My grandmother used to say novels shouldn’t be read before the evening because they’re “not serious things”, says Jemima Kelly in the FT. Many male readers appear to agree – only 20% of men read novels. But those who dismiss fiction as self-indulgent are dead wrong. As Aristotle said: “poetry is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history, for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular”. He was right. In history books, “a narrative is imposed on a messy jumble of events”, as if life “progress tidily and even rationally”. With fiction, “there is no such imposition: the thing itself is the narrative”. That’s why fictional characters feel “more real to us than historical figures” – each one “represents a kind of embodiment of the human condition that we can relate to”.
There’s plenty of research to back this up. Studies have found that reading “literary fiction” – as opposed to non-fiction or lowbrow fiction – “increases empathy and emotional intelligence”. This, surely, is because it exposes the reader to a “much broader range of experiences and cultures” than they’d get from real life – different people, different beliefs, different desires, and so on. Other research has found that reading fiction gives you a “more complex worldview” and makes you more open-minded – you’re less likely to want to “remove ambiguity and arrive at definite conclusions”. So ignore the “life-hackers and productivity gurus”. Curl up on a comfy sofa or sink into a bath, and get “thoroughly lost” in a good novel. You won’t regret it.