Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

Why Reading Nonfiction Won’t Cut It for Your Creativity

From Jeff: This is a guest post by Robert Bruce. Robert is a web writer for Dave Ramsey and blogger at 101 Books, where he is blogging through Time’s Top 100 English-Speaking Novels. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbruce76.

I used to be a nonfiction snob. You might know the type.

Reading Fiction

Photo credit: Jay Bird (Creative Commons)

A typical book conversation might go something like this:

Person: “Hey Robert. What are you reading these days?

Me: “Only the hottest nonfiction book on the market. It’s called Seven Ways to Overcome Fear By Following These 11 Tips In One Easy-To-Learn Process. You’re reading that too, right?”

Person: “Uh, no. Not familiar with that one. I’m reading To Kill A Mockingbird.

Me: “Yeah, I don’t read much fiction. I’d rather read about real life.”

Person: “Oh, To Kill A Mockingbird is pretty realistic. You can actually learn a lot from it.”

Me: “Yeah, nice story. But that’s all it is — a story. I need something more practical. I like to read books I can learn and grow from.”

Person: “Hey, is that a parrot?” [Quickly walks away.]

Wow. Was I ever an idiot. Some of you might be nonfiction snobs like I used to be. Apparently, it’s a trend.

The sad part? I’m a writer. Meaning I write for a living. Meaning I’m paid to be creative. How in the world could I justify not reading fiction?

Working in a creative field and only reading nonfiction is like training for a marathon by doing pushups and curls. You’ve got to work out the creative part of your brain.

It’s not that nonfiction can’t do that; it’s just that fiction does a better job of it. Here’s why:

Fiction can go anywhere

Fiction can even start from anywhere. It doesn’t even have to be linear.

Maybe point A is actually point Z. Or maybe there is no point A. Maybe you thought it was point A, but it was actually point R.

The author’s imagination is the only limit to where the story can go. How can we not appreciate this and learn from it?

Writing styles are varied

If you want to become a better writer, reading fiction is a must. Every writer has such a distinct style and voice.

Find a style you like and read it. Orwell is crisp and clean. Hemingway is simple and sweet. Joseph Heller uses wit and humor. And David Foster Wallace is, well, all over the place.

Let’s be honest: If we compiled a list of the best writers of all time, how many would be fiction writers? Most of them, I bet.

The power of story

The power of story is incredible. We’re all living and telling our own stories — whether they’re great, mediocre, or inspirational — with our lives and work.

When you dig into other people’s stories — even fictional ones — you put yourself in their situation.

How would you handle being stranded on an island like the kids in Lord of the Flies? How would you respond to living in the society portrayed in 1984 or Never Let Me Go?

Learning takes work

I used to hate homework. I’d always want the teacher to just tell me what’s on the test so I could study with focus. In a way, reading nonfiction is straightforward like that.

Want to succeed in personal relationships? Read this chapter. Want to become a better parent? Read that chapter. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but fiction isn’t so clear. And I like that. You’ve got to do a little homework.

For instance, what can you learn about social justice from To Kill A Mockingbird? Or power from 1984? Or bureaucracy from Catch 22?

Everything isn’t so black and white

I love the grey areas, wrestling with questions of morality, philosophy, and spirituality.

Great novels have a way of throwing you right into the middle of all that — situations like the impoverished mother who steals a loaf of bread to feed her starved, dying children.

These types of stories can take us to places we never thought we’d visit: Like, could stealing be okay in a certain context?

Creating something out of nothing

Whether you’re an artist, writer, dancer, blogger, or painter, the bottom line of creativity is this:

It’s about making stuff where there was nothing. With fiction, it’s the story, the characters, the setting, the dialogue.

While a biographer organizes and tells an existing story, a novelist creates a new one.

Where to start

I’m not suggesting you drop nonfiction altogether. But add a little fiction to your reading plan. If you’re strictly a nonfiction person (like I was), pick a well-regarded novel to read this year. Start somewhere.

Novels aren’t just a fantasyland “escape” from reality. That’s a very small-minded, uncreative approach to fiction. As artists, we can do better than that.

Take it from a former nonfiction snob: You can learn a lot from reading novels.

What do you learn from reading fiction? Share in the comments.

*Photo credit: Jay Bird (Creative Commons)

About Jeff Goins

I write books and help writers get their work out into the world. I am the best-selling author of four books, including The Art of Work. Each week, I send out a newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

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  • Anonymous

    Interesting. I have been very much a non-fiction snob – reading fiction seemed pointless and wasted time I could be reading thought-provoking, stimulating non-fiction. The way you put it though, it becomes very clear how much as a writer I need to read fiction. 

