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Not All Reading is Equal

Not a Wasted Word sent me an article about how the brains of people who read fiction are different from the brains of people who do all other forms of reading: non-fiction, surfing the Web, Twitter, etc.  It begins,

It’s not news that reading has countless benefits: Poetry stimulates parts of the brain linked to memory and sparks self-reflection; kids who read the Harry Potter books tend to be better people. But what about people who only read newspapers? Or people who scan Twitter all day? Are those readers’ brains different from literary junkies who peruse the pages of 19th century fictional classics?

Short answer: Yes — reading enhances connectivity in the brain. But readers of fiction? They’re a special breed.

They had me at “special.”  Even though this article wasn’t a piece of fiction (and therefore would not be enhancing my brain), I read on.

The gist of the article is that reading fiction changed your brain to make you a more empathetic person.  People who read a lot of fiction tend to be more attune to reading other people’s emotions.  (And hopefully not negating them or telling them, “If you think your life is awful, you should think about Harry Potter and the fact that Voldemort killed his parents.  I mean, that’s awful.  Your life isn’t awful.”)

I read a lot of fiction.  I always have two books going at the same time: a heavy one and a light one.  Like one that changes my whole mood because I am so deeply into the story (heavy) and another that I skim the surface, enjoying my time with the characters (light).  Sometimes the light book is a heavy book that I’ve already read, but because I’m on my second (or third or tenth…) reading, my experience with it has changed.  It still affects me, but it affects me like a light book vs. a heavy book.

While there isn’t a prime reading season — I like to read on the beach just as much as I like to read under a blanket in winter — December break does lend itself to more down time and therefore more reading time.  So in that spirit, I thought we could all throw out some really good fiction books because the last time I did this, I got a bunch of suggestions that I ended up loving.

So I’ll kick it off with The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion.  Totally likeable characters in a somewhat unrealistic situation, but an enjoyable read nonetheless.  Another good one: Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty.  She’s just a great storyteller.  I love the way she can weave together lives.  And I have to throw in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.  I like to reread his books.  A lot.

What do you have for me?  Any young adult?  Dystopian societies?  Women’s fiction?  Something else?


1 Gypsy Mama { 12.09.14 at 8:51 am }

I may check out Big Little Lies, because I’m just finishing up Liane Moriarity’s other book, The Husband’s Secret. The last book I read that I LOVED was One Day by David Nicholls. They made it into a movie, which I watched and (obviously) it wasn’t nearly as good as the book. I’m going to check back and see what other recommendations you get today!

2 a { 12.09.14 at 8:55 am }

I just started The Girl With All The Gifts. It’s pretty good so far (90 pages in). I just finished What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe (who writes xkcd.com) – it’s somewhere between fiction and non-fiction and their are cartoons. And I highly recommend The Last Dragonslayer series by Jasper Fforde – probably something you can read with the kids. I’ve only read 2 of the 3, but I loved ’em both.

3 a { 12.09.14 at 8:57 am }

What the…? THERE are cartoons! There!

4 loribeth { 12.09.14 at 9:09 am }

These days I tend to read more non-fiction than fiction. In fact, I looked back over the books I’ve read this year & I’ve only read one fiction book so far in 2014 — “The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches” by Alan Bradley, which I reviewed here:


This was another installment in my favourite fiction series at the moment, featuring 11-year-old chemist/detective Flavia DeLuce, who lives with her widowed father & two older sisters in a crumbling mansion in post-WWII England. The series began with “The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie,” and there is a new volume coming out in the spring. I would recommend starting with the first book & reading them in sequence, since each book builds on the next.

“The Rosie Project” comes highly recommended by several friends and is in my to-read list (among many others, of course, haha). I also read & loved “One Day,” mentioned by Gypsy Mama, above (avoided the movie after reading the bad reviews). The same author has written a new book called “Us” which is also in the to-read pile. I will probably include at least one novel among the books I take on Christmas vacation with me.

5 Lindz { 12.09.14 at 9:59 am }

I really liked “The Girl You Left Behind” by JoJo Moyes.

6 Valery Valentina { 12.09.14 at 10:11 am }

from http://www.jessieburton.co.uk/ THE MINIATURIST, and it’s set in Amsterdam in 1686.
It may have helped I live just a few houses away from the main location. But I discovered my babysitting aunt was reading the book during nap time as well!
it might be heavy here and there though.
Looking up Jessie’s website I discovered she published some research on pinterest, so you (and I) can have pictures too.

