The benefits of reading good fiction:Creative health and fitness for the brain

Pride and Prejudice hardcover book by Jane Austen

One of my prized possessions:1945 illustrated edition of Pride and Prejudice. Brooch made by moi.

This post was previously published in January, 2011.

If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see? – from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

I have a confession to make: I haven’t read an entire novel from cover to cover since September, 2010.

This is an alarming revelation to me as I consider myself a lifelong voracious reader who has an extensive vocabulary knowledge banked in her busy brain.  But the bank account must be depleting, because lately I’ve really noticed that I’m faltering when trying to spell even some common words.

After thinking about it, I realized that most of my reading activity now consists of racing through several articles and resources every day, performing a sort of mental highlighting scan, taking notes regarding the most relevant information (to me, at the time).  I’ve formed an addictive habit.   And there is a LOT of information out there…

Most writers and artists in today’s world are (still) voracious readers I imagine.   But if the majority of what we are consuming is ‘fast food’ (skimming blogs and gulping tons of information from the Internet, of varying degrees of ‘nutritional’ value), how much of what we are digesting is really good for us?

Does it give us the necessary fuel our imagination and intellect need to inspire and produce our best work? Or does it just overload our thoughts, bloat our minds to the point where we’re listless and disconnected from our enthusiastic, healthy, creative selves?

Reading something ‘meaty’ or challenging can also be a great cardio workout for your flabby brain, and bring your own thinking back to life.

According to research conducted by Travis Proulx ,a respected academic from the University of British Columbia, if you read something that is challenging (complicated narrative) your brain works hard to problem-solve and change it into something more meaningful that you can understand, thus improving brain sharpness and boosting overall mental fitness.

The more you exercise the muscles of your brain, the faster and more efficient your brain will be.  Literally.

Another important point is that reading quality fiction can improve your empathy skills.  By engaging your brain and interacting with the characters in the story, your brain simulates the experience and ‘remembers’ it so that you can recognize the same emotions and social cues in real life when you encounter them.   If you don’t read fiction, but solely skim informational or entertaining articles on the Internet, you don’t give your brain that same experience.

Better understanding of social behavior and good communication with others has obvious benefits in general.  But it is crucial when you are busy with your work(s) in progress and at the same time implementing and carrying out your own social media strategy for your creative business.

If you don’t know (or care about) what motivates the people you’re trying to reach, it will speak loudly and clearly in everything you communicate.

You want to be able to lead that horse to your water AND have her/him start drinking happily from your trough.  That will only happen if s/he has developed a trusting relationship with you, or trusts whomever has recommended you and your business.  Or if they really, really wants what you’re offering.

I’ve discovered I get a flood of creative ideas for any project I’m currently working on (and more new ones…yikes!) after challenging my brain like this.  Even just 30 minutes of my undivided attention a day should be enough to see some improvement.  This seems similar to how you have increased energy levels and general vitality after going to the gym or exercising on any given day.  You basically can DO more.

If you read good, challenging fiction on a regular basis, your brain will be able to do more too.

Reading allegory is especially effective in helping your brain get better at problem-solving, not to mention opening up your imagination for you to notice all the allegories that are present in your tangible world beyond the page.

For example, do you ever feel like it’s taking forever to work towards accomplishing your life ambition or creative goals?  Noticing a caterpillar inching slowly across the road on its way to attach itself to a tree right before winter can be symbolic if you are paying attention.  Some of those tenacious, industrious creatures make it through the winter and get to fly out of their cocoon the following spring!

Here are just a few great allegorical feasts to sink your brain into:
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
Watership Down by Richard Adams
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Blindness by Jose Saramago (Jury is still out for me whether this is an allegory or fantasy, but it will stimulate your imagination for sure!)

Still thinking you can’t possibly fit in regular time “just” to read a book?

Why not read with your kids, or get your kids to read to you? (no cheating by letting your mind wander to other business matters!).  If uber-busy human business mogul Chris Brogan can carve a slice out from his hectic life schedule to read to/with his kids regularly, I think you can take a nod from him and make the time.  You may be surprised how it sparks some great ideas for you to use in your creative endeavors.

Got any other suggestions for a good fictional cardio workout for your brain?  How much time do you put aside to read fiction?  Please share in the Comments below.

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9 Responses to The benefits of reading good fiction:Creative health and fitness for the brain

  1. Terri says:

    Oh Carole, I so appreciate this post. Recently, I noticed I’m not reading books right now and haven’t been for months. Sorely missed. I think I was reading too much online in short bites and it shipwrecked my book reading time. I just love to hold a book and read its pages, so wonderful.