    Thanks so much for this post. It will get me reading fiction – good fiction, maybe even some Shakespeare (love Shakespeare). Great post Robert.

    • Kim

      I love, love, love memoirs, which seem to kind of skirt the line between fiction and non-fiction.  I love stories.

      I just finished The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which reminded me of how beautiful and meaningful and though-provoking fiction can be.  When I finish Truth and Beauty (back to memoirs!), I’m going to pick up another fiction book, thanks to this post!

  • Anonymous

    I needed this post. I had no idea I was a non-fiction snob. But this resonates with me. Time to finish that half-read novel that’s been sitting in my bedside table for the last two months!

    Thanks, Robert. Thank, Jeff.

  • Anonymous

    Non-fiction informs our fiction and imagination makes it soar. We need both. 

    •  Excellent sound byte.

  • Anonymous

    Oh man. There goes my memoirs-or-bust mentality.

    •  hah! actually, I think memoir is a lot like fiction in many respects. it’s creative, narrative non-fiction, which is different from most typical nonfiction. memoir is kind of an anomaly, actually. people don’t know where to put it. is it literature or biography? in a way, it’s both. but yeah, you should consider getting back into fiction. if you like memoir, you should try short stories.

  • I’m a non-fiction writer (thus far), and reading fiction helps me improve my writing. When I apply techniques used in fiction writing, my writing only gets stronger. We’ve heard it a million times, but as writers we need to read widely. And that includes fiction. Great topic for a post, Robert.

  • I love to read a mix of fiction and non-fiction. I like variety. But it’s in fiction that I feel the most growth for sure. Fiction allows me to see my world (politics, religion, relationships, etc.) in another setting and this new setting helps me gain new perspective on those things that greatly impact my life. Great movies (Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter, War of the Worlds, etc.) do the same thing. Reading about the aspects of life that cause the most struggle & victory helps me to gain ground in my own struggle to victory. God speaks to me through these works of fiction in amazing ways. The non-fiction I read seems to kind of back up the fiction I read, not the other way around. Sure, fiction is also an escape, but it’s so much more than that. In escaping, I find myself and am able to life a more effective life.

    • Great points. On that note, I’ve always found it interesting that many nonfiction snobs, like I used to be, don’t mind watching movies–most of which were created because of a novel!

      • My oldest son (13) and I love to read books and then watch the movies made from those books. We bond over this by talking aboug likes and differences. We have had some great “life” discussions becuase of books and movies. I feel like my boys are able to learn about life and all its struggle without having to experience the pain when they read books. Then, when they experience real-life situations, they are better prepared because of the books they’ve read.

  • A great post! I don’t read non-fiction as much anymore. I am a voracious reader and love to learn. I would suck up anything I could to expand my mind. Now I prefer a book that tickles my senses differently – a book that weaves it’s magic and grabs hold of me and brings me into it. I realised you can learn a lot from fiction, too.  As a budding writer, I find it’s my imagination that helps me move forward and helps me grow. Reading the wonderful words of so many writers helps expand the mind and imagination and get those creative juices flowing! Making something out of nothing is nothing short of miraculous!

  • Robert (and Jeff), check out “Lit!” by Tony Reinke. It’s a book on reading from a Christian perspective. The first half is about the theology of reading, and what the Bible can teach us about the value and joy of reading. The second half is his practical tips.
    Reinke changed my views on fiction. I was a card-carrying non-fiction snob, but he pointed out a lot of the same benefits that you did. Great points.

  • I concur!  This time last year, I only wanted to read and write non-fiction, but since reading some good fiction, watching some great movies, and – let’s not forget – reading Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, I’ve been rethinking this whole fiction/non-fiction divide.  My personality is not black and white.  I’m a deep-thinker who appreciates all varieties of grey, so I’ve been giving fiction a shot.  One of the reasons I love this blog is that Jeff clearly understands the importance of story and has an appreciation for fiction writing. 

  • There’s a theology of reading?  I’m a skeptic. (EDIT: This was meant to be a reply to another comment… not sure why it appeared here)

    •  weird. looks like you were responding to Loren’s comment below. sorry about that.

  • I’m lucky enough to read and discuss fiction for a living!  Every time I re-read Frankenstein, I am struck by the devastation that rejection, isolation, and alienation wreak on the human heart. 

  • Robert, this is an interesting post. I don’t think I’m a nonfiction snob, but often I’m a terrible judge of myself. The key is probably to keep things balanced and to keep an open mind. I know I do need to intentionally seek out more fiction to read. 

