Bill Gates should embrace the power of literary fiction

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The tech magnate Bill Gates is a major advocate of reading. He has, in the past eight years, recommended more than 100 books.

That’s great, especially considering he made his fortune in technology and not in publishing. However, Gates’ recommended reading lists do leave something to be desired: They are light on literary fiction, despite the fact that this form has enormous benefits for readers.

Gates seems to read a lot. But he’s only listed 12 novels in the past eight years. That’s not bad. However, by contrast, he’s recommended 17 nonfiction books by a single author, Vaclav Smil, in the same amount of time. And his lists over that period offer dozens of recommendations for books on wealth and inequality and development and foreign aid, topics which are also illuminated by literature.

There are surely practical reasons for this. Gates is a philanthropist who wants to invest wisely in programs that will have the best effect. But by delving into literary fiction, he could learn a lot about inequality, politics, the plight of the rich and the poor, and the struggles that individuals have as a result of policies and aid programs. And his sense of connection to people would be deepened by this reading because novels are scientifically proven to promote empathy, giving readers a feel for the character’s experience, not just factual knowledge.

The science of fiction

A 2013 study in Science found that kids who read nonfiction, genre novels, or nothing at all are less capable of relating to others than those who consumed literary fiction. Exposure to literary fiction made kids more empathetic than their study counterparts. They scored better on tests designed to measure “theory of mind,” which is related to social acumen.

Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others. It seems like a simple enough skill but not everyone really gets that other people see, feel, and perceive the world deeply. It’s this distance that makes it possible for us to dismiss the positions of those we disagree with, or, in the worst cases, dehumanize them altogether. When we can’t see that the “other” is just like us insofar as they feel pain and joy and suffer and love, despite looking different or having a distinct lifestyle or set of beliefs, we can justify harsh policies, divisive politics, and even atrocities.

Literary fiction, which tends to focus on the psychology of individuals, provides a window into the inner lives of strangers in other times and places. It’s this preoccupation with sensation and thought that makes the form a powerful tool for developing empathy. Stories that transport us also transform us, according to the study. Reading literary fiction,  though a solitary pursuit, increases social understanding.

When we read a classic like Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, wealth disparity and the struggle to survive that might drive someone to crime become real. We feel feverish when the protagonist does, feel desperate right along with him. Similarly, reading George Orwell’s 1984 does more than explain the political dangers of propaganda and totalitarianism states. It places us in the mind of a person experiencing life in such a regime, someone trying to love another person though caring is against the law. Elie Wiesel’s Night forces reader to consider whether persecution and punishment could drive them, too, to desire their own family’s demise to ensure their survival, transforming the Holocaust from a mere abstraction—the past—to a personal challenge.

Newer novels also shed light on political events that continue to influence world affairs. But unlike nonfiction books or policy papers, they allow us to look inward. For example, the novel Disoriental by Negar Djavadi, just nominated for the Pen translation award, is about the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the experience of one progressive intellectual family that ultimately fled to Paris. It transports readers while illuminating politics, religion, and Persian culture (food, stories, clothes, games, and language). It reveals the pain of exile—what it’s like to never go home again, and the toll that takes on the soul—and is a compelling exploration of a phenomenon that social scientists have also documented. Displacement—even to a safe nation after armed conflict at home—is a stressor that seriously impacts refugee mental health.

Why do we need to know all this? Because by personalizing the psychology of fictional characters, literary fiction cultivates our ability to relate to the people around us, and people far away. And the more we can actually see the humanity of others, the more likely it is we’ll be humane.

A 2006 study in the Journal of Research in Personality, entitled “Bookworms Versus Nerds,” also tested the link between literary fiction and social acumen. Before the experiment, each student participating took an Author Recognition Test, a common measure of lifetime exposure to literature. The researchers discovered that a high score on that test “consistently predicted” high-empathy test scores. The best-read students were the most empathetic. So, it wasn’t enough for the participants to have just read one literary passage, chapter, or book. Those who had a habit of engaging with literature regularly were best able to relate to other people and acknowledge their feelings. The researchers concluded that there is a definite connection between reading literary fiction and strong theory of mind.

The best tech

Notably, reading fiction creates a simulation in the mind that works like consciousness itself, according to psychologist Keith Oatley of the University of Toronto. The mind doesn’t distinguish between story and reality, which is why humans have always told tales and why we can get so into binge-watching a series on Netflix. In a 2016 review of the cognitive effects of fiction in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Oatley explains:

Fiction is the simulation of selves in interaction. People who read it improve their understanding of others. This effect is especially marked with literary fiction, which also enables people to change themselves. These effects are due partly to the process of engagement in stories, which includes making inferences and becoming emotionally involved, and partly to the contents of fiction, which include complex characters and circumstances that we might not encounter in daily life. Fiction can be thought of as a form of consciousness of selves and others that can be passed from an author to a reader or spectator, and can be internalized to augment everyday cognition.

In other words, literary fiction was the first virtual-reality technology. With the written word and a compelling tale, humans have long been able to simulate the experience of travel to other worlds and lives.

Literature remains a great tool, even today, because it takes us directly into the minds of characters so we feel with them. And this feeling helps us become better people, more caring, kind, and cooperative. Surely, Bill Gates—a tech giant who is evidently empathetic based on his philanthropy—would agree that such a simulation machine is amazing.