Between Christmas – or Romjul, for those of you with more Nordic tastes, is a wonderful time of year to read. But not doomscrolling on Twitter, hating reading your favorite tabloid in secret, or even picking up that history book you got for Christmas — all of that can wait. It’s much more a time, I think, to lose yourself completely in a great work of fiction. (The only columns you should read, of course, are those dedicated to this research.)
There is nothing cozier than curling up on the sofa, tucking into bed or – my particular favorite – soaking in a deep, warm bath with a good novel, being transported to distant lands, distant times or the minds of strange characters , sex-obsessed and sadists. (Or maybe it’s just me; I’m currently reading Philip Roth.)
To many of you this will seem a bit self-indulgent, and I’m not immune to such concerns: my grandmother used to say that you should never read a novel before dark because it’s “non-serious stuff”. Male readers might be particularly inclined to think this way: studies suggest that just 20% of men read fiction, while 64% of novels sold in 2021 in Britain were bought by women.
But reading novels is more than just simple hygge-hedonism I go out. It was Aristotle himself who said that “poetry is something more philosophical and higher than history, because poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular”.
Aristotle was writing before the novel arose as an art form, but his argument can be applied to fiction more broadly. In a history book, a narrative imposes itself on a messy jumble of events; the stories are told as if they proceed in an orderly and even rational way. This is not a criticism; it’s just the nature of the medium. With a novel, however, there is no such imposition: the thing itself and the narration; there is no alternative version of the truth.
A novelist is like a magician: even if he writes fiction, he has a certain authenticity, because we understand that we are reading something that is not real. And as Aristotle suggests, it is this that allows characters in a novel to seem somehow more real to us than historical figures; each one represents some sort of embodiment of the human condition that we can relate to.
Many studies have found that reading works of “literary fiction” — as opposed to nonfiction or pop fiction — increases empathy and emotional intelligence. This is because the reader is exposed to a much wider range of experiences and cultures than they would encounter in real life, which helps them understand that other people have beliefs, desires and perspectives that differ, sometimes greatly, from their own. .
A recent study, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found that those who had grown up reading literary fiction had “a more complex world view” than those who did not. The authors define this as characterized by a few factors. One is “increased attributive complexity”: these people are comfortable with ambiguity and can understand behavior in terms of complex systems. Another is lower “psychological essentialism” – the idea that human behavior can be explained by certain immutable characteristics.
“Meeting difference, meeting different minds, meeting different types of sociability helps reinforce this belief in the complexity of the world,” Nick Buttrick, the study’s lead author and professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, tells me. “If you have ever met only one kind of mind. . . and if you’re just reading . . . things that are predictable, safe, stable, people end up having a world view that isn’t complex, because that’s what you are repeatedly reinforced with.
The study echoed another from 2013, which found that those who read literary fiction had a lower need for cognitive closure: a desire to remove ambiguity and arrive at firm conclusions even if they are incorrect or irrational.
In a world so teeming with polarized politics, anything that can help build more complex and nuanced worldviews should be embraced. So I hope I’ve convinced all you life-hackers and productivity gurus that you can’t actually “hack” the benefits of reading a great novel.
But I’m also partly writing this column to remind myself to read more—only six succeeded this year. Next year, I’ll aim for one a month, minimum. Maybe I’ll even allow myself to read them during the day on occasion. Why they I am actually very serious stuff, grandma.