Breaking our non-fiction addiction

How our love of ‘brainy’ books is crushing our creativity

How our love of ‘brainy’ books is crushing our creativity

At the end of each year, we get the round-ups; the ‘things I’ve learned’, the biggest news stories, the best movies, the best songs, the best TV shows and the best books. It’s a way for us to reflect on what we’ve absorbed and enjoyed, it can even point to a particular theme for the 12 months gone by that maybe we only noticed upon rumination.

And I love a good round-up, especially from people whose curation skills I hold in high esteem. It means I get vetted recommendations that I can add to my own list for the year ahead, a way to wade through the sheer volume of options to find the golden nuggets that are worth my time and attention, especially the book suggestions. I’ve been an avid reader for forever, both my kindle and my bookshelves are crammed full with more titles that I could possibly hope to read, even in the next decade.

However this year, I noticed for the first time a trend that I’ve been aware of on the periphery but that hadn’t shown itself in such a stark light until now; the decline of fiction and the rise of the ‘brainy’ books on the end of year lists.

And nowhere is this more pronounced (and therefore more worrying) than within the wider field of storytelling itself — strategists, marketers and the self-styled brand gurus seem to have abandoned novels in favour of non-fiction titles; preferring to fill their minds with frameworks, economic overviews, psychological studies, how-to guides and the theories of creativity — which is all well and good if (and only if) all of this can be balanced out with a heavy dose of the real thing.

Because what is fictional literature if not a perfect example of creativity in action; a container within which are the best examples of storytelling, world building, character development, narrative arcs, new ideas, different ways to view our reality and a myriad of ways to spark our imaginations — all the things we lament on a daily basis that are sorely lacking in our industry.

An industry that we’ve all agreed (to an extent) has become less creative and more rational, less spontaneous and more scheduled, less about plots and more about platforms, less about imagination and more about over-intellectualising, less about daring and more about data.

Let’s be honest, it’s fucking boring.

I firmly believe that what we’re feeding our minds and how we prioritise what deserves our attention has a great deal to do with it. We’ve become so tangled in fact and function that we’re becoming monochrome in our thinking, we’ve forgotten how to cultivate our artistry and originality, our ability to see new connections, explore divergent paths, inhabit new landscapes and indulge in fantasy.

And it’s having a disastrous effect.

As the saying goes, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” and we’re becoming just that, dull.

Many people that I’ve spoken to about this have somehow framed fiction as frivolous, they see it purely as escapism, childishness, a past time for weaker intellects or not worthy of their time because they don’t feel they’ve learned anything in the process.

What utter, utter bollocks.

Fictional literature is the ultimate, under appreciated educational tool and a critical way for those in the advertising industry (or any industry for that matter) to flex their creative muscles and broaden both their imaginations and their field of reference; staying firmly rooted in reality will only lead you in the direction of what is and what was, but what we all need now more than ever is a better understanding of what could be.

And if the above diatribe isn’t enough, below are even more reasons to put down the ‘brainy’ book, back away from the marketing guff and instead choose to lose yourself in another world entirely…

“Some people will lie, cheat, steal and back-stab to get ahead… and to think, all they have to do is READ.” — Fortune Magazine

Fiction cultivates your creativity

“There is more treasure in books than in all the pirates’ loot on Treasure Island.” — Walt Disney

Stories are the way we make sense of the world and they have been since the beginning of time; they help to create our cultures, unite our communities, pass on knowledge and help us to keep moving forward. They are the pinnacle of human creativity.

In a study entitled ‘Opening the Closed Mind: The Effect of Exposure to Literature on the Need for Closure’ — scientists gave 100 participants either an essay or a short story to read, after which they assessed their ‘cognitive closure’ (i.e. their emotional need for certainty and stability, the opposite of open-mindedness and creativity). Those who read the short stories reported a significant decrease in their need for cognitive closure, thereby increasing their appetite for uncertainty, ambiguity and creative thinking.

Proof that you can’t discount the fantastical as pure folly — it actually makes us better at our jobs (and arguably, at our lives).

Fiction expands your empathy

“It puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gifts of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over.”- Neil Gaiman

When we read a novel, we cast ourselves in the role of a character or several characters; we see what they see, feel what they feel and overcome the same challenges they face. We quite literally live in the mind of another person for a period of time.

Psychologist David Dodell-Feder from the University of Rochester, spent a few years reviewing 14 previous studies on the relationship between reading fiction and empathy. The conclusion he came to was that compared to reading non-fiction or not reading at all, reading fiction produced a “small, statistically significant improvement in social-cognitive performance. — i.e. it makes you more able to empathise with others.

Barack Obama even once said that, “when I think about how I understand my role as citizen…the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels.”

Fiction ignites your imagination

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” ― Michael Scott, The Warlock

I mean, I really shouldn’t have to explain this one, but I will.

Imagination has gotten us to where we are as humans today; we’ve dreamt up seemingly bonkers ideas from thin air and we’ve made them a reality. It’s as simple as saying ‘if you can dream it, you can do it’ (another hat tip to Mr Disney).

Stories allow us to stretch our imaginations in new directions, introducing us to impossible things, to magic, to madness and to much, much more.

Neuroscientists at Emory University discovered that reading fiction can improve brain function on a variety of levels. They found that becoming engrossed in a novel enhances connectivity in the brain and improves brain function. Reading fiction was found to improve the reader’s imagination in a way that is similar to muscle memory in sports.

Just look at one of the most well known dreamers and doers of our time, Elon Musk, who has admitted to reading up to 10 hours of science fiction per day

Fiction clarifies the complex

“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Stories can help make ideas and concepts far more accessible and far easier to understand; through metaphor, analogy or exploring the impact of a real-world decision through a fantasy-world lens — a simulation of sorts, but for the mind.

And anthropologists have long argued that stories have group-level benefits. Traditional tales, from hero epics to sacred myths, perform the essential work of defining group identity and reinforcing cultural values, as well as cementing our understanding of right and wrong.

Two books which have done just that are George Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Margeret Atwood’s ‘A Handmaid’s Tale’ — both were spun out of our own reality and charted the horrific futures we could face if we allowed ourselves to drop our vigilance even a little bit. At the time they were published, these books were seen as purely fictional dystopias, disturbing parallel universes that we would (thankfully) never inhabit.

However now, their frightening regimens, characters and ways of life are being held up as legitimate warnings for where we might end up, should we continue on current paths; the simulation they offered has helped us to see what the outcome could be and to push against it.

“… a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.”― George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

So please, I implore you, abandon logic for a moment and lose yourself in adventure; discover a previously unknown universe, slay dragons, visit Mars, go back in time to the roaring 20’s, embark on a crusade with a knight of the realm, uncover a lost treasure in the depths of the ocean, solve a puzzle to save humanity in a race against time, become a powerful sorcerer in a mystical land, dive into a world of glitz and glamour and intrigue, anything, anything, anything but another bloody ‘brainy’ book.