    •  I’m getting back into fiction. It activates a different part of your brain, I think.

      • That makes sense. Fiction is not as “safe” as nonfiction. You can read an entire book and walk away dissatisfied, where as nonfiction is more straightforward and easier to tell if you like it or not.  

        • Anonymous

          But I walk away from fiction dissatisfied with my life! That is why I switched to non-fiction.

  • I read more non-fiction than fiction, probably 60-40.  Reading great fiction inspires me more in a general, I want to write great things, sense.  But I feel like I try to steal more from the non-fiction writers I love, like Bill Bryson.  Of course I write non-fiction, so that makes sense.  I’m with you though Robert, I think reading fiction is a must.  Great post.  

  • I love fiction. In a way, it’s like a mentor, who, unlike a teacher who gives you the lesson and its meaning, takes your hand and says, “Walk with me.” As you so wonderful put it, Robert, fiction requires you to stay for the whole journey to get the point, just like I have to make that life decision and walk it out before I can really learn anything from it. Fiction is like your best friend who is a writer, who you secretly compare yourself to, and always try to aspire to be like. Fiction is very much a mental marathon that gets your writing endorphins up, just as you said. I love fiction. I loved it so much, that I did the direct opposite you did and stayed away from nonfiction, unless I had to read it. In the end, as you clue us in in your post, its about the balance. Nonfiction gives me the critiquing structure and hard core information to bring my head down out of the clouds and actually start writing, while fiction, well, it primes the proverbial writing pump. 

    Awesome post. Loved the beginning dialogue too. Haha. Made me laugh. 🙂

    •  I agree with everything you said. Love the idea of fiction getting my “writing endorphins up”.

  • Thanks Robert!  I just started getting back into fiction after a prolonged stint in the non-fiction world.  I just finished re-reading The Fountainhead and I was blown away by how much the characters spoke to me! 

    It’s interesting how when it comes to movies and television shows we watch more fiction than non-fiction.  I mean, I love a good documentary and based on true story stuff, but what really sticks with me are the characters.  That’s why shows like Lost are so epic and will beat out History Channel’s Modern Marvels every time (and I love Modern Marvels).

    Thanks for your insights as to how I can get the creative juices flowing.

  • I love that you validated fiction-reading. I read non-fiction and fiction, but secretly enjoy fiction much more…and I’ve always felt as though there’s something a little unsophisticated about that!

    Thanks for these encouraging words.

    • Absolutely! For whatever reason, I’ve noticed a lot of fiction haters lately. And I think it’s all about balance.

  • I read a lot of nonfiction – this blog, for instance! I usually start the day off by reading a few of my favorite writing and travel blogs, and that gets me motivated and excited to start the day. Later on, though, I read fiction – I’m currently working my way through Ekaterina Sedia’s “The Alchemy of Stone,” and I am a huge fan of Mercedes Lackey.

    Fiction is actually what started me writing, and what I still want to do. I’m a travel writer to earn a living (although I love doing that too!) and a fiction writer as a passion.

  • I read almost all fiction, because I have enough nonfiction to read in my schoolwork. 

    • One great, authentic wild west book is Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. Brutally violent. But probably more accurate to the time period than a lot of John Wayneish style stuff.

      • I used to love Louis L’Amour when I was growing up.

        •  I’ve never read his stuff, but I think my mom has his entire collection. Never been much of a western guy.

        • I read quite a bit of his stuff a while back. Now I’m back to my usual fantasy and sci-fi. 

      •  I’ll look that one up.

    • When I was in college I tried to read one “fun” book per semester.

      • “Fun” books are good.  I have it a bit easier though, since I;m in high school.

  • Reading nonfiction is actually stressful for me – I feel like I have to read, understand and apply what I’m reading (the stressful part usually comes from application – not the other parts). Whereas, fiction let’s my mind relax and get caught up in another world. I may be learning things, but it’s not as obvious 🙂 I do need to make more time to read anything … I’ve been stuck reading/writing code developing sites that I haven’t read anything in quite awhile! Thanks for this reminder!

  • Great post Robert! Love to see you on Jeff’s blog. It’s amazing how important story is to our daily lives. The greatest book ever written is mainly a collection of stories. The greatest man who ever lived constantly told stories.

    We all want our lives to be better but what we really mean is we want our stories to matter, to be interesting and worth our time and the time of our friends and family.

    I’m not even a writer, but I’m inspired by this post to read more. I’ve been working non-stop on a project the last few weeks and I can see how it could sap my creativity if I don’t balance it with some good reading. Thanks!

