Fiction Vs. Non-Fiction: Which Camp Do You Fall In?

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I’ve always believed you can tell a lot about a person by what they read (or what they don’t)–perhaps this is why, when I come into someone’s house or apartment for the first time, I will often poke around their bookshelves a bit if given the opportunity because it makes me feel like I have an edge when it comes to getting to know them better.

On my bookshelves (not my husband’s–we have our own separate shelves), you might be a little bit more hard-pressed than with some people’s book collections to find out my definitive tastes. You see, I’ve looked at a LOT of bookshelves in my time since it’s one of my favorite places to kind of, well, snoop around. I’ve noticed that with many people, their book tastes can be nailed down to a few different styles. Take my husband’s shelves, for example–you take one look at his bookshelves, and you know immediately that he is a hardcore fan of anything fantasy, with a healthy mix of science fiction (especially dystopian novels) thrown in to keep things interesting. Or one of my close friend’s shelves—she’s a serious sucker for a good self-help read, especially anything to do with marriage, parenting, or fulfilling her own potential, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find an open fiction novel around anywhere.

Having looked at a lot of people’s personal book collections, I’ve started to create somewhat of a theory. While this theory is far from including everyone, I have generally found that people usually fall into one of two camps when it comes to books they prefer to keep around:

In the first camp, you’ll find the avid readers who clearly find reading to be more of an escape or a relaxation of sorts. You know this, because not only do they usually own MORE books, but they usually own mostly FICTIONAL books (or maybe some non-fiction books that have a compelling storyline, such as memoirs). In this camp, the readers’ goal tends to fall more towards pleasure and entertainment than it does toward education. (My husband clearly falls into this category.)

In the second camp, you’ll find readers who think that reading is important largely because it’s how they gain new information and become more knowledgeable in some certain subject. If these people are going to spend time reading (especially considering how busy they are), then that time better produce payoffs, dangit. On these bookshelves, you will most likely find a good and varied smattering of non-fiction, which could include anything from cookbooks to books on gardening to religious materials. My friend with the self-help collection would clearly fall into this category.

And there are definite benefits to both kinds of reading, of course—non-fiction reads clearly extend your knowledge database, help you to stay current on certain trends, and help you to delve into the inner workings of your own personality and mind. Reading non-fiction tends to produce a much more metacognitive (thinking about how you think and process and deal with information in daily life) effect than fiction does, and I think most people could benefit from a little more self-reflection in general. Plus, one huge bonus of reading non-fiction is that it has a longer mental shelf life—what I mean by that is that you can start a non-fiction book, read a chapter, and then pick it up again 9 months later and not be totally lost. Since there aren’t any characters or plot lines to keep track of, you are free to pick and choose what you want to read, in what order, and when.

On the other hand, reading a good fiction novel produces a state of relaxation that is extremely difficult to get from a non-fiction read. I once read of a study that says that it’s much better to read fiction rather than non-fiction right before bed because following a good story produces a much more calming and relaxing effect than does having to process a lot of informational text. Additionally, our brains are hardwired to process information through narratives, and although we may think we’re only paying attention to the story on the surface, our brains are, in reality, processing all sorts of deeper meanings through the telling of that story, such as character motivations, cause-and-effect relationships, and comparisons to our own life or the lives of others we know. Plus, they’re just plain entertaining, which makes them more immediately satisfying than a non-fiction read.

When I look at my own reading habits, it’s tempting for me to try and put myself into both camps because if you look at my shelves, I have a pretty hefty collection of both types of books. And lately, since I seem to be favoring non-fiction more and more, I’d almost convinced myself that I belong more in the second camp than the first, especially since the fiction books I do read are often a means to an end—being able to cross off yet another book on one of my many recommended reading lists.
But then I looked again, and I realized that most of my non-fiction books still follow some kind of narrative (or narratives), whether it be the true story of someone’s quest to be healthy (such as Healthy Me by A. J. Jacobs) or the moral tales found in books like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

And, in the end, I had to admit to myself that for me, one of the main drives that keeps me reading is that it does keep me relaxed and connected with the larger human family through the telling of our collective stories. So, even though I would be a bit of a “tricky case” for a bookshelf snoop, I think I’d have to put myself in the “We Read Mostly Fiction and Are Proud of It” club.

What camp do you fall in?

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