You spiral into a daze as your eyes track up to the tip-top of the colossal oak bookcase towering over your 4’10” frame. Nauseating rainbow plastic buckets are neatly lined up like boats in a harbor ready for battle while its passengers—the hundreds of elementary-grade books—stand at attention, ready to be snatched up by a pair of grubby fourth-grader hands. On those shelves, you hope to encounter your next conquest, which launches you into a fantastical universe where paintings are a portal into another realm or where you can be part of a team of fearless detectives solving the mysteries of the Grimm fairy tales. On those shelves, you feel limitless.
Pawing through the buckets, you cannot seem to recognize the friendly faces of your favorite novels and, in their place, stand books titled Bugs and Bugsicles: Insects in the Winter, Cars on Mars: Roving the Red Planet, and Pythagoras and the Ratios. A sudden thudding fills your chest as you frantically search through all of the other buckets. They’re all the same—not a fiction book in sight. Being the bold fourth-grader you are, you march right up to your teacher, Ms. Tanner, and demand to know where all of your beloved fantasy books are.
“I can’t live without them! I need to know what happens in the next book!”
“I am so sorry, sweetie, but I put them away for now. The school is having all of the students read more nonfiction books for the remainder of the year. Why don’t you try and find another book you are interested in on the shelf?”
This experience was the reality for millions of students all around the nation in 2012 when the Common Core Standards increased the amount of nonfiction texts in the K-12 English Language Arts curriculum. While their intentions may have been understandable and even admirable, this decision is actually harming students.
The Common Core altered their curriculum to align with the shift in society in this technology-centric age. Many of us have become accustomed to gulping down quick shots of information and facts from the media instead of spending time savoring the alternative worlds found in fiction. Similarly, many educators believe students should spend more time reading informational texts rather than fictional stories, as they supposedly will better prepare students for their future. In 2012, the Common Core supported these ideals and implemented a new English Language Arts curriculum that focuses more on informational texts. The Common Core states with their new ELA standards that center around nonfiction readings, students will develop “critical-thinking skills and the ability to closely and attentively read texts in a way that will help them understand and enjoy complex works of literature,” as well as “learn to use cogent reasoning and evidence collection skills that are essential for success in college, career, and life” (“English Language Arts Standards”). Ultimately, they believe the standards present “a vision of what it means to be a literate person who is prepared for success in the 21st century” (“English Language Arts Standards”). This is important because the Common Core Standards’ new curriculum impacts all K-12 students throughout the nation, yet it sadly diminishes the amount of fiction being taught in these grades.
The success of future generations rests on what texts, nonfiction and fiction alike, those students are being taught and are exposed to in school. While I do believe reading nonfiction texts teaches students valuable skills, which can help them better prepare for success in college and career, the lack of fiction texts in the Common Core curriculum is harmful to students as fiction promotes empathy, develops theory of mind, and exercises the imagination, thus overall better preparing students for success professionally and more importantly, socially.
When reading fiction, students are exposed to a world of characters and witness how they behave in certain situations, indirectly teaching and promoting empathy to the reader. In their futures, students need to empathize with others, as it is necessary to operate respectfully and successfully in a work setting. Nancy Kidder, a facilitator with the nonprofit organization Books@Work, found after teaching and discussing a fiction short story with a group of office employees she was working with, the group “had a new language for discussing their work” (Seifert). From her time observing different participants, Kidder concluded that “one reason fiction works so well in the workplace is that characters, plots, and settings in foreign locales help anchor difficult discussions” (Seifert). In other words, Kidder noticed that the participants in her lessons who read and discuss are more likely to ask difficult questions that deal with sensitive and complex emotional issues. From just one experience with a fictional story, readers are more open to others’ complex emotions and can empathize and understand better, strengthening human connection. Students who are not exposed to a hefty selection of fictional texts in school from a younger age are missing out on the opportunity to develop the invaluable empathy skills that are imperative to establishing connections in the workplace.
Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and share their emotions, and reading fiction can help us do that, especially when fictional life is thought of as a simulation of real life. This concept of fiction as a simulation of reality is proposed by accomplished psychology novelist, Keith Oatley, and psychology professor Raymond A. Mar in their 2008 research article “The Function of Fiction is the Abstraction and Simulation of Social Experience,” published in the academic journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. They argue that “engaging in the simulative experiences of fiction literature can facilitate the understanding of others who are different from ourselves and can augment our capacity for empathy and social inference” (Mar and Oatley). In essence, Oatley and Mar believe that narrative fiction better prepares readers for establishing real-life interactions because the universes in fiction are like a simulation—and a reflection—of our world today. Looking through this fresh perspective fosters the ability to better empathize with others, as we do not all experience the world the same way. Fiction’s power to create a community of compassionate and caring humans will only improve future work and social environments for the subsequent generations.
When someone reads a novel and can relate the events in the book back to their own life, they have a greater understanding and perspective of real-life situations. Imagine, after a tiresome day at work, you’re curled up next to a roaring fire with your favorite novel nestled between your hands. On your mind is your coworker, Emily, who recently has been acting coldly towards you for no apparent reason. You heard from someone else that she may have lost a loved one recently, but out of respect, you did not want to bring it up and upset her.
As you settle into your book, you begin to get frustrated with the main character. Why is she exiling everyone who cares for her after her sister dies? Her friends try to reach out to her and comfort her, but she is just not reciprocating. Further in the novel, you finally see that since her friends remind her of her sister so much, she has a hard time being around them. You think back to Emily. Is that why she has been distant recently? The following morning, as you get up from your stuffy cubicle, you run into Emily at the printer.
“Emily, I hope that you are doing well and that everything is okay. I am always here for you if you ever need anything, even just an ear to listen.”
“Thank you. You do not know how much that means to me. My brother passed away a few weeks ago and it has been really hard on my sisters and me.”
From reading about a fictional character and their experiences, we can draw lessons and knowledge right off the page, which can then be written directly into our own lives. While it is true that fiction has been used to further nefarious causes in the past (with overt lies leading to discrimination of all kinds), much more often fiction impacts us in positive ways, and the kindness and empathy one learns in a novel can go a long way toward enhancing our real lives.
Going hand in hand with empathy, theory of mind is also developed from reading fiction. Theory of mind is having the capacity to understand other people by attributing mental states to them, such as emotions, beliefs, desires, and knowledge. Diana Tamir, a psychologist at the Princeton Social Neuroscience Lab, conducted research that concluded reading fiction could improve an individual’s ability to comprehend what emotions others are feeling and thinking at any given moment. Through the use of neuroimaging, Tamir discovered that the default mode network of the brain, the network responsible for simulating what others are thinking, shows more activity while reading fiction (Tamir). Those who read more fiction tend to have sharper theory of mind skills, which they then can apply to real-life situations.
My friend, Bela Pimpalkhare, expressed to me the impact reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara had on her theory of mind skills. After reading A Little Life, Bela became more aware of the reality of mental health struggles and realized how her actions could profoundly impact others’ lives without being aware of them. She claims that reading the novel “helped [her] realize the significance of what you do and the impact it has on other people. Personally, [she] was not aware of how much weight one person’s life can have on others.” Bela further commented on how the novel gave her the ability to recognize how people wear “masks” to hide what they are truly going through, and so she changed the way she interacts with people for the better. Bela’s response to the novel further proves that we are unable to know what is genuinely going through someone’s mind; therefore, we can only make an educated guess by engaging theory of mind skills. By recognizing any bit of reaction or emotion out of someone, even through the “mask,” we can gauge our following actions in hopes of making beneficial progress in the situation. These invaluable theory of mind skills can only positively impact one’s interpersonal behaviors, in and out of the workplace, as it establishes an awareness for the people around you.