    • Thanks Luke! Great thoughts. I think though fictional stories aren’t “real,” there is so much stuff we can learn from them. Great to see that you are doing so well.

  • I was the total opposite for a long time.  I would only read fiction and didn’t think much of non-fiction.  I have begun to enjoy some non-fiction.  What I love about fiction is that it helps me meet new people and when I meet someone in real life like that character, I care more about them than I normally would.  Much of the non-fiction I read encourages me to follow my dreams, try something new, or analyze myself again.  I am enjoying the appreciation I have garnered for both.

    • Anonymous

      I was the same way.  It’s only been the last couple of years I’ve come around to non-fiction.

  • SusiCP

    Jeff, It is amazing the things time teaches us.  My cousin wrote a historical novel on one of her ancestors.  I love Historical Novel’s.  It is a bit of both worlds.  

    •  First one of those I read was “My Brother Sam Is Dead” in 5th grade. I was hooked.

  • That opening conversation was very familiar sounding.  (I was the fiction reader, of course.)  My husband has just barely discovered fiction and was shocked by how much he got out of it.  I’m a total advocate for reading a little of everything.  I rotate between “high literature”, “popular fiction”, “non fiction” and “religious non fiction”.  Keeps me rounded and I find I enjoy each genre more than I used to when I just focused on one thing at a time.

    •  I’ve had that conversation many times. On both sides. 🙂

  • The power of story is what I gain most, as a writer, from reading fiction.  The metaphors, analogies, personifications, time-splits, seques–and so many more features–just seem to burrow in and make a home in my brain.  There, they give birth to many babies!  Stories are ALIVE and breathe many aspects of the essence of life into the soul of this ol’ writer!  I truly want to thank you for this important post for us writers.

  • I was never a fiction nonfiction snob, I was more against reading anything that was popular… You know, “That’s SO mainstream, I will hate it.” Yeah, I know, silly hipster. Lately I have had a change of heart, realizing there is a REASON books are popular. Not that it always means it’s excellent writing, but something in the story resonates with the majority of people for a reason.  (So I caved in and read The Hunger Games… now I am on a pop book kick.)

    I am going to take it a step further and go back and read books I read as a child that sparked my imagination and made me want to write in the first place. I am becoming more and more convinced that anything worth knowing about life you can learn from children’s fiction. 

    •  I’ve been the same way about pop fiction. I guess I still have snob tendencies. Even within fiction, I might frown upon a Danielle Steele book, or Twilight. But at least people are reading.

      That said, I used to think the Harry Potter series was hype, but once I read it I got hooked and totally changed my view. Rowling is an incredible writer and storyteller. So imaginative.

    • It’s because you are rebel at heart Brooke. Ha 🙂

  • Thanks for a great post! I definitely think I swing between non-fiction and fiction but you’re completely right: when I think about written works that truly inspire me and allow me to see the human condition in a new light, there is nothing more powerful than a great novel. 

  • Thanks for a great post! I definitely think I swing between non-fiction and fiction but you’re completely right: when I think about written works that truly inspire me and allow me to see the human condition in a new light, there is nothing more powerful than a great novel. 

  • Thanks for a great post! I definitely think I swing between non-fiction and fiction but you’re completely right: when I think about written works that truly inspire me and allow me to see the human condition in a new light, there is nothing more powerful than a great novel. 

  • Thanks for a great post! I definitely think I swing between non-fiction and fiction but you’re completely right: when I think about written works that truly inspire me and allow me to see the human condition in a new light, there is nothing more powerful than a great novel. 

  • I’m totally a non-fiction snob. (Hiding my head in shame.)  Coincidentally, my blog post for today was called “6 Books That Grew My Balls” and only 1 was fiction.

    Whereas non-fiction puts all the power in the reader’s hands (you choose the topic you want to learn about, locate the book, choose which chapters to read and which to skip, etc.), fiction requires me to be vulnerable, to open up to the journey of the story, to invest in the characters, to trust the process, and to give up control, which I’m not good at! But I want to be…so it looks like I’ll be taking your advice, Robert. 🙂

    • Well said Kimberly. Can’t wait to read that post you put up today. It sounds really interesting! 

    • I’m about to go read your post right now!

    • David

      I’m a devout Christian, but I gotta tell ya, your take on Cadbury eggs was gut-bustin’ hilarious!

