.

You can even use fictional characters like Nassim Taleb does. People will enjoy your writing more, and they’ll remember it better.

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