I’ve written speeches for (at last count) 12 CEOs. I’ve asked most of them this question at our first meeting: what do you read outside of the office that has nothing to do with business?
I ask the question because it gives me insights and ideas for quotations and stories. Most of the CEOs have given me blank looks. The only thing they have time to read is usually work-related. Some read hobby magazines. One admitted to being an avid fan of mysteries. Only one of the 12 read general fiction, and it likely had something to do with starting his college career as an English major before he switched to a technical (and better paying) field. His favorite author was John Updike.
I’ve been reading fiction – stories and novels – since I was six years old. My mother read stories to me when I was too young to read, stories like Grimm’s Fairy Tales in all their splendid horror and goriness. I read Trixie Belden and the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift and children’s mysteries for 25 cents from Scholastic Book Club.
Over time my reading graduated, and while I would read history and biography and other non-fiction genres, my heart belonged to fiction. I had the blessing of English teachers in middle school and high school who were passionate about books and reading. My most memorable books from those years were Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (8th grade), Great Expectations (9th grade) and David Copperfield (10th grade) by Charles Dickens, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (11th grade) and Don Quixote by Cervantes (12th grade).
In college I took two semesters of English literature (with the English majors; everyone else had to take two general literature courses). That’s when I seriously met Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Romantic poets, Thomas Hardy and T.S. Eliot. A course in Russian history introduced me to Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Gogol. I found Aleksandr Solzhenitysn on my own; my Russian history professor was notoriously pro-Soviet Union and didn’t mention him in class.
I’ve continued reading fiction, old and new, serious and popular. I love fiction. (And I love poetry, but that’s another story). I’ve even written a novel myself.
At work, I know very few people who read fiction. If they read, it’s non-fiction – business books, and perhaps a bit of history and biography. No one reads poetry. That I read (and write) both makes me a bit odd. Well, more than a bit.
Now I find out there’s a business case for reading fiction.
Anne Kreamer, a columnist for Harvard Business Review and author of It’s Always Personal, published an article last week with the intriguing title “The Business Case for Reading Novels.” It’s about an article she read in Scientific American, entitled “Fiction Hones Social Skills.” You can see the promo here (you have to buy the issue to read the whole thing).
Kreamer writes that various studies have shown that people who read fiction discern people’s emotional states better, better interpret and respond to those who are different, and understand others’ points of view better. They empathize better. They may even be a physiological reason for all of this. “Over the past decade,” she writes, “academic researchers such as (psychologist Keith) Oatley and Raymond Mar from York University have gathered data indicating that fiction-reading activates neuronal pathways in the brain that measurably help the reader better understand real human emotion — improving his or her overall social skillfulness.” One study even showed fiction reading stimulated the part of the brain involved in setting goals.
She finishes the article with some practical suggestions – reading novels that are about business and organizational behavior, like JR by William Gaddis, Bleak House by Charles Dickens, and Joseph Heller’s Something Happened. A lot of poets like to point out that Wallace Stevens spent his entire working career in the insurance business, even turning down a professorship at Harvard because the insurance job paid better. (I wouldn’t recommend Stevens to business associates, however; I love his poetry but it is high modernism. A poet like David Whyte is more approachable and he’s also written a lot about business and organizations.)
I have to be honest – I’ve never read fiction to advance my career. I’ve read it and still read it for the pleasure and enjoyment it offers. But that there may be some unexpected advantages is intriguing.
Illustration: A scene from Bleak House by Charles Dickens; drawn by Hablot Knight Brown ("Phiz") for the original publication of the novel.