  • Okay, I admit it: I am a total non-fiction snob! I use to read fiction, but I found it too engrossing (if that makes since)… I would totally get lost in the fictional world that I was reading and ignore reality. It negatively affected my real-life relationships (because no one was as perfect as the characters in my book – they didn’t even have the planned out cute flaws!). So, I had to take a fiction hiatus, and I have yet to return. It hasn’t hurt me in any way shape or form, so I’m not really sure that I agree with this article (but then again, I also write non-fiction as apposed to fiction) I’m still creative. Honest. 😉

  • This is me. I’m not a big fiction person. Not because I don’t think it’s valuable, I just don’t get into it as easily as non-fiction or memoir. But when I attempted to write a short story to be adapted to a script, I suddenly realized I had no idea how fiction functioned. I was lacking an ability to describe because I was unaware how it was done. It’s something I’m trying to fix this year by committing to reading more fiction than I usually do.

  • I try to alternate between fiction and non-fiction.  I’m finishing up a quick run through some Seth Godin.  Next up?  Game of Thrones, perhaps.

  • I vacillate between both genres. Currently I’m reading a ton of non-fiction, but I have several fiction books that I want to read. My mind is hyper-engaged with personal development and growth at the moment, so I find fiction to be a bit slow at this moment in time. I suspect in a few months I’ll be back to exploring the wonderful stories fiction has to offer. 

  • Reading other comments reminds me of watching “Real Steel,” cinematic fiction, and sharing Michael Hyatt’s article on the wise and foolish, non-fiction. The film connected me with my son and the article illustrated a lesson I wanted my son to understand. I kept commenting back and forth between the movie and the article (thank goodness for pause buttons).

    •  That’s a movie I want to watch with my son. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Anonymous

    Lately I have been bombarded with books like Linchpin, How To Change The World, Tribes, How to Make Ideas Happen, which are all wonderful books. However, those books cannot teach me what Lake Wobegon Summer 1956 by Garrison Keillor can about the love of writing from a young age. Spider webs of his satire and wit feel more, applicable in some way.

    •  Linchpin is a nonfiction book I really want to read once I finish my novels list. Heard great stuff about it.

      • it’s awesome

      • Anonymous

        It is indeed great. I suggest the audio book for this one. Seth narrates it himself which is a wonderful treat. Keep a notepad and pen at the ready. Great stuff in there! 

    •  Love Garrison!

  • With all the variety the Lord has blessed us with, why would we narrow our options? I love fiction audiobooks, they make the work day go faster. Great post Robert.

  • I used to be a non-fiction snob as well. I thought that if I wasn’t acquiring new information then it wasn’t worth my time. Boy was I ever wrong. Not only was I stifling my creativity, but I found out you can really learn a lot about the world through reading fiction. Now I try to keep a good balance of both

  • Fiction teaches me to explore the details in story.  The sight, sounds, smells, feelings, emotions.  Just enough to feel like you’re in it without detracting from the main message.

    I find non-fiction to be more direct and to the point.  It’s usually about a specific point and there’s not often room for extras.

  • I have a bit of an unspoken rule for myself – for every 2 non-fiction books I read, I have to read at least one fiction book. I have found fiction books help me be more creative in how I write and how I communicate in general. Learning ways to describe a scene or tell a story that aren’t just outright factual. I love reading fiction and how it helps me grow as a writer and a creative thinker.

  • Thanks Rob, I have only been reading Non fictions, infact my whole book shelf is full of them didn’t realise I was a ‘non fiction snob’, you’ve inspired me to step into the other side…time to introduce fiction. Cheers 

  • Being a fiction writer, I am a tad biased toward fiction! But I firmly believe that you can learn life truths from fiction just like nonfiction. I think there are parallels between life and the stories we read about.

  • MM

    Yes, I think I’m a non-fiction snob too. I’ve written non-fiction, and it’s true, the information is straight-forward. But I have to honestly admit, my hat goes off to the novelist. Anyone who can create the works they do, orchestrate all the characters, dialogue, plots and much more, have my deepest respect. As I work on finishing the first draft of my first novel, I appreciate the process even more. And yes, I’m reading more fiction these days! 

  • Great post! I haven’t read much fiction lately (the last novels I read were Harry Potter 7 and The Life of Pi). What fiction books would you recommend?

    • Hey Tim. Check out my blog that Jeff linked to and I’ve ranked all the books I’ve read from the list to this point. My favorite so far is To Kill A Mockingbird, with I, Claudius and Catch 22 not that far behind. Also love anything by Orwell, especially 1984. 

      • Thanks for the reference. I am also a non-fiction snob, ha! I just started venturing out earlier this year…

  • So very true…love this post. I used to be a non-fiction snob, and now I think I might be a fiction snob. I have to force myself to read a lot of non-fiction these days. You really can’t beat a good story with characters you care about. 

