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  • Writer's pictureKarl Walker-Finch

The 5 reasons you need to stop only reading personal development books

With only a limited amount of time for reading, is it better to use that time engaged in fiction or non-fiction?

I’ve undoubtedly been on quite a personal development journey in the last six years or so, having only really started doing any reading other than text books at the age of about 30.

A great many books have added tangible benefits to my life and I’m certain that there are swathes of intangible benefits too. The strength of this feeling exemplified by actually writing another such book (ye, I’m making no apology for constantly banging on about that).

A while back, I was recommended the Three-Body series (actually called the Remembrance of Earth’s Past, but I don’t think anyone actually calls it that), to which my reaction was, not intentionally in a smug or condescending way, that “I don’t really read fiction.”

The undertone in my response was that life’s too short to waste time on such triviality. I have precious few hours every day and I’m going to spend them maximising my learning, smashing out these personal development audiobooks on double speed. I don’t have time for made-up fairy tales of nano-filaments and dark forest strikes (not that I knew about either of these things at the time).

And yet, as I had closed the book on my writing, I decided to give it a go, I deserve a bit of down time after all, surely. Lo and behold, I devoured the whole series and then fell into a wormhole that I’m yet to emerge from.

1. Fiction is for fun.

Far from life being too short to waste time not developing, it’s too short not to enjoy it. I love getting lost in a good story, I haven't always felt like this, in fact I only started feeling like this, after I started reading some good stories.

2. Fiction is for flow.

I love the feeling of “flow”, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it. In fact, everyone does. One of the simplest ways to find flow, is getting lost in a good book.

3. Fiction is for storytelling.

We live our life through stories, we consume thousands of stories consciously and unconsciously every day. Effective communication is achieved through the stories we’re able to tell others.

Fiction is for focus.

In a world of immediacy, when we have everything competing for our attention, our brains lose the ability to concentrate, to focus on a single task and do it well. This is the subject of Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus. Stopping life, sitting down and simply reading a good book helps to restore that evaporating cognitive ability.

Fiction is for empathy.

Empathy is quite possibly the most important of all life skills. Our lives will be defined by the people we interacted with and the difference we’ve made to the people around us. It’s the ability to connect with others that depends so heavily on our level of empathy. Studies have shown that people who read fiction regularly have higher levels of empathy, and yes there’s a causation/correlation question to be answered here, but it’s obvious when you think about it. Fiction is all about becoming invested in the characters, understanding their quirks, their ticks, the nuanced stories that have created our protagonist. You can’t develop a deep empathic connection in a two hour film. You can’t build empathy in the over-edited stories used to illustrate a point in personal development books. Maybe you’ll get it in a series but you definitely get it when you invest your time in a novel.

I still read plenty of non-fiction, but that avoidance of fiction has dissipated and I long may it continue. Those wondering what I did for my birthday, well it was, in the hour or so I had to myself in the morning, to start reading my birthday book, The Martian by Andy Weir.

All that said, you definitely should still read my book.

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