7 Cristy { 12.09.14 at 11:59 am }

Now this is interesting. I wonder what happens when you break it down even further. What about people who read comic books vs. fiction novels? Memoirs vs. biographies? And Twitter feeds vs. blogs? Blogs vs. books? Also, does the deliver mechanism play a factor? Kindles and E-readers vs. those who gravitate to paper?

On a side-note: I’ve been reading a lot of primary science papers. And I can see how easy it is to become apathetic after slogging through facts all day long (cold, sterile writing that can easily cure insomnia). The data is good and I’m learning a lot. But reading fiction almost feels guilty because it’s so effortless and enjoyable. It feels like my brain is on vacation (even though it’s still working).

8 Sharon { 12.09.14 at 12:12 pm }

Hmm. Interesting. I have been a voracious reader of fiction from a young age, and yet I have often felt that my EQ is not what it could be. Maybe I’d be even worse off, but for all that reading? 🙂

9 Infertile Girl { 12.09.14 at 12:37 pm }

I have read a few of Liane Moriarty’s books, and just downloaded Big Little Lies. I really liked her book, What Alice Forgot (it’s got an infertility storyline, no wonder I liked it). A few of my all time favs are Jo Jo Moyes Me Before You (heavy, but such an amazing book), also Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson, very creepy psychological book. I am more into the heavy, thinky books lately, than just fluff. Perhaps a reflection on my life…

10 Sharon { 12.09.14 at 12:53 pm }

Oh, book recommendations. . . I like to discover new authors and read their entire back catalog. (Obviously I don’t have as much time for this these days as I did pre-children.)

The only new author I discovered this year is Diana Gabaldon. I am currently slowly working my way through Book 5 of the Outlander series and enjoying it. 🙂

11 Jennifer S { 12.09.14 at 1:18 pm }

I second the Jasper Fforde books and would further recommend the Thursday series and Nursery Crimea series. My husband and I share an audible account and have both devroured his books. Personally I really enjoyed the other two Gillian Flynn novels much more than Gone Girl. Sharp Objects was my last heavy book and I’m ready to read it again. You may have mentioned it before but the Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins are fabulous and light (mostly), you have very similar taste to my husband so I’m trying to recommend what we both enjoy together! His all time favorite is the Dresden series and it’s his hands down “light” series to go to!

12 twangy { 12.09.14 at 2:02 pm }

Just finished Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld which was very satisfying but probably not news to you. Starting May we be forgiven by A M Homes: looks good too.
And comics! Which as you no doubt know can be read easily alongside the prose books with no confusion, too: I liked Couch tag by Jesse Reklaw, though it’s sad, and Slow storm by Danica Novgorodoff, because it’s so lovely to behold.

13 Finding My New Normal { 12.09.14 at 7:55 pm }

I’m jealous that you have time to read. I love to read, but with a toddler and an infant at home, free time is scarce.

14 Queenie { 12.09.14 at 8:40 pm }

Is it possible to have reader’s block. Nothing sounds good to me lately. I can’t get into anything. Maybe something from these comments will tempt me!

15 Mali { 12.09.14 at 9:43 pm }

I go through phases of reading voraciously, and not reading much at all, other than non-fiction (blogs, news etc). So yes, Queenie, it is possible to have reader’s block! (I call it losing my reading mojo. In fact, I have a post half-drafted about it.

Right now I’m reading “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” by Karen Joy Fowler. I hadn’t read her before, but saw this was short-listed for the Man Booker and thought I’d try it. I am thoroughly enjoying it.

16 fifi { 12.10.14 at 5:29 am }

I loved loved loved The Rosie Project. Second that recommendation, and also the Thursday Next series.

This year I discovered Mary Robinette Kowal. “Shades of Milk and Honey” is Jane Austen with magic, and its sequels give further details of this alternate Regency world. Just lovely.

For a different type of YA, you could try “Noughts and Crosses” by Malorie Blackman. It’s a Romeo-and-Juliet story set in an alternate history, with racial prejudice not that dissimilar to our own world but with the races flipped.

Yes, alternate history seems to have been my thing this year, although I’ve read very little of it before.

17 md { 12.10.14 at 5:37 am }

i am always happy to give book recommendations 🙂 ‘the thirteenth tale’ by diane setterfield, ‘me before you’ and ‘the girl you left behind’ by jojo moyes, everything by david mitchell and haruki murakami, ‘burnt shadows’ by kamila shamsie

18 Persnickety { 12.10.14 at 5:52 am }

My worst ( emotionally and grade wise) year at college was the year I gave up reading for pleasure to focus on my coursework. Total failure, I got way too stressed. So reading fiction is a definite help for my brain.

