Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Business Case for Reading Fiction

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.


H. Gillham said...

I knew there were many good reasons behind my pushing students to read.

*wink, wink*

I've always thought that the reading of human stories simply gave us a better understanding of our fellow man -- seems that Kreamer agrees with that to a certain extent.

I read an article a long time ago -- that we need to have collectively experiences in order to "get along" with others in the workplace -- what better way than to share a love or hate for something you both read? It can go either way -- :)

I tell my nieces and nephews all the time, as well as my former students, that we all need to read the Russians -- the great sufferers -- as those writers seem to capture the essence of being a flawed human in a flawed world....

and I could go on and on...

ETA: In the last years, I have noticed a type of contempt for readers of fiction as being shallow and frivolous while the embracing of reading non-fiction some how being more worthy and mind expanding.

But I digress...

Enjoyed this post.

H. Gillham said...

that should be "collective" instead of "collectively"

*gets another cup of coffee*

Megan Willome said...

Remember the old Bill Cosby routine where he said that as a PE major/education minor, his solution to every parenting problem was to tell the child to take a lap? As an English major, I think the solution to every problem is a novel--a particular one, just for your specific situation.

caryjo said...

I've read fiction since I was a young one, too. Read books while hiding up in trees, under the covers with a flashlight, never without a book at nearly any time. I read some of the ones you mentioned, but my main author from Jr. Hi age on was Thomas Costain. He had written so many history related fictionalized books, and did a very fine job. I still read them occasionally. It puts things in some very clear understanding of what reality was during the events, such as Napoleon's invasions and lives touched by him. Also, other authors connected to Civil War, WWII, and other battles. I rarely read casual stories; I knew life was a "fight" and I wanted to prepare for what was coming down the future at us.

I don't spend as much time reading some of those books now, but occasionally spend a few days just buried in some books and thoroughly enjoying myself. USUALLY, if nothing else, when I'm up visiting Susie and life isn't always prodding me to go and do, I read a book or two, sometimes reading most of the night. It's wonderful to have that freedom.

I DO try to avoid books with anything ungodly in their behavior... language, sexuality, hateful killings ... mostly just the principles attached to the process.

Good post. Thanks.

Ted Witham said...

Thanks for these thoughts. I agree: fiction is good food for human living.

Brenda Gee said...

This is interesting to me as someone who reads fiction and non-fiction all the time. Most of the non-fiction I read has a human condition element to it (living with fear, creativity, introversion) so I feel it helps me understand others better. I can see where fiction in its ability to entertain and relax the reader, would allow empathy to slip in effortlessly. Another writer recommends reading fiction before bed. It helps the reader forget his or her day to day worries, whereas non-fiction may elicit them.
Thanks for a thought provoking post.