Five ways reading can help you thrive.
I recently attended a friend’s baby shower. It was one of those beautiful, Pinterest-worthy ones where the invitation said to bring a book instead of a card. As we sat beneath the Goodnight Moon mobile, munching on carrots from McGreggor’s vegetable patch, we watched my friend as she reopened our childhoods before our eyes.
“Paddington Bear—that was my favorite!”
“My dad used to read me Chicken Little.”
“I read every single book in the Berenstein Bear Series!”
Most of the women present were in their twenties, friends of the mother-to-be from high school or college. I asked a woman sitting next to me what she was reading now.
She looked at me with surprise. “Read? I don’t read anything now. I have no time!”
Another woman said, “If I have five minutes to read anything, I read non-fiction. I don’t have time to get lost in fake stories.”
It’s true that twenties are a time of busyness. Some of us are working our way up the corporate ladder, some working long hours to launch our own start-ups. Some of us are traveling the globe, trying to find pieces of ourselves that somehow got stuck in the Swiss Alps; some of us are launching into the busy season of parenthood ourselves. There is not a lot of time.
So why, in this busy season of life, should we read fiction? Why should we get lost in a world not our own when we have so many responsibilities, so much to think about?
I would argue that we lost something great when we exchanged Little House on the Prairie for Lean In, and Corduroy for checklists. Here’s why you should read fiction to thrive in your twenties.
1. Fiction helps you see your own life more clearly.
Fiction, in essence, is the art of using lies and stories to tell a greater truth. My favorite book of all time is These Is My Words by Nancy E. Turner. Sarah Prine, the protagonist, is a woman of grit, strength, and dignity. As I navigated the muddy years after college where no one tells you what to do, I read about Sarah’s lonely years on the harsh Arizona Territories. In Sarah’s anxiety and uncertainty, I saw and was able to process my own.
Fiction follows life patterns and choices through to the consequences. Scarlett O’Hara of Gone With the Wind taught me the place that vanity leads, and through Gloria’s fate in Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned, I learned that the quest for money and fame is empty at the end. Because fiction is about people, it can’t be read without reflecting on your own life. And who, in their twenties, doesn’t want to understand and be understood?
2. Reading fiction makes you a kinder person.
The world takes all kinds of kinds could not be a truer saying in the world of fiction. Reading fiction not only exposes us to every type of personality we would see in the real world; it helps us empathize with them. Because the goal of every fiction writer is to make their story believable, they must create whole people, with quirks, flaws, and rationales for why they are the way they are. It is one thing to hear that 34% of women suffer from domestic abuse. It is entirely different to encounter one of those women in the pages of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, to understand how it happens, and why, so often, they feel like they can’t escape. Until I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, I had a textbook understanding of autism but no idea what it really felt like. Reading fiction makes you a more empathetic person, because you are walking in someone else’s shoes.
3. Fiction expands your view of the world.
The twenties are the time in your life to travel, to visit other cultures, to explore lifestyles and ways of doing things. Reading fiction can help people encounter different beliefs, values, and places in a way that Google never can. A quick Internet search could tell me that Russia is cold in the winter, but until I read Anna Karenina, I didn’t understand the biting feeling of thinking you’ll never be warm again. Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry taught me the importance of farming and and gave me appreciation of eating what you harvest. He inspired in me an interest in gardening I would not have found otherwise. Reading fiction can also spark a desire to travel to new places. I would love to visit Prince Edward Island to retrace Anne’s tracks, or the walled city of St. Malo featured in All the Light We Cannot See.
4. It makes you more fun at cocktail hour.
Writers of fiction are more than storytellers; they are intense researchers. This means that any book of fiction you read also comes with an unintentional history and social studies lesson. The facts and tidbits you pick up from reading fiction make you an excellent party guest. I didn’t know that the U.S. Military used the Navajo language as code during the Second World War until I read The Water and the Blood. Anything I know about the ins and outs of a courtroom came from reading To Kill a Mockingbird.
Reading fiction also gives you practice in how to talk to people. From my books, I have learned how to talk to know-it-alls like Miss Rachel Lynn, sullen Mr. Darcys, beautiful Daisys and Jays. Reading teaches you how to socialize and have interesting dialogue.
5. Fiction keeps your brain in shape.
There have been several studies that have shown the importance of reading in keeping the brain healthy. According to Psychology Today, those who read fiction reflect heightened brain connectivity to those who don’t. Reading helps stimulate creativity and imagination. That’s something valuable for your twenties and beyond.
Reading fiction in our twenties is just as important as hearing treasured nighttime stories in our childhoods. I hope the new baby from my friend’s shower will grow up to be, above all, a reader.
Rachael is an MFA Student and Writer in Pittsburgh. She blogs at Steeped in Thought.