It’s a depressing statistic: almost a quarter of Americans haven’t read a single book in the past year. But it’s not such a surprise. Between work, family, friends, and the omnipresent screens of 21st century life—laptops, smart phones, tablets—who has time to read books?
Even among well-educated businesspeople, the tendency can be to read nonfiction, if anything: business books, self-help books—books we think can help us optimize our lives and get ahead. But a steady diet of In Search of Excellence, Crossing the Chasm, and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People isn’t enough to keep us well nourished intellectually, emotionally, spiritually—or professionally. We need to read fiction, as well.
As it turns out, there’s a pretty good business case for reading novels. From the link:
Over the past decade, academic researchers…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…
Emotions…have an impact on the bottom line. A 1996 study published in the journal Training and Development assessing the value of training workers at a manufacturing plant in emotional management skills — teaching employees to focus on how their work affects others rather than simply on getting the job done — found that union grievance filings were reduced by two-thirds while productivity increased substantially. And a study of a Fortune 400 health insurance company conducted by Peter Salovey, a psychology professor at Yale, looked at the correlations between emotional intelligence and salary and found that people rated highest by their peers in emotional intelligence received the biggest raises and were promoted most frequently.
In other words, reading fiction can help us better understand others—from coworkers to customers. Reading helps us imagine others’ inner lives, their fears and motivations, making us more empathetic—and better able to communicate more effectively as a result.
So where to start? If you’re so inclined, there happens to be plenty of fiction set in and around the world of business. Twentieth century classics like Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt and Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road explore the conformity and resulting psychic pressures created by business and consumer culture. More recent novels like Joshua Ferriss’ Then We Came to the End, Walter Kirn’s Up in the Air, and Dave Eggers’ A Hologram for the King illustrate the absurdity, banality, and cruelty that are all too often a part of the 21st century global business landscape. Novels like Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs and Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon offer insight into the issues facing entrepreneurs and technology workers. And novels including Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch contain loving depictions of the devotion to quality required to do truly great work—making gloves, in the former case, and restoring antique furniture, in the latter—and delve into the question of whether there’s room for that kind of craftsmanship in today’s world.
Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter where you start. Tolstoy or Jane Austen, Henry James or Edith Wharton, Don DeLillo or Margaret Atwood—whatever floats your boat. Just read a good book regularly. Do it for the enjoyment, but also with the knowledge that you’re not just indulging yourself—you’re building a better future for yourself and everyone around you.