Stop reading self-help books: The incredible power of novels

Elon Musk is perhaps the best-known entrepreneur on the planet.

He’s the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, among others. He’s reshaping how we use sustainable energy, and how and where we travel. When humans reach Mars, it will likely be thanks to his innovations.

But Elon Musk wouldn’t be a household name today if he hadn’t been addicted to reading fiction as a teenager.

Musk has been vocal about his lifelong love of reading: 

“I was raised by books,” he said in a 2017 interview with Rolling Stone. “Books, and then my parents.”

Though Musk was said to have read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica by the time he was 9, that wasn’t what shaped him into one of the world’s most powerful people.

Nor was it dense philosophical texts by the likes of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer he originally turned to for answers during bouts of teenage angst.

Rather, Musk cites as his influence Douglas Adams’s “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy,” a fictional tale about a man named Arthur Dent who abandons Earth for space once he realizes his house (and planet) are about to be destroyed.

“It highlighted an important point, which is that a lot of times the question is harder than the answer,” Musk said of the book. “And if you can properly phrase the question, then the answer is the easy part.”

“Then whatever the question is that most approximates: what’s the meaning of life? That’s the question we can ultimately get closer to understanding.”

Successful entrepreneurs have always emphasized the importance of reading, but their recommendations are usually nonfiction. The Harvard Business Review points out that of the 19 books Warren Buffet recommended in 2019, not one title was fiction. Of the nearly 100 books recommended by Bill Gates over seven years, only nine were fiction.

But research shows that reading novels is excellent for our brains in a number of ways, including building empathy and expanding our imaginations.

Reading is one of my favorite pastimes, but I didn’t always approach it the right way.

When I first launched Jotform back in 2006, I thought of reading as just another task to complete. But over time, I started questioning my method. Why was I treating one of life’s greatest pleasures like a performance goal to be achieved or a deadline to be met?

Successful people tend to be curious about the world they live in. With COVID-19 halting business across the world, now is a better time than ever to find solace in a good book. But reading fiction shouldn’t just be another item to tick off of a to-do list. Its value lies not in how much you read, but how you do it.

The physiological effects of reading for fun

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Reading fiction is known to improve what’s called “theory of mind” — that is, the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, knowledge, etc. — to oneself and others, and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own.

When we read a novel, changes to our brains are registered in the left temporal cortex, associated with receptivity for language, as well as the brain’s primary sensorimotor region. Neurons in this region have been found to be responsible for tricking the mind into thinking it’s doing something that it’s not — a phenomenon known as embodied cognition.

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” said neuroscientist and Emory College professor Gregory S. Berns, who authored a study on the brain benefits of reading fiction. In other words, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes improves theory of mind.

Other research has found that the open-mindedness associated with reading fiction also enhances the brain’s flexibility when it comes to processing information, which helps with effective decision-making.

One study from 2013 examined the correlation between reading literature and what is called “cognitive closure,” or the desire to “reach a quick conclusion in decision-making and an aversion to ambiguity and confusion.”

Those with a strong need for cognitive closure struggle to change their minds when presented with new information, which makes them more confident in their own initial (and sometimes flawed) beliefs.

On the other hand, those who resist the need for cognitive closure tend to be more thoughtful, creative, and comfortable with competing narratives. In the study, participants who were assigned to read a short story (versus those assigned to read an essay) experienced a “significant decrease in self-reported need for cognitive closure.”

How to log off and pick up a book

In an age when there’s always something demanding our attention — be it the “ping” of a new email or a news alert going off on our phones — finding uninterrupted reading time can be a challenge.

It doesn’t help that our devices are designed to be addictive, with multiple Silicon Valley titans, like ex-Google ethicist Tristan Harris, warning of the addictive and unhealthy nature of our attachment to our phones.

In order to focus fully, it can be helpful to clear your mind of devices by putting them on silent, or even in another room altogether. It’s not always easy, especially these days. Stories about coronavirus are everywhere, and it can feel impossible — even irresponsible — to tear ourselves away from our newsfeeds, lest we miss something crucial happening in the world.

Then there’s the matter of making time. As the CEO of Jotform, it’s hard to find multiple consecutive hours to dedicate to uninterrupted reading time. But now, more than ever, disconnecting should be a priority.

One way to create uninterrupted reading time is to think of it as a scheduled “date night,” making specific space to be truly absorbed. 

As Elizabeth Gilbert said, we should read “when we’re open and relaxed enough to actually receive something.”

The important thing is to avoid making excuses about not having enough time. As president, Barack Obama read an hour a day. Bill Gates reads a book per week.

If two of the busiest people on Earth can do it, the rest of us can, too.

Quality over quantity

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Lots of highly successful people tout how much they read. But reading fiction isn’t about absorbing as much information as possible in the shortest time frame.

Consider the three types of reading:

First, there’s passive reading: Scrolling through Facebook or Twitter; scanning a magazine in a waiting room. This type of reading happens to you.

Then there’s practical reading — reading done for a purpose. Think textbooks read for classes at school, or for non-fiction read for personal improvement.

The third type is pleasurable. It can be a short story, a novel or even a play, but the main attraction is that it’s absorbing. It whisks you out of your current reality — be it a long line or crowded subway car — and pulls you in, transporting you from your physical world and into the one on the page.

With this sort of reading, it’s not about how long it takes you to move through pages and chapters. Pleasurable reading lengthens our attention spans, increases our vocabularies, and teaches us things, whether that was the goal or not.

But how to know where to start?

Well, what do you enjoy? Start with themes that interest you; find authors whose voices you lose yourself in. The bestseller list can be a good place to begin, but don’t force yourself to read work that doesn’t grip you just because it seems impressive. 

Life’s too short to slog through a book you don’t like.

At the same time, don’t shun books as “guilty pleasures” or “beach reading” for fear of seeming unimpressive. If you find yourself immersed in the world on the page, go with it.

Reading can be educational; it can create empathy and make us smarter. But it’s also so much more. Books allow us to live lives outside our own; to experience things we never would otherwise.

As Carl Sagan once put it: 

“Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”

Aytekin Tank is the founder and CEO of Jotform and the bestselling author of Automate Your Busywork. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from Jotform users. You can reach Aytekin from his official website

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