These theory of mind skills, also known as cognitive empathy, were put to the test to see how fiction impacted participants’ interpersonal behaviors. In a study conducted by John Stansfield and Dr. Louise Taylor (previously Bunce) of Oxford University, researchers sought to find a correlation between being exposed to a fiction text and a person’s affective and cognitive empathy. Before reading the story, participants were asked to complete an Author Recognition Test and a Trait Empathy exam to measure their “baseline” fiction knowledge and where their level of empathy stands. Then, following the reading of the short story, the participants were asked to complete another series of tests measuring the extent of which they were engaged by the plot, characters, and imagery, the amount of affective and cognitive empathy that was experienced, and their tendency to help others. From these tests, Stansfield and Taylor concluded that people who read a lot of fiction have more developed faculties of cognitive empathy. Specifically, the evidence that they have found regarding the relationship between reading fiction and “real-life” empathy “suggests that engagement with the thoughts and feelings of characters in fictional stories might be closely related to the processes by which individuals infer the mental states of people in the real world” (Stansfield and Bunce). In sum, being exposed to fictional texts has an impact on how we interact and understand others’ emotions due to reading about fictional characters and comprehending their emotions.
Reading fiction does more than develop interpersonal skills such as empathy and theory of mind; it also expands the imagination. Imagination is a concept that is not often taught in schools and indeed not learned through reading nonfiction books. While I feel that my imagination grew when I was younger due to the fiction I read, I wanted to see if others shared my experience. To do so, I polled my followers on Instagram to find out their genuine thoughts and opinions about fiction and nonfiction. When asked the question, “Is reading fiction or nonfiction more beneficial and why?” I had numerous responses that brought up the positive relationship between fiction and imagination. One good friend of mine, Wiley Bartels, claimed fiction is more beneficial because “imagination and creativity are the keys to unlocking your true aspirations.” Wiley credits fiction for teaching the power of imagination and creativity, which leads to conquering your dreams and goals. Another response to the question was by my bookish friend, Isabelle Paris, who answered, “Fiction, because kids aren’t taught creativity and imagination in school.” I agree with Isabelle that children are not taught how to engage their imagination in school, partly because it cannot be taught like a math problem; however, it can be harnessed through reading about fictional worlds where anything is possible. Having a broader imagination at a young age can lead to great success once combined with logic and reason.
The true power of imagination can be fully realized later in life once knowledge and reason are activated by educators. This point is further explored by Martha Pennington and Robert Waxler in their 2018 book Why Reading Books Still Matters: The Power of Literature in Digital Times. They conclude that “if imagination and magical thinking connected to reason spur discovery, innovation, and new understandings, it can be maintained that literature has a key role in both developing and engaging imaginative and magical thinking” (Pennington and Waxler). If one combines their imagination with logic and reason, it can lead to groundbreaking discoveries and innovations. Millions of revolutionary inventions and ideas all sprout from the imagination, and when children are exposed to more fiction, they too can dream up a new reality filled with innovation.
If it wasn’t for fiction, the “Father of the Modern Submarine,” Simon Lake, would have never dreamt up his invention of the first successful open-water submarine in 1898. Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea captured young Lake’s mind and inspired him to begin designing his own submarine. He credits Verne’s novel for the invention of his submarine, The Argonaut, and states,
When I was not more than ten or eleven years old I read his Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and my young imagination was fired. … I began to dream of making voyages under the waters, and of the vast stores of treasure and the superb adventures that awaited subaqueous pioneers. But with the impudence which is a part of the equipment of the totally inexperienced I found fault with some features of Jules Verne’s Nautilus and set about improving on them. (Submarine Force)
Lake’s imagination was fueled as he swam page by page through the endless adventures aboard Captain Nemo’s mysterious Nautilus. His fascination with submarines was born out of his love for reading about a fictitious adventure on one (Submarine Force). As a little boy, he was able to imagine a version of his own submarine as the limitations of science did not restrict his mind at that time. Even when realistic concepts are embedded in a fictional world, it allows us to think more freely about the concept. It helps us not to feel stuck in an imaginary box of rules and regulations. This freedom will enable us to envision a new and improved interpretation of the concept and take action upon it to impact a larger scale. Just as Lake did with submarines, we all can use our imagination, in ways big or small, to make a change to better our futures.
