The Importance of Reading Fiction

By Jay Wright

Having trouble feeling your feelings? Consider picking up a great story and reading to feel. 

Recently I was sitting in my own therapy session and was reminded of the importance of reading fiction. My therapist, who is of a similar theoretical orientation as me, reflected on the need for diving into fiction, pondering great works of art, and contemplating the complex nature of the created world. I took this suggestion as an opportunity for action because for most of my adult life reading has been confined to non-fiction.

As a child reading did not come easily to me. I was good at learning letters and sounds and stringing them together into what must have sounded like comprehensible speech, but I did not comprehend what I was reading. Keeping my attention long enough to read a book – any book – was a difficult task. The only books I could finish were Gary Larson’s Far Side classics. 

Later in life, though, I was able to tame my inattentiveness with curiosity. Learning how a president grew up, or about a flood devastating a small Pennsylvania town, or which books E.B. White counted as his favorite really captivated my interest. Alas, fiction was still a distant land where my curiosity dare not wander. 

That is, until I began to wrestle with affect. That’s right, emotion. You see, I’ve always been someone who likes to feel. The primary means for feeling for most of my life had been music. Whether it was playing a classical piece on the piano or rocking out to something more modern, I could really feel the music. But could fiction be that place for me too? Could reading great works of fiction give me more vocabulary and experience to understand myself and my clients better?

Over the last couple of months, I’ve made an effort only to read literary fiction (in addition to those professional texts that are requisite for the practice of counseling and psychotherapy, of course – wink, wink).  And I can report that when read for enjoyment and with the explicit purpose of experiencing the emotions elicited in the text, I have felt a lot of feelings. I have seen myself and my own “stuff” in the stories and characters. I have longed for simpler times, reconciled relationships, and endings that are tragic and comic. All these experiences reading fiction have given me a deeper understanding into my own inner workings, insight on my own motivations and desires, and a constellation of characters that I can identify with in multiple ways.