Fiction books: the anti-algorithm

You amble up to your local library on a drizzly Sunday afternoon. As the doors slide open, you lazily sip on your lukewarm latte. 

Suddenly, a team of highly-caffeinated librarians swarm you and hustle you inside. 

“We know exactly what you’ll love next!” one shouts. Others hold up sheets on either side of you, keeping you from seeing any books in the stacks. 

“This way! Right over here!”

The last book you read was “Atomic Habits.” A fine choice. But now the librarians jostle you into a corner with at least 25 other books on habits. They hold them up to your face, read short passages, and try to quickly move you on to the checkout desk. 

This is the world of algorithms. This is the experience our social media overlords want for us, hustling us to content similar to what we’ve already consumed. 

Reject this. 

Add variety, adventure, and surprise to your book-reading experience. Explore fiction books. On your own terms and at your own pace. 

Hustle culture swamps book culture  

Online, book culture emphasizes non-fiction. The once-celebrated “Great American Novel” is shoved into a corner as we celebrate the latest in the self-help and business genres. 

Hustle culture has invaded book marketing, and everything we read should make us richer and better. Billionaires like Mark Cuban and Warren Buffett are voracious readers--but of non-fiction only. Therefore, to be rich and successful like them, we should steer clear of fiction. 

This a terrible fallacy, a product of America’s cultural obsession with self-actualization and money:

But business visionaries who extol the virtues of reading almost always recommend nonfiction. Buffet recommended 19 books in 2019; not one of the titles is fiction. Of the 94 books Bill Gates recommended over a seven-year period, only nine of them are fiction.

Fiction teaches knowledge in a unique way. It introduces layers of subtlety and shades of emotion often absent in non-fiction work, which is optimized in neon for maximum attention and dopamine dumps. 

Fiction helps you practice empathy 

As the amount of information online rises, empathy declines. Our algorithmic bubbles are, no doubt, at least partly to blame. We bathe in homogenous ideas and experiences. 

Fiction can change that

In 2006, Oatley and his colleagues published a study that drew a strong connection between reading fiction and better performance on widely used empathy and social acumen tests. They tested participants on their ability to recognize author names, which helped them gauge how much fiction they read. Then, participants completed the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, which scores people across different dimensions of empathy.

Reading fiction takes you inside the perspectives and lives of people living differently than you, in a way that’s non-threatening. You’re reading a story and not thinking about your own worldview. 

Fiction rearranges the way you see the world

“The Overstory” is a fiction book about trees. Written by Richard Powers, the book takes a small idea—writing about trees—and grows and twists and branches it out, using a series of interconnected short stories and characters to create a novel as complex and rich as any forest.   

With beautiful prose, “The Overseer” completely changed the way I think about trees. They aren’t separate entities--they are part of a tightly integrated organismorganism. They communicate with each other. They even migrate.

I would never read a non-fiction book about trees. How boring. But a novel completely changed the way I think about trees. 

Fiction improves social skills 

As our lives shift ever more online, our social skills erode. Conversation skills, attention span, and even eye contact are all in decline. Reading fiction fights the trend by giving us social practice, right inside the pages of a book:

The Canadian cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley calls fiction “the mind’s flight simulator”. Just as pilots can practise flying without leaving the ground, people who read fiction may improve their social skills each time they open a novel. In his research, he has found that as we begin to identify with the characters, we start to consider their goals and desires instead of our own.  

Focus is critical to our ability to connect with others and our surroundings. As we become evermore distracted, fiction books aid our attention spans by forcing us to concentrate:

There is no escape in fiction, though it offers something we so desperately need: time. Stories require an investment, the type of sacrifice tweets and selfies are not equipped to offer. The arresting power of a beautiful sentence; the captivation characters evoke, especially messy ones. To travel well with another’s mind is a necessary form of communication. 

Want to differentiate yourself? Burst your own bubble

People who push outside the boundaries of their algorithmic bubbles have an opportunity to soar above the masses. Few people take the time to explore other viewpoints and think deeply about them. Reading a rich variety of fiction books is the antidote.

Contemplation and variety aren’t profitable for tech companies. Money comes from rapid exposure to ideas you’ve already engaged with. Algorithms feed you a fast-food diet of proven interests.  

Corporations aren’t going to remove algorithms. Instead, algorithms will be refined and strengthened to better turn your attention into profits. 

Challenge yourself. Get outside your algorithms. 

Reading from a broad cross-section of fiction books is the anti-algorithm. The great bubble-burster. Start popping yours today.