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Summer holidays? A good read is also good for business…

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Emma Cowan on June 29, 2014 - 8:45 pm in In Depth

If you’re one of those people who only read inspirational, motivational or academic business books, here’s a newsflash. Reading good literature could help you succeed in business more, so think again about what you put in your holiday suitcase or load on to your reader. Emma Cowan reports.

Many career-driven people are avid readers – but what are you reading? While devouring bestsellers about marketing, leadership, change management and the like may well provide you with excellent tools for professional growth, you should think twice before casting aside literary fiction. Studies have found that reading good fiction – and fiction specifically – enhances a reader’s ability to understand other people’s emotions in the real world. And… fostering your empathy and emotional intelligence is critical for people management, building solid partnerships, collaborating in a meaningful way and for leadership, inspiring others to follow you. High emotional intelligence has also been linked to people’s ability to resist negative behaviour, manage conflict and improve not only their own job performance and satisfaction, but that of those they lead and work with.

Here’s the twist: to reap the benefits of your reading, pulp fiction (and non-fiction) just won’t do, it’s got to be literary fiction. This according to psychologists David Cromer Kidd and Emanuele Castano of the New School for Social Research in New York, who have proved that reading literary fiction enhances the reader’s ability to detect and understand other people’s emotions, a crucial skill in navigating complex social relationships.

In a series of five experiments, 1,000 participants were randomly assigned texts to read, either extracts of popular fiction such as bestseller Danielle Steel’s ‘The Sins of the Mother’ and ‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn, or more literary texts, such as Orange-winner ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ by Téa Obreht, Don De Lillo’s ‘The Runner’, from his collection ‘The Angel Esmeralda’ or work by Anton Chekov.

The pair then used a variety of Theory of Mind techniques (reading the mind in the eyes (RMET), the diagnostic analysis of non-verbal accuracy test (DANV), the positive affect negative affect scale (PANAS) and the Yoni test) to measure how accurately the participants could identify emotions in others. Scores were consistently higher for those who had read literary fiction than for those with popular fiction or non-fiction texts.

David Kidd explained the findings: “What great writers do is to turn you into the writer. In literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the minds of others. That’s the difference between fiction and literary fiction.

“Then again, there’s a distinction to be drawn between ‘readerly’ writing and ‘writerly’ writing. Some writing is what you call ‘writerly’, you fill in the gaps and participate, and some is ‘readerly’, and you’re entertained. We tend to see ‘readerly’ more in genre fiction like adventure, romance and thrillers, where the author dictates your experience as a reader. Literary [writerly] fiction lets you go into a new environment and you have to find your own way – that’s what stimulates you to think differently and put yourself in others’ shoes.”

According to Kidd and Castano, transferring the experience of reading fiction into real-world situations is a natural leap because “the same psychological processes are used to navigate fiction and real relationships. Fiction is not just a simulator of a social experience, it is a social experience.”

However, although Castano and Kidd proved that literary fiction improves social empathy, at least by some measures, they were not prepared to nail their colours to the mast when it came to using the results to determine whether a piece of writing is worthy of being called literary.

“These are aesthetic and stylistic concerns which, as psychologists, we can’t and don’t want to make judgments about,” said Kidd. “Neither do we argue that people should only read literary fiction; it’s just that only literary fiction seems to improve Theory of Mind in the short-term. There are likely benefits of reading popular fiction – certainly entertainment. We