This week, I had the pleasure of reviewing and recommending Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, one of just seven non-fiction books on my reading list. I’ve powered through a lot of fiction so far for Keeping Up With The Penguins, so switching to a non-fiction book was a great change of pace.
It got me to thinking: why do we choose fiction over non-fiction, or vice versa? Is one better than the other? I thought I’d break down the literature wars: fiction versus non-fiction.
Who’s Reading What?
There have been a few different surveys on this subject, and they all show pretty much the same thing. For starters, there’s a significant gender differential: men lean towards non-fiction, while women lean towards fiction. There’s also an age difference, with young readers far more likely to read fiction, while older readers (especially baby boomers) prefer non-fiction. Basically, you can safely assume that the majority of young women are going to prefer novels, while male baby boomers are going to want a biography or a popular science book.
I’m not sure how much that really tells us, though. Instead, I started to think about the fiction versus non-fiction debate in terms of a metaphor. Something like this: non-fiction is the main course, and fiction is dessert. They serve different purposes, and having too much of one and not enough of the other is ultimately dissatisfying. The “right” ratio, though, depends almost entirely on someone’s personal preference (and yes, maybe that’s influenced by your age or gender, but it will vary widely regardless).
Some people just “aren’t dessert people”, and they’d rather have a second helping of chicken while everyone else scoops out the ice cream. Other people happily forego the main course altogether and have dessert-for-dinner. In the middle are the majority, people who prefer some reasonable combination of the two most of the time. That’s definitely where I fall.
Why Storytelling Matters
Noel Gallagher once famously told GQ Magazine that he thought fiction novels were a “waste of time”, and he’s not the only one who feels that way. There is a perception among some readers that non-fiction is somehow “smarter” than fiction. This is usually rooted in the idea that non-fiction deals in facts and data, while fiction falls into the realm of “escapist storytelling”.
However, the reality (and the science!) doesn’t quite back that up. In fact, non-fiction is often limited in its ability to communicate ideas and concepts because it is inextricably tied to objective realities. This is where fiction’s flexibility becomes its greatest asset.
Take a book like Brave New World, for instance: Aldous Huxley communicated some very important ideas about society and power through the creation of a imaginary future world. Setting the story in this fictional context created an engaging, provoking piece of work that people wanted to read. If Huxley had written a dry treatise on what he thought was wrong with the way society was headed, would we still consider it a classic? Would we still teach it in the classroom today? Probably not. (And you can check out my full review of Brave New World here, if that’s piqued your interest.)
Why Logic Matters
Fiction is not without its limitations. The only “requirement” of fiction is that it makes logical sense to the reader, no matter how preposterous the premise. If I may get a bit pretentious for a second, this idea goes all the way back to Aristotle. He told us, in Poetics, that logic is all that’s necessary to hold a story’s plot together. Readers will only accept a fictional story if the plot follows some kind of logical sequence – no one teaches the reader what this logic is, their brains make those computations all on their own, but it has to be there.
In one sense, this is great, because the more logical cause-and-effect fiction we read, the better we become at understanding and interpreting these concepts (albeit subconsciously).
But have you ever heard that old maxim the truth is stranger than fiction? So many writers have stories about being unable to publish their non-fiction work, purely because it doesn’t follow these logical rules. To make another slightly-pretentious call-out, it was Mark Twain who said “Fiction is obliged to stick to the possibilities; truth isn’t.”
What this means is that reading fiction exclusively will rob us of the opportunity to read and appreciate real-life stories that don’t follow the “rules”. Non-fiction can break all the rules it wants, but it has to get published (which is tough, if the reader finds it unbelievable because it doesn’t follow Aristotle’s cause-and-effect logic), and people have to actually read it in order to benefit. If we don’t have access to these stories, we miss out on the opportunity to learn more about how the world actually operates around us.
What’s About What’s Good For Your Brain?
Setting aside the logic issue for a second, scientific methods have demonstrated in a number of different ways that reading fiction is actually really good for your thinking meat. Remember how your brain is able to discern whether a story makes logical sense or not without you having to learn an algorithm first? Well, the more fiction you read, the better you become at understanding those patterns – and those patterns, it turns out, are a crucial element of empathy.
Reading fiction helps the reader learn to identify thought patterns, predict behaviour, understand perspective, and navigate emotional situations and moral dilemmas. Reading about the experiences of fictional people is basically exercise for your brain, making it stronger and priming it to understand your own experience and that of people around you.
We have seen in functional-MRI studies that the brain pathways used to understand fictional stories are the very same ones we use when we’re participating in social situations, and navigating the thoughts and feelings and intentions of others.
Put another way, identifying with the feelings and actions of characters triggers the same parts of our brain that are active when we identify with the feelings and actions of real people. Isn’t that cool?
Non-fiction will give you knowledge, that much is undeniable. You’ll learn all about gravity, or origami, or the life of someone surprising, or the habits that will make you more successful – even if the information isn’t presented in a coherent logical narrative. You accrue all of that knowledge and store it for later use. But it’s fiction that gives you the skills to best apply it in your real life.
So, How Do We Choose?
The general consensus seems to be that fiction offers experiential access to new perspectives, increasing your capacity for empathy and basically making you a better person. At the same time, non-fiction feeds your thinking meat new facts and theories, expanding your mind in that way. Experiential wisdom isn’t much use without any knowledge to apply, and vice versa. So, each type of book has its own merit, and each provides its own benefit.
In the literature wars of fiction versus non-fiction… it’s a toss-up! Sorry if that sounds like a cop-out, but it’s true 😉
Ultimately, you need to decide for yourself what you enjoy most, what you “feel like” in the moment, and what’s going to meet your goals. If you’re trying to read for fun and your years as a university student have made you involuntarily recoil at anything resembling a textbook, perhaps you should give non-fiction a break and focus on novels for a while (though I would strongly recommend still checking out A Short History of Nearly Everything – I promise it won’t make you want to pull out your eyeballs with a fork).
On the other hand, if you’ve read nothing but romance novels for the past seven years, but you’re interested in learning more about the political history of your country, maybe try picking up a non-fiction book from your local library or bookstore and giving it a try.