I arrived home from work, my mind racing. I was scheduled to perform an experiment using a pricey piece of equipment—one that I’d be unlikely to gain much access to again during my Ph.D.—and I needed it to go flawlessly. “Will the x-rays transmit correctly?” I wondered. “What’s my backup plan if things go wrong?” I had spent the whole day fretting about the experiment, and I wanted to shut off my anxious thoughts. So after dinner, I made a cup of hot chocolate, curled up on my sofa, and cracked open a novel I’d been reading. Almost immediately, my mind left behind the details of experimental design and parachuted into a land of dæmons, magic dust, and armored bears. It was exactly what I needed.
Growing up, I was a voracious reader but never a big fan of novels. My classmates would rave about the latest Harry Potter book, while my copy sat collecting dust on a shelf. I saw those kinds of books as a waste of time. “Why read a made-up story when I could read a book that actually teaches me something?” I reasoned.
As an undergraduate, keen to learn something at every opportunity, I would reject typical holiday reads in favor of educational books. On a trip to Portugal, my friends took turns reading a Dan Brown mystery novel. Meanwhile, I couldn’t put down a Malcolm Gladwell book that took a deep dive into social science research.
After I started graduate school, though, that approach to extracurricular reading didn’t work for me anymore. I spent my time on campus digesting research papers and textbooks—trying to become an expert in my field—and my mind couldn’t handle processing fact-filled nonfiction books at home, too. I knew that I needed to find a way to enjoy reading again.
My partner had a bookcase full of novels, so I figured, “Why not try fiction?” To help me stick with it, I made a New Year’s resolution: I would read two fiction books per month for the entire year. The result was an almost instantaneous appreciation of fiction, along with many unintended consequences—including ones that have benefited my work.
When I’m engrossed in a good book, I can temporarily switch off and explore a different world.
What surprised me the most was how much I learned. Some of the best books I read were historical fiction—fictional stories that take place in a realistic historical setting. I learned about life in Afghanistan and Ghana, as well as struggles people there faced during difficult periods in those countries’ histories. The books have helped me build empathy and understanding, with an unexpected side benefit: I’ve started to think more deeply about inclusion and diversity issues in the scientific community.
My foray into fiction also introduced me to new writing styles. The no-frills prose that’s typical of journal articles doesn’t always make for compelling reading. Scientific authors, it seems, often assume that interest in the science will be enough to hold the reader’s attention. Fiction authors don’t have that luxury, so they work hard to build intrigue and draw out a compelling story arc—concepts that I’ve begun to implement when presenting my science in written form and in talks. I now aim to keep my readers and audience members engaged by laying out a dynamic story, taking care to clearly describe the context of my research and to eliminate potentially confusing details.
Beyond those benefits, I’ve discovered that reading fiction is good for my mental health. Life as a grad student is taxing, and it’s often difficult to distance yourself from work, with the day’s worries stealthily following you home. But when I’m engrossed in a good book, I can temporarily switch off and explore a different world. It’s an excellent way to gain distance from stress so that I can rejuvenate myself and regain energy for my work.
So, if you haven’t done so already, give fiction a try. You’ll be surprised how much it brings to your life.