6 Benefits of Reading Literary Fiction

Alternate title: 6 Justifications for Literary Snobbery

We all know that the benefits of reading are innumerable. But somewhere along the way from kindergarten to high school, reading becomes a chore to be evaded at all costs and those who actually enjoy reading become outliers. And before you know it there’s an entirely new adult population joining the chorus of, “I don’t like read.”

In recent years, reading as an popular activity has seen a mild resurgence — due in large part to popular young adult series such as Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games. And of course the notorious Fifty Shades of Grey. If you’ve ever perused any of these popular literary works, perhaps you’ve been disappointed at the meaningless prose, the flat characters or the flimsy plot and wondered why anyone would possibly prefer this nonsense to Hardy or Dostoevsky.

Well, my fellow literary snob, now you have scientific research on your side for the next time you embark upon a fire and brimstone condemnation of popular fiction. In addition to an unnatural verbosity and early onset macular degeneration, here are 6 benefits of reading literary fiction:

Self-Motivation

Reading literary fiction requires plenty of diligence and motivation. There’s a reason why genres like “beach fiction” exists, literary fiction is hard (and by hard, I mean it actually requires that the reader have her wits about her). Each time you pick up that book, you’re improving your ability to motivate yourself – and this, in turn, can carry over to other parts of your life. Make it a little easier by incorporating it into your daily routine.

Understanding of Language

It shouldn’t be very surprising that people who read regularly generally have a better grasp of language than people who don’t. Those who read literary fiction have increased connectivity in the left temporal cortex of the brain – the part that is associated with language. Well-written books can open your eyes to words you never knew before, new ways of expressing thoughts or dated vernaculars.

Empathy

There’s a scene in an episode of The Simpsons (no, I’m not one to deny the cultural capital of The Simpsons) where Lisa is upset and Marge, the ever-concerned mother, asks if one of Lisa’s book characters is having difficulties. When you’re reading at the highest level you do become extremely attached to the characters – and this, in turn, helps with your empathy. When you read you see the world through the characters’ eyes. This empathy naturally translates off the page, too.

Social Interaction

While this does seem like a contradiction – reading makes you more social? – books can make you more fine-tuned to subtle nuances that would otherwise be lost. For example, those who read literary fiction were better at identifying facial emotions than those who don’t. Additionally, if you’re always reading something, you always have a topic to fall back on if the conversation dies.

Exercise for Your Brain

Dementia and Alzheimer’s are two diseases that affect a large group of the elderly population, and both are diseases that many dread. Research has shown that reading can help protect against dementia. Keeping up with cognitive activities, such as reading or puzzle-solving, helps keep your brain active and processing. The brain may not be a muscle, but it still needs constant use and exercise to stay functional.

Independence of Thought

Rather than stating every minute detail or simply telling a story, literary fiction tells just enough to pique your interest while leaving you with enough leeway to piece together your own ideas. Literary fiction challenges you to look into the symbolism of a novel or be aware of character flaws that will lead to serious consequences. If you’ve ever engaged in any serious discussion of a literary work, you quickly realized that every present has taken something completely different from the same literary work.

I’ll be straight with you — regardless of what you read, as long as you’re reading something you’re going to see more benefits than if you were to just watch television all day. However, it’s impossible to deny that literary fiction has greater mental and emotional benefits than other literary genres such as popular fiction. And, as Ernest Hemingway once said, “There is no friend as loyal as a book.”

Main image credit:  Abhi Sharma

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