Is reading fiction useless?

Is reading fiction useless?

In this

Medium post

Charles Chu provides an interesting perspective (I found it well written…I recommend it).

I think many people have had this experience: being told at some point that they should “grow up” and stop reading fiction.

Chu’s response is what many of ours would have been (or was):

“Books were a beautiful thing, my only source of joy in a gray world I did not understand — a world full of bullies where I ate lunch alone.”

That never happened in my family, and never would have, and for that I am grateful. Books were considered as essential as food, water, clothes, and shelter.

I remember there being some discussion at some point about reading at the dinner table…but we weren’t stopped from doing it.

For geeks like me, the derision we got from other people (like teachers and friends) might not have been for fiction all together…but for fantasy and science fiction. “Serious” fiction might have been fine, but vampires and robots? Silly.

Sure, I heard that…but I was also lucky enough to have a great teacher (Mrs. Church) who taught an elective science fiction class. We studied it, read it, and even published a “magazine” (I might not be writing this today without that experience…or, perhaps, not writing it as well). 😉

The argument is that reading fiction is just entertainment…a “waste of time”. If you are going to read something, people say, read non-fiction, which has a practical use.

That’s not what I believe, and that’s not what the data I’ve seen suggests. Reading fiction has many practical benefits, and one of the most important is improved empathy.

However, even without demonstrable benefits like that, I believe there is a benefit in “wasting time”.

Let me illustrate. 🙂

I not only read more than the average person, and many people would feel like I have more knowledge than most people in a lot of areas (also due in part to reading), I also watch a lot of TV. I have it on as I’m writing this, for example (and not something “high-faluting”…it’s an old season of American Gladiators).

I like to say that I like 19th Century literature and 1960s TV…and I don’t really see why one is more respected than the other.

I had somebody say to me once, “You’d get more done if you didn’t watch so much TV.”

I didn’t believe it, but I am a data driven person. So, I didn’t watch television…for a year.

I tried to reasonably measure what I got done, and I got nothing more done.

How could that be?

Two things.

I never watch TV without doing something else at the same time…write, read, fold laundry, eat, exercise: it is literally multitasking.

The other thing is that television aids my transitions. I could switch my thought process from work to home more quickly by watching TV.

I used to wake up slowly (I’m not a morning person, even though nowadays, I wake up very early). I used to put on the news, and I figured when I finally understood a story, I was safe to cook. 😉

So, since watching TV doesn’t prevent me from doing other things, and since it shortens transitions, it isn’t a time loss.

If someone suggests to me now that I would get more done if I didn’t watch TV I can say, “I tried that experiment for a year, and it wasn’t true: perhaps you should try watching more TV for a year to see how it affects you.” 🙂

My experience is that it tends to be people who are less intellectual (not necessarily less intelligent, but less interested in thinking) who are less interested in fantasy. Since we’ve been talking TV, let me use a quote from there:

“The more complex the mind, the greater the need for the simplicity of play.”
–Captain James T. Kirk (played by William Shatner
The Shore Leave episode of Star Trek: The Original Series
screenplay by Theodore Sturgeon

I think reading fiction can serve a purpose to some extent similar to dreaming. Prevent someone by dreaming (by waking them up when they hit REM…Rapid Eye Movement) but still let them get enough sleep, and they may start hallucinating in just a few days (from what I’ve heard). Dreaming clearly serves some useful function (I think it is like defragging a computer disk…you run programs to see if they are working well and useful, and prioritize what is in the “front” of your memory, and what can go to deep storage). Reading fiction is similar: it lets us explore situations before we encounter them, and lets us see things from another perspective.

It both allows you to reset and gives you new and enhanced skills.

That’s my opinion, but I am curious about yours.

As always, you can let me and my readers know what you think by commenting on this post, but I also wanted to do a poll:

My current Amazon Giveaways


One Murder More (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

the award-winning, highly-rated mystery by my sibling, Kris Calvin!