While I have presented numerous reasons why the Common Core should not diminish the amount of fiction in the core curriculum, not everyone is in agreement with this view. The Common Core administrators have highlighted the “Key Shifts in English Language Arts” over these past few years to emphasize the differences that have been made in the curriculum. One of the three main shifts they have identified is “building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction” (“Key Shifts”). They argue that “students must be immersed in information about the world around them if they are to develop the strong general knowledge and vocabulary they need to become successful readers and be prepared for college, career, and life” (“Key Shifts”). According to the Common Core, including more content-rich nonfiction in the curriculum exposes students to vocabulary, language, and topics that they might encounter in the professional world.
Perhaps the solution is a healthy mix of non-fiction and fiction texts that will fulfill Common Core’s goals while also creating more empathetic, imaginative people who will contribute to the continued development of a healthy, thriving society. Reading fiction is necessary because it cultivates empathy and refines theory of mind skills, allowing for better communication and understanding in professional and social relationships. Diving into fictional worlds also expands our imagination which can inspire new inventions that advance our society and allow for more free thought.
After the final bell rings, you race to your bike and pedal with all of your might to the monstrous front doors of your public library. You spiral into a daze as your eyes track down the never-ending aisles of bookshelves. Through the colossal gothic windows, the inviting summer sun illuminates rows of unusual universes waiting for you to explore and inhabit them, page by page. You feel the warming of your soul from your fingertips to your toes as a smile overpowers your face. Entire worlds await your scrupulous selection. Within these library walls, Scout Finch teaches you to see the good in others, Elizabeth Bennet warns you of the dangers of assuming others’ emotions, and Jo March helps you realize your dream and inspires you to achieve it. And that is the reality of fiction.
Bartels, Wiley. Personal Instagram message. 22 Oct. 2021.
“English Language Arts Standards.” Corestandards.org, 2021. http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/.
“Key Shifts in English Language Arts.” Corestandards.org, 2019, www.corestandards.org/other-resources/key-shifts-in-english-language-arts/.
Mar, Raymond A., and Keith Oatley. “The Function of Fiction Is the Abstraction and Simulation of Social Experience.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 3.3 (May 2008): 173-92.
Mar, Raymond A., Keith Oatley, and Jordan B. Peterson. “Exploring the Link between Reading Fiction and Empathy: Ruling out Individual Differences and Examining Outcomes.” Communications 34.4 (2009).
Pennington, Martha, and Robert Waxler. Why Reading Books Still Matters. New York, New York: Taylor & Francis, 2018.
Paris, Isabelle. Personal Instagram message. 22 Oct. 2021.
Pimpalkhare, Bela. Personal Interview. 23 Oct. 2021.
Seifert, Christine. “The Case for Reading Fiction.” Harvard Business Review, March 6, 2020. https://hbr.org/2020/03/the-case-for-reading-fiction.
Stansfield, John, and Louise Bunce. “The Relationship between Empathy and Reading Fiction: Separate Roles for Cognitive and Affective Components.” Journal of European Psychology Students 5.3, 14 July 2014, 9-18.
Submarine Force Library & Association. “Simon Lake and the Submarine Contest of 1893.” Submarine Force Library and Museum Association, December 29, 2017. https://ussnautilus.org/simon-lake-and-the-submarine-contest-of-1893/.
Tamir, Diana I., Andrew B. Bricker, David Dodell-Feder, and Jason P. Mitchell. “Reading Fiction and Reading Minds: The Role of Simulation in the Default Network.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 11.2 (4 Sept. 2015): 215-24.
Young, William H. “Common Core State Standards: Nonfiction versus Fiction.” National Association of Scholars, 2013. https://www.nas.org/blogs/article/common_core_state_standards_nonfiction_versus_fiction.
About the Author
Lillian Paturzo is a first-year student at Fordham College at Rose Hill pursuing a major in English and Theatre. In her free time, she loves to dance, sing, read, and go on hikes with her dog. She thoroughly enjoyed writing this essay as she was inspired by her passion for reading and education!