  • Great guest post Robert! You make a very valid point. I do enjoy reading nonfiction books but I’d say at least 80% of the books I read are fiction. I learn a lot from reading the fiction of others. I pick up on trends as far as what the majority of authors devote their words to. Is it dialogue, narrative, or description? How do they format their chapters? Do they use titles or numbers? In most of Matthew Reilly’s novels he does them by scenes with no numbers or titles at all. It’s interesting to learn what other authors do and try so you can find your own ways to be inventive.

  • I love reading the detailed descriptions of human features: “His face was squat like a plumb, but had the color of a leaf of an aspen tree in the fall. His nose might have pointed out further, except it went straight down with the nostrils constantly flaring portraying an intensity that made you wonder if he was born that way or saw his nose and decided to live that way.” (I just made that up out of thin air). It was fun. And that’s why I like fiction. Robert Parker and the Spenser novels are a great example.

    Thanks for the reminder!

  • So you put down non-fiction to make fiction look better? You just couldn’t say why it’s important to read fiction for creativity’s sake? Almost all your points about fiction could beapplied to non-fiction. Please try harder. Both genres are great!

  • Just read a wonderful tribute to you on the website – Make it Mad.  Incredible. I
     am impressed about your kindness.  You are right, I was a non-fiction Christian book reader, and have branched out into novels. Reading the Fire in Fiction and their examples, opened my eyes to how much I can learn from fiction.  Hoping your day is blessed.

  • Cecilia

    Inspirational. . Like always 🙂 I am a “non-fiction” person myself. . I prefer reading things that are taken from reality. Though I always try to think that everything has to be taken from somewhere. . meaning that the ideas of a novel, a movie etc has to lay somewhere, somehow in reality.

  • Awesome post Robert.

    I love fiction..have loved it for a long time.

     I have written three fiction books (one manuscript lost, two in my hard drive somewhere)..just for the love of it. 

    Training myself to read non-fiction was hard work. i couldn’t believe the levels of “sense”, “logic”, “practicality” e.t.c involved in non-fiction work. 

    But I did get the hang of it…so much so that i have another manuscript in my hard drive and an ebook…all non-fiction.

    Now, to the hard part of shipping!..that’s work!

    Great post.

  • I used to read so much fiction! In the past couple of years I’ve focused more on non-fiction because I’ve been writing non-fiction.  You, sir, have made a compelling case to keep up on my fiction.  I saw it as a guilty pleasure.  I can’t wait.  What’s the first book I’m going to read?  Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne.  

  • Robert, 

    I totally agree with you, even though I have the hardest time sometimes listening to this advice. I’m a nonfiction junkie, but some of the most enjoyable books I read last year were the Hunger Games trilogy. Thanks for the reminder, great stuff, 


  • Anonymous

    I used to read strictly fiction and was embarrassed that I couldn’t seem to finish a single non-fiction book. I realized 3 things – I was escaping too much, intellectually flabby, and that I hadn’t found great non-fiction that captivated me! 

    After facing these truths, I went on a fiction fast. I gave myself permission to try lots of books and return them to the library WITHOUT FINISHING THEM, and began to find better non-fiction that was as engrossing as the fiction. After a couple of years, I lost my taste for fiction.

    Now I am working at finding good fiction again.

    Who knew that reading took so much thought and introspection and discipline??

  • Great post and great timing for me. I was actually just telling my husband last night that I want to start reading more fiction for pleasure. I reread fiction for my job all the time (I’m an English teacher) but when it comes to works I read for pleasure I tend to pick up memoirs of women I admire. But I’m off to make a list of novels to read this year. Thanks for this. 

  • Navya

    Powerful fiction throws light on various aspects of human life. The best part about fiction is that no matter what category the story falls into – humour, horror, love stories – be it anything, at its very heart, it carries deals with the same dreams, aspirations, challenges and beautiful moments of life that we see everyday, albeit in a fictional setting. It is not true that fiction does not teach you anything. Find a good author to read, and you will be surprised at how much of what they write is practical and applicable to our lives. 
    In my opinion, fiction is a powerful and useful medium to express the beauty of human existence, the expression of which may otherwise, be limited.  

  • What a coincidence — right when I read this post I had started To Kill A Mockingbird. I have been reading nonfiction for a few months, definitely need to change it up a bit.

    Great post

  • Great points, Jeff. I used to be the opposite; I never thought that nonfiction was worth it, because what I had read of it seemed like boring, textbook-style prose. That was until I read from people who write creative non-fiction like Shauna Niequist, Anne Lamott, and Donald Miller. My current read is “Blue Like Jazz” by Miller, and I love it because it reads like a fiction book. I’m trying to intersperse non-fiction with fiction in the books I read this year. My next pick is going to be “The Marriage Plot.” What are you reading right now?

