Reading Fiction Vs. Reading Non-Fiction: Is one better?

Three books stacked open facing up on a wooden table with scattered seeds

By Caroline Parkinson  

Generally, there are two types of book readers: creative and imaginative fiction fanciers and pragmatic fact-seeking non-fiction devotees (please excuse my penchant for sweeping generalisations).  

Many fiction readers embrace the confines of their weighted blanket, ready to escape reality by diving into whimsical worlds of curious characters, places, and events. While the majority of non-fiction readers, on the other hand, wholeheartedly believe the proverbial saying “Truth is stranger than fiction,” arguing that the best stories come from the real world.  

I fall squarely within camp non-fiction (much to the dismay of my literary-loving Master of Arts classmates). If you were to offer up the latest Booker Prize winner alongside Ash Barty’s My Dream Time, I’d hit up the tennis legend’s memoir before you could say game, set, match.  

A love of “real-life reading” is in my DNA. My family elevates science and rational thought above all else (hello, doctor mother and engineer father). Most of the books that adorned my childhood shelves were based on fact – memoirs, history, travel, architecture, gardening, cooking and sports – all bookended by a leather-bound set of Encyclopedia Brittanica.      

What kind of reader are you? Do you understand the true benefits of reading? Do you think that one type of reader is superior? Let’s review the difference between fiction and non-fiction books, weigh up the benefits of each, and try to settle the argument.  

Fiction and non-fiction explained

As a GSP blog reader, I’ll assume you already know the key benefits of regular reading, including improved brain connectivity, increased vocabulary and comprehension, and relaxation. You also likely know the main differences between fiction and non-fiction books, but I’ll provide a quick 101 just in case. Fiction generally includes a plot, settings, and characters created from the imagination (think mystery, romance, fantasy, horror, and science fiction), while non-fiction focuses on factual stories about actual events, people and opinions (such as biographies, self-help, history, travel, politics, cooking, health and fitness).  

OK, let’s now present a case for both genres.  

Case for fiction

If you need a compassionate shoulder to cry on, I suggest you turn to your The Perks of Being a Wallflowerloving friend. Why? Reading fiction improves social understanding and sharpens your ability to comprehend other people’s motivations, leading to greater levels of empathy and more developed emotional intelligence.

Fiction reading is also linked to reduced stress levels, putting our brains in a highly relaxed state akin to meditation. Great novels aid sleep, improve self-esteem, help you to become more inclusive and tolerant towards marginalised groups and are even prescribed as a treatment for depression through an approach called “bibliotherapy. Most notably, fiction reading expands your vocabulary, allowing you to express yourself better and improve your conversation skills, leading to more meaningful human connections.

OK, before I hunt down my tattered high school copy of The Catcher in the Rye, let’s hear from team non-fiction.

Case for non-fiction  

While reading non-fiction might not be immediately associated with pleasure and escapism, this genre can be highly gratifying for those of us with analytical-leaning minds. One reason is that non-fiction expands your general knowledge, exposing you to new information that you can use to improve your life and fulfil your potential. Learning about different people, experiences, cultures and histories can also inspire and motivate you. Chinese-born US immigrant Lisa Bu sums this up delightfully in her viral TED talk, describing how she used historical non-fiction to expand her closeted worldview, assimilate into an adopted country and create a new path for herself.  

Non-fiction books are also credited for improving your critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Considering different viewpoints and forming new opinions puts you on the path to cognitive and intellectual growth.  

And finally, self-help non-fiction has been proven to improve self-awareness as readers gain a greater understanding of motivations, values and personality traits, helping you to make informed life decisions and build more fulfilling relationships.

Bronze scales sitting on desk next to a judge hammer and gavel.
What would you judge as the most beneficial? Photo by Sora Shimazaki on Pexels. Used with CC0 license.

The verdict

It’s probably not the decisive answer you’re after, but I see clear benefits in reading both genres. Fiction books can improve your creativity, imagination and empathy. Non-fiction books will expand your general knowledge, help you to think critically and improve self-awareness.   

So why not venture beyond your literary comfort zone and devour a wide range of texts? You don’t need to do a complete 180; start with a tweak.  If you’re mad for a mystery, check out the real-life whodunit I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle Macnamara or Truman Capote’s classic In Cold Blood. If you love some romance, get cosy with Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love.  

As a non-fiction reader, I plan to dip my toe into the world of fiction with a selection of novels for non-fiction lovers, starting with Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad before grabbing a copy of Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding.

That said, at the end of the day, any reading (fiction or non-fiction) is good reading, so choose whatever genre, method, and mode you enjoy!  

Caroline Parkinson is a strategic communicator and Master of Publishing and Communications student. She loves non-fiction reading, descriptive writing, and snuggling up on the couch with her two young sons.  

What’s your go-to when you have time to read? Feature Photo by Vlad Deep from Pexels. Used with CC0 license.

One response to “Reading Fiction Vs. Reading Non-Fiction: Is one better?”

  1. Warwick Parkinson Avatar
    Warwick Parkinson

    Your non fiction father is currently reading The adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Not bad for a crusty old Engineer. Well written Caroline.

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