Recommendations- I know I mention Lois McMaster Bujold a lot, but I find her books really cut to the heart of what it means to be human. Just spot on observations. A Civil Campaign is my go to light book of hers. Romance, intrigue, family and butter bugs.

19 JustHeather { 12.10.14 at 1:24 pm }

“Even though this article wasn’t a piece of fiction (and therefore would not be enhancing my brain), I read on.”
*snort* I liked this!

*phew* I am so glad Sharon mentioned Outlander! I spent most of this year re-reading the series so I could read the newest book. And I still think about the characters, quite often! (Finally having the tv series doesn’t hurt either.) I wonder when I can/will go back and read them again. At least the last 3 books….

At the moment I am reading Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks. Historical fiction of sorts, I am truly enjoying this book.

20 Turia { 12.10.14 at 7:39 pm }

Like Persnickety, I figured out early in my undergrad that reading for fun is a form of stress/anxiety management. So even though I’m defending my PhD on Friday, I’ve still got a novel on my night table (third book in the Outlander series- I have come late to it).

I liked Gone Girl and Life After Life (read them both earlier this year). There’s an interesting graphic memoir called “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant” which is about the author (an only child) coping with the aging and death of her parents. It’s not cheerful, but it is very well done and raises a lot of issues.

I also read and liked the Miniaturist.

Did you read The Night Circus already? I did love that one. Also enjoyed Longbourn, which was published last year.

Lastly, my all-time comfort read author is Guy Gavriel Kay, who writes (mostly) historical fiction with a magical twist. If you at all like that sort of thing, he is well worth checking out (Tigana is the first he published in that genre).

I have read the comments with my library’s website open, putting books on hold as I went. I anticipate much fun in January!

21 Turia { 12.10.14 at 7:42 pm }

Also, Still Alice is really good and you can maybe read it before the film comes out? (I read it a couple of years ago- it has stayed with me.)

22 St. Elsewhere { 12.11.14 at 1:30 am }


I read a lot, but have not really read since September, and I do not think I am about to pick up anything for a few more months.

I am a fiction person, and I love to revel in the stories. A book that is about to come in my hands, is Evening by Susan Minot. I have seen the movie, and I love it.

One of the last few books I read, Susan’s Key was fantastic…it centred around the rounding up of Jews in France, and a girl’s story that went with it. It made me cry.

I definitely believe that fiction stimulates the brain, fires the imagination and is a great way of learning about other cultures. If I kidnapped someone in Philippines, how would I know what ransom to demand? I learnt that trick from a John Sheldon book. Amazing!

23 Tiara { 12.11.14 at 9:47 am }

I’ve been on a biography/memoir kick so no fiction lately. I’m currently reading Life by Keith Richards…an interesting read tho I skim over major parts. He goes on & on about the mechanics of playing guitar & I find it boring but love that he’s so passionate about it.

24 Becky { 12.11.14 at 3:58 pm }

I read all the time. I pretty much only read novels because reading is my get-away from the real world. And I tend to read easier kinds of things (though long, I need my books to be long because I read to quickly, it’s ticks me off when I get through something too quickly). As a social worker, I also need things that aren’t too close to the work I do every day, because, again, need a break. I just finished the 1-5 of the Outlander books and am going to take a break b/c I just need something else for a bit.

25 Sally { 12.11.14 at 7:30 pm }

I am on a YA kick because I missed all these books the first time around. I just reread ‘The Hunger Games’ trilogy since the movie is out. God they are good.

26 KeAnne { 12.12.14 at 2:00 pm }

I enjoyed The Passage and its sequel. The final book in the trilogy won’t be out until next year. I’m also a huge fan of Tana French’s work. Her mysteries are set in Ireland and are moody and lyrical. The characters are so well developed.

27 Amel { 12.14.14 at 2:17 am }

When I need to relax, I also read Japanese manga. Grew up with it (there were plenty of those translated ones in Indonesia), but other than that I read random books (mostly fiction, some biographies). Whichever I can find in bookstores that interest me (esp. the ones at a discount) ha ha ha ha…My husband is a HUGE fan of Dean Koontz (the best author in his mind, I bet) and Donald Duck. He still subscribes to Donald Duck even until now and he collects them and rereads the old ones.

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