  • Pooja

    I sort of agree. 

    But what do you do when fiction just doesn’t set in as your “thing”? I’ve read some, and then I’ve left some midway. There is this nagging thought in my head which tells me I should be reading something. . . better or useful. (Sorry but I don’t mean to offend fiction lovers.)


  • In my Sophomore year, my high school English teacher told us,
         “Don’t read books just to get through them. Each time you read, ask yourself: What does the main character hope to achieve?    How do his/her actions help or hinder in meeting goals?  How is his behavior influenced by others?   What could (s)he have done differently, in order to succeed?”
    Then she added:
         “This doesn’t only pertain to book-report books in school. Asking yourself these questions, always, while reading a novel, will help you to learn more about life—what works and what doesn’t. See how what you learn, pertains to you.”

    She was right. A lot can be learned from novels. Take what can be helpful.

  • Pat W

    In my Sophomore year, my high school English teacher told the class:
          “When you read a novel, ask yourself what the main character’s goals are, how his/her actions lead either to success or failure,  how the influence of others affected the results—good or bad— and what (s)he could have done differently for a different outcome.”
    Then she said:
         “This doesn’t only pertain to book-report books. If you will remember these questions each time throughout life, that you read stories or novels, you can learn much about life, and can apply what you learn, to yourself and your own life. ”

  • What I learn? How to live , and how live better.  My teachers? Tolstoy, D H Lawrence,
    Shakespeare, Annie Proulx, Iris Murdoch, RAymond Carver, Julian Barnes, Doris Lessing, Marge Piercy, Virginia Woolf, Marcus Aurelius (although not fiction, philosophy) William Golding.  More William Golding. Fiction allows the reader ‘ to leap off the wall of self’  – David Foster Wallace.  
    To develop as people we need to remove the  ‘ self’ from the story sometimes, and fiction does this.  You become the protagonist, you have empathy for the victim, you travel to cultures alien and fantastic.  And everyone knows that all fiction tells real stories. Thats why we say truth is stranger than fiction. What the novelist can imagine has to be borne from a human imagination, no torture exists in fiction that has not been trumped by man himself somewhere. That is the power of storytelling. restructuring the actual in order to arrive at and explore dangerous, exciting ideas and conditons of being human. Enough said. 

  • Sissy

    My sister’s history teacher, aside from his rude and stereotypical view of the teenagers he teaches, is a huge nonfiction snob. He doesn’t read fiction because there’s just “so much to learn in the world.” If someone brings a fiction book in, he will turn up his nose and rudely comment, “You’re reading that?”

    Fiction is being lost in our schools. It’s standardized test culture. Learning more “facts” will make you do better on a standardized test. Things like creativity, which can’t be made into fancy little bar graphs, are suddenly less important.

  • Sandip Dev

    Exactly what gave you the idea that non fiction means self help books like “overcome fear by blah..blah..blah”. I read non fiction books on economics, history, science, medicine, psychology etc. Some of my favs are The argumentative indian, false economy, outliers, the emperor of all maladies, india: a history. I hv also read a few bios including steve jobs and richard branson. I like fiction too but i tend to prefer spy novels.

  • Boni

    This is so true. I’ve written an article about it.


  • neeti

    Great post! I admit I have been a nonfiction slob. But there is this urge to explore fiction writing which is prompting me to start reading fiction books. The problem is I can’t decide whether I should write fiction or non fiction because I enjoy both.

  • wallace

    I find it hard to agree. What is more worthy of your time? A book written by a scholar with tens of years of experience in a subject, condensing in a few hundreds of pages a lifetime of research? Or one filled with fake dialogues uttered by non-existent people in a dreamt up universe?
    If I want to learn about a subject, say, as in your example, social justice, I can very well read a history book as a starter, and follow through with visits to the national archive to immerse myself totally in the historical setting.
    And talking about creativity, I really can’t think of books more creative, more original and more thought provoking than the Origin of Species or the Selfish Gene.
    So, to answer your question: what I have learnt from reading fiction?
    I learned that non-fiction is better.

    • I think it depends on what you’re going to a book for. You can learn from fiction, but fiction isn’t written primarily to teach; it’s written primarily to entertain. If you want to learn about a subject, by all means you should go to the nonfiction book written by a scholar.

      I’m a fiction and non-fiction writer, and they both serve good purposes, but fiction is more about teaching people how to be than what to know.

      I enjoy fiction more, so I’d be tempted to say fiction is better. But really, they’re different in their approach and what they approach, so it’s probably more equal.

    • Simon Wells

      wallace, that is such a dumb opinion. Yep, dumb.What literature does for us is a bit like love, or protons, or gravity, or the anticipation of a holiday or of a great event. You can’t see any of those, but without them you’d be fucked.

      That’s what good fiction is like.

      But let’s look at YOUR ” fake dialogues, non-existent universe, dreamt-up characters’ theory. Let’s suppose from birth you’d never heard a story read out, never read your Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, Jack London, Dr Suess, Winnie The Pooh, Tolkien, harry Potter, Famous Five, Marvel Comics, The Phantom, Ginger meggs, Richie Rich, Mad Magazine, or whatever else you read as a child. Your life, and mind would be so drab, so impoverished, so devoid of wonderment, inspiration.

      And you think that process of nurture of the human spirit, of developing emotional depth and imagination – you think that suddenly ends when you turn to Popular Mechanics, Bill Bryson, Eckhart Tolle or whatever else non-fictional that floats your boat ? Are you THAT narrow ?

      What literature does for us can never be quantified, never irrefutably justified. It’s a bit like love, or protons, or gravity, or the anticipation of a holiday or of a great event. You can’t see any of those, but without them you’d be fucked.

      wallace, it’s people like you who are responsible for the severe reduction of decent drama on TV in my country ( Australia). For the growth of the noxious media-weed of reality TV. I hate you bastards, and what you’re doing to culture in my world. And I REALLY REALLY mean that. have a nice day.

    • smarty pants

      Some ideas or stances on particular moral issues can’t be properly presented to you for consideration without having some sort of experience, real or fake, with the issue at hand. To come to certain understandings, there needs to be context. A history of experiences that, while purely hypothetical, took up so much of your time and attention that you’re involved enough to have whatever dilemma or lesson properly thrust upon you. You’re missing out incredibly in shunning fiction.

  • MechMan

    I like to read non-fiction a lot more, but there is a lot of fiction that I like to read too. However, making the argument that non-fiction should be read instead of fiction because it is more “practical” is a limited argument, as there is a lot of non-fiction that is not at all practical as far as daily life goes.
    For example, if I read about the history of the Roman empire, or how the modern Middle East was formed, or about astronomy, etc…none of that really helps me in my daily life. Don’t get me wrong, I love lots of practical knowledge too, but if one limits oneself to reading only “practical” works, they will severely limit their knowledge. So certain non-fiction snobs may not realize that they are also being non-practical in their own non-fiction choices.
    Not everything in life must be for strictly practical purposes. I like music, painting, sculpture, architecture, performance arts, theater, film, etc…and fictional writing. We’d have little of any of these if humans ONLY focused on that which is strictly practical.

  • Gman

    What strictly non-fiction readers often fail to realize is a long understood truth that fictional stories often deliver meaningful lessons in a more permanent and powerful method, this is why every culture on earth created fictional stories, tall tales, bed time stories, that have morals embedded in them, i.e. “the moral of the story is…” Great novels like War and Peace, To Kill a Mocking Bird, etc. are the fairy tale meant to deliver a moral truth in a more powerful way than any biography or no-fiction book ever could. Want to really “feel” the tragedy of war read Tolstoy, want to feel the injustice of the racist south and the often futile efforts of the just fighting the good fight read Harper Lee. Their creativity and ability with language is much more powerful than non-fiction writers.

    Not that Non-fiction writers aren’t exceptional writers, but non-fiction does not train the essential skills of creativity the same way fiction writing does.

    That being said Non-Fiction has it’s place, it is the avenue by which we learn higher forms on intellectual knowledge, the sciences, factual history, mathematics.

    But when it comes to the development of character, and creativity, go with fiction.

    Lets not forget that a lot of technological innovation was inspired by fiction, science fiction, which the non-fiction snob frowns upon even more so that classical fiction. Much of the greatest achievements in science were inspired by the made up creations in science fiction books. Where would the world be without fiction?

    Fiction developed people’s ability to empathize with those we used to oppress, without it we would still remain stagnant and cruel in how we treat our fellows.

  • nice post jeff. I agree with you, the best remembered authors wrote fiction. Thats the argument I have with my mom about my future as a writer!!!
    I actually balance reading fiction and non-fiction to keep the creativity going, and also because love facts yet am a dreamer. Right now I am struggling to decide whether to specialize in fiction or non-fiction. Actually juggling the two is quite fun, and I feel has made me more productive. Lets see which path I choose…