To Become a Better Human, Read a Novel

Fiction can pick up where self-help books fall short

The summer of 2016, my husband recommended I read a novel called The Brothers K. I’m no stranger to getting lost in a good story — as a kid, I spent long summer days reading Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary, and a decade later, I graduated with a degree in English. But in that season of my life, pregnant with my second son and wrestling with anxiety, I wasn’t particularly interested in fiction. Growing felt a lot more important than escaping.

Still, thanks to my husband’s persistent encouragement, I picked up the tattered novel. And, to my surprise, I didn’t put it down for two weeks. Nearly 700 pages and probably as many tears later, I had learned a lot about life — maybe most importantly, that a coming-of-age story could teach me just as much as the stack of nonfiction titles sitting on my bedside table.

Many of us turn to self-help books for personal development and for good reason. Brené Brown and Malcolm Gladwell have a lot of wise things to say, and following step-by-step formulas for overcoming your hang-ups feels like a very grown-up endeavor. But if you want to actually practice becoming a better human, the immersive emotional roller coaster of a novel can be just as effective.

It all has to do with what happens in your brain when you read a story. The narrative structure and descriptive language in novels don’t just make you smarter but more emotionally intelligent, shaping the way you perceive and engage with reality. Essentially, recent research suggests, novels can help you practice being human.

In a 2016 study, Canadian psychologist Keith Oatley found that reading a novel can improve people’s empathy and social skills. Basically, he explained, reading is “a simulation of reality” that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Nonfiction can be written beautifully, but the rich worlds of novels are prime environments for growth: As science writer Annie Murphy Paul put it in a New York Times op-ed, “Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica.”

There’s plenty of research suggesting that when you read a vivid, sensory description, your brain behaves like you’re actually experiencing it. For example: When you read something like “lavender soap,” the part of your brain that deals with scent is activated. When you read a passage about a person swinging a baseball bat, the motion area of your brain lights up. The same principle holds true for vivid descriptions of a character’s emotions. While a self-help book lays out steps that can shift your thinking, Oatley’s research shows novels can actually help you rehearse them.

If you haven’t read The Brothers K, I can’t recommend it enough — but really, any novel will do. You could even try short stories or poetry. The important thing, if you want to read something that will help you be more empathetic, selfless, or kind, is to give your brain the firsthand experience it needs to apply those skills in real life.

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store