A stack of books

“Reading fiction is a waste of time.”

Have you ever heard someone spout this line of complete and utter bollocks? I’ve rarely heard anything so ridiculous said in my life. Fiction, like all the arts, is an important part of culture; both a reflective distillation of it, and the base elements that form it. Society’s collective attitudes, values, beliefs and the public memory have a symbiotic relationship with the arts.

Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself than this incessant business.

- Henry David Thoreau

But a practical lifehackista may not be so interested in the importance of the arts in society; what exactly is the point of reading fiction? You may be thinking, “now that you’ve brought it up, it really is unproductive to read novels! How could I have wasted so much time?”

Well, if you’ve stopped reading, start again – and if you never did start, now is the time. Here’s why.

Fuel Your Idea Machine

Since these are the words used in the title of this article, you may have come to the conclusion that this is the most important reason (for me, at least). That’s true, and I find the “save the best to last” trick that some writers and marketers use a bit gimmicky.

Before you tell me that you don’t need ideas, think again. Not everyone is an artist, but everyone inherently must be creative. It’s a necessity of a life in which you face problems on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps you need to park your car in a full carpark, or perhaps you’re losing your job, your house and your family. While the scale of these problems are totally different, they share one commonality: they can often be solved with the use of some creativity.

Maybe you won’t get the optimal result. Maybe you will. But solving problems is the application of creativity to reality, and in almost every instance there is a workable solution of some sort. You just have to find it.

Sometimes you’ll find the solution and sometimes you won’t. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because you haven’t found solutions in the past means that this principle is rubbish; if you deny the power of ideas, how are you supposed to use them powerfully?

Reading books, fiction and non-fiction, fuels your idea machine. It gives you fodder to think with. The brain is essentially nothing more than a computer (albeit much more complicated); it takes an input, processes it and produces an output. In other words, you can’t create ideas without inputs. Life experiences and memories are your starter inputs; books allow you to branch out into the experiences of others, in the non-fiction section, and fiction allows you to reach the realm of fantasy – experiences nobody has really had. Fantasy breaks all the normal rules, and so do the best ideas and solutions, so what better place to start?

If you’re worried that by sucking down other people’s ideas your somehow being unoriginal, remember that this is just fodder for your own ideas – and also, if you have any knowledge of literary criticism, remember that authorial intention and a reader’s interpretation are never the same.

Escapism is Good

I’ve heard it said that all escapism is a bad thing. It’s probably what the woman who recently left her husband because of his World of Warcraft addiction muttered as she slammed the door. Everything is a bad thing in over-the-top quantities, but to say escapism is inherently bad is like saying water is poisonous. It’ll only kill you if you drink too much.

Books allow you to escape the real world and head into another, and grok knows we need it. The proverb life is a bitch, I always imagined, was probably uttered by a wise man in a turban meditating on a mountaintop when he achieved enlightenment. The originator of this phrase found a way to sum up the ultimate truths of the universe in one line. So why not escape?

Escaping into fiction is a fantastic way to cope with a stressful life, relax, and lower your blood pressure for a while. It’s better than some forms of relaxation and/or entertainment because it allows you to de-stress without actually turning your brain off. Unlike your physical body, your mind can be stimulated and rejuvenated at the same time!

Enjoy a Story Without the Mind-Rot

I love a few good television shows – Battlestar Galactica, Boston Legal, the Sopranos. Unfortunately, the advantage film has over other art forms is the same thing that is a disadvantage to your brain if you over-consume. It’s realistic; your brain doesn’t have to do any work. You just take in what has been created for you.

Books, on the other hand, are words on a page; there are no voices, no moving images on a screen depicting reality as if you were right there. Your mind has to create the visuals and sounds all on its own.

If you swap out just one of your regular television shows for regular fiction reading, then you can exercise your creativity on a more regular basis. Like self-discipline, creativity can be compared to a muscle and in this particular analogy we are talking about the process component of the input-process-output model of our thoughts.

You Can Consume More Books and Still Keep it Green

Don’t forget, in keeping with this month’s green theme at Lifehack.org, it’s a simple and painless procedure to switch to eBooks. In fact, it’s a heck of a lot more convenient to carry around hundreds or thousands of books in your pocket on a PDA than to bring one thick novel anywhere. I think a good principle is that anything you do that leads to living a greener life will have many benefits for you, not just the environment, and this is certainly a case in point.

The other benefit of eBook reading is that you can whip your PDA out whenever you have a spare five minutes, no matter where you are, and get more reading done that you could before. I’ve been doing this for something like six or seven years and it’s allowed me to read more than if I stuck to paper.

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