  • Winner:Randomly selected after Giveaway has ended, up to 1 winners.
  • Requirements for participation:
  • Resident of the 50 United States or the District of Columbia
  • 18+ years of age (or legal age)
  • Follow Kris Calvin on Amazon (to my knowledge, all that you’ll get is a notification when Kris publishes a new book in the Kindle store, although I don’t know that for sure…that’s all I’ve ever seen for authors I follow, I think. Kris is working on the second book in the Maren Kane mystery series.
Start:May 28, 2017 5:20 AM PDT
End:June 4, 2017 11:59 PM PDT

Thanks to the hundreds of people who have entered my previous giveaways for a chance to win Kris’ book! I don’t benefit directly from Kris’ book, although we have had a lot of conversations about it. 🙂 Congratulations to Gordon H, who one the last OMM giveaway!

Amazon Giveaway for And Then There Were None!

Winner:Randomly selected after Giveaway has ended, up to 1 winner.
Requirements for participation:
Resident of the 50 United States or the District of Columbia
Follow @TMCGTT on twitter
18+ years of age (or legal age)

Start:May 12, 2017 6:24 PM PDT
End:Jun 11, 2017 11:59 PM PDT


Star Wars Day through 40 years of Star Wars!
Giveaway by Bufo Calvin
  • Winner:Randomly selected after Giveaway has ended, up to 1 winners.
  • Requirements for participation:
    • Resident of the 50 United States or the District of Columbia
    • Follow @TMCGTT on twitter
    • 18+ years of age (or legal age)


Start:May 4, 2017 6:32 AM PDT
End:Jun 3, 2017 11:59 PM PDT

It’s going on that long in part so that it covers the actual 40th anniversary of Star Wars (of the release in the USA) on May 25th 2017. Also, this book, which has good reviews and is new, is $14.99 in the Kindle edition…which is a lot for me for a giveaway. 🙂

Good luck, and may the Force be with you!

Join thousands of readers and try the free ILMK magazine at Flipboard!

All aboard The Measured Circle’s Geek Time Trip at The History Project!

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 


6 Responses to “Is reading fiction useless?”

  1. Scott Calvin Says:

    For those reading these comments, I’m Bufo’s brother, so I had the same family experience!

    I’m going to add another reason I think reading fiction is useful: it lets us explore situations and ideas with less knee-jerk baggage than specific events in the real world. We can read about a charismatic leader with authoritarian tendencies, for example, and think about the perils, without the added complication of having voted for (or against) the person. We can read about discrimination against a group that doesn’t exist, or by a group that doesn’t exist (think of the discrimination against muggles in the wizarding world of Harry Potter!), without getting wrapped up in our own implicit bias. We can examine questions of just war, bad marriages, unbridled ambition, and good and evil without having to live through it, or having to make judgments about people we know.

    That’s really important!

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Scott!

      Excellent point! While science fiction and fantasy are both sometimes accused (and not always incorrectly) of having…traditional roles, the “once removed” lens has also meant that female characters could be leaders (Interplanetary Huntress Gerry Carlyle, Imra “Saturn Girl” Ardeen…or Ayesha, She Who Must Be Obeyed, for example), and gender identity has had some interesting expressions.

      The Muggle thing is a good instance…and of course, there was also the Society for the Promotion of Elvish Welfare. 🙂

  2. Man in the Middle Says:

    In general, good fiction deals with real problems, and real solutions. For example, the book “One Second After” is about survival after an EMP attack. It’s fiction, and no such attack has happened yet. But it was intentionally written to teach survival skills that would be needed after such an attack, and such an attack could indeed happen at any time, so being prepared with knowledge about surviving such an event seems prudent.

    Any work of fiction still being read after 400 years may safely be assumed to deal with real problems humans often encounter, and includes teachings readers have found helpful, or it would not still be being read. “The Prince”, the King James Bible, “The Art of War”, “Hamlet”, and so on.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Man!

      I’m not sure that they necessarily deal with “real problems humans often encounter”, but with real emotions. Beowulf is still being read and the Odyssey, to name a couple…while there are real human emotions involved, people don’t commonly encounter cyclopes or monsters like Grendel. 😉

  3. Robert Poss Says:

    I’m reminded of Robert Anton Wilson’s line from his “Schrödinger’s Cat – The Trick Top Hat” intro:

    The usual trick is fiction disguised as fact. This trick is fact disguised as fiction.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Robert!

      Wilson’s certainly an interesting writer, and many would say philosopher. We do see fact disguised as fiction, of course…what gets hard is to get some people to realize that and others not to notice…

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