    I did have a wonderful experience this weekend. I was shopping thrift stores for some children’s books about nature and science. I have to confess, I LOVE reading children’s books, especially the classics and stayed in some stores for hours doing so! It was wonderful for my brain and overall disposition.

    • Terri, I love going treasure hunting for books at thrift shops too, although I don’t get to go often. A few months ago, I picked up Andersen’s Fairy Tales and Grimms’ Fairy Tales for a few bucks a piece (a little older than the one I already owned and featured in a photo for a past blog post here). These illustrated editions are a pleasure to read again, so many rich metaphors and psychological/sociological insights (especially for adults) in those stories!

  2. Sue Mitchell says:

    Carole, I love how you compare skimming articles with fast food. I’ll bet you wouldn’t have made that analogy if you hadn’t read some nutritious fiction replete with delicious metaphors and similes!

    I have to admit I have been guilty of consuming too much literary fast food, too, but recently I’ve started having regular dates with my Kindle at bedtime and have really been enjoying it. It’s too soon to report whether my brain is getting sharper as a result, but I have no doubt that it will.
    Sue Mitchell recently posted..A Juggler’s Guide to Creating Time for Creativity

    • Hiya Sue; thanks for the feedback. You make me smile. Ooh, fueling up on nutritious reading material – if your brain gets any sharper, you’ll be ruling the universe.:D

      I’m making a new plan to turn off the t.v. and the computer an hour before bedtime and read before falling asleep too…like I used to do.

  3. Patrick Ross says:

    Ah, Carole Jane, this is on a topic close to my heart: The importance of reading, and the frustration I feel at often avoiding reading.

    About five years ago I crossed paths professionally with an author named Nicholas Carr, who went on to write an amazing book called The Shallows. Essentially he culled together research that demonstrated that what I’m doing right now–surfing the Internet and reading short posts–rewires our brain such that it’s difficult to concentrate on text for more than brief stretches. Ironically, Nick had a really successful blog, and that’s how we first connected.

    Having required reading for my MFA packets helps me keep the long-form mental muscles flexed. I found myself in good enough shape to then read several books between first and second semester that were on my own reading list.

    You say this is a re-post; is it still true you haven’t finished a novel since November 2010?
    Patrick Ross recently posted..Want to be More Creative? Stop Focusing

    • Hi Patrick,

      I realize now I should have perhaps included a little update that I have, indeed, read five novels and a handful of non-fiction books since I wrote this piece. I feel a bit sad as I type this, because years ago I was reading a book a week easily, sometimes two.

      I was shocked how I couldn’t (or didn’t) allow myself to read deeply anymore. I mean, I love literature and learning so much. So I made a concerted effort for a while after writing this post. Sadly, these past several months I find myself again either getting distracted by life circumstances or not making enough time to read longer works. I wanted to post this again as incentive for me (and maybe some others who are struggling too) to get back to an activity that is positively soul, mind and heart nourishing.

      Carr’s book does sound intriguing. Is it fiction?

      • Patrick Ross says:

        It’s nonfiction, very much like a Malcolm Gladwell book, a synthesis of information told from a personal point of view. He opens with a confession that he, too, has a hard time finishing a book. Later on, he admits he was only able to write the book by going to a cabin in Colorado and unplugging from the grid.

        Glad to hear you’re still reading, even if it isn’t as much as you’d like!
        Patrick Ross recently posted..Want to be More Creative? Stop Focusing

  4. Hi Susan,
    Wow, 150 books; that’s fantastic. What a great idea about tracking your reading. A long time ago, I used to keep a notebook with the books I had read as well, along with favorite quotes or passages and overall impressions. Thanks to your comment, I think I’ll start that up again!

    I just got ‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue out from the library a few days ago. It’s very compelling, hooking me in already with a very original POV and premise. I’m definitely going to be making time to finish that one.

  5. Susan says:

    I track all the books that I read (fiction and nonfiction) in a spreadsheet every year – last year I read about 150 books, from nonfiction horse care books to trashy romances (clearing out Harlequins from many years ago) – to current general fiction. It always amazes me when I see the wide range of genres that my “recreational” reading covers. There’s always time for a good book: even if it’s just when I’m brushing my teeth before bed.

    Somehow I also manage to find time to squeeze in magazines like Reader’s Digest, National Geographic (love the photos as well as most of the text), and Macleans. That’s in addition to the blogs and tweets and FaceBook statuses… :)