I know a lot of my friends who swear off anything related to fiction, at times even if it has a semblance of a story, like biographies or histories. They prefer to read “hard non-fiction”, stuff that titillates the brain-cells, and provides the most information per page read. I think that is a mistake, and here’s why.
The brain remembers associations
It’s been well proven that the brain doesn’t remember facts in isolation, but instead it’s very good at visualisation and association. This is why if you have to learn how to memorise a random pack of cards, you can never do it simply by chunking: you need to visualise cards as people and associate funky actions they perform to the order. What I’ve found is that the lessons that stuck to me most in terms of wisdom per page read were in those stories where I could visualise those life lessons. Reading a biography of Bruce Lee for e.g. is much akin to the experience of reading Deep Work. It’s better in some senses because while Deep Work is more structured and digestible, it never talks about the impact of its lessons. Bruce Lee’s life is probably a good condensation of its good—and more importantly—bad elements, stuff that happens to you when you take a philosophy to extremes.
For structured information per page, you cannot beat the non-fiction book, but if you want a more holistic view, read a good biography of somebody who lived its lessons so you can visualise those lessons in action. And learn about the good and the bad together.
Emotions are important to memory
There are some good examples of non-fiction books that emote. But most are dry: they present facts and quote examples from history to substantiate their arguments. A lot fiction books don’t really have a lesson to teach, their main purpose is to entertain. But read good literature, and this often changes quite a lot. Alex Haley’s Roots for example was one such book that brought the negro slave trade home for me: its vivid descriptions of African life, and how a young man’s search for his roots can lead to something sublime is still vivid in my memory. I’ll never forget how much that book contributed to my understanding of one simple fact: at one point of time, owning people was normal. The “good” slave owners routinely slept with their slaves, paid them nothing, and expected complete loyalty. The bad slave owners were worse. Now, I could have gotten this information from a book—even from an encyclopaedia—but thinking about these characters in the book, even now, years after I’ve read it, brings tears to my eyes.
Emotions are a powerful catalyst if you want to learn some lessons that’ll you’ll never forget. And the most emotion per page is from fiction.
The pleasure and whims of serendipity
You can get far with structured learning, setting your aims and goals and dreams together into yearly, monthly and daily plans. And then the whims of fate will upset all of your plans—like they often do—and then you can start over with a new set of unfulfilled wishes. Or: you can combine your goal setting with a healthy dose of serendipity and resilience in your life. I read non-fiction books for the information. Effective Typescript as I’m currently trying to learn some functional programming, and writing a blog article series on lessons learnt. But nothing makes me as happy or strokes my accidental creativity as reading fiction. It was when a stray character made a despondent comment about his life in Way of Kings that I conceived this blog post. Something about fiction resonates with you: brings neurones together in new mashups, and strokes your creative fire.
So: read fiction. There is nothing as good as curling up with a good book, and reading a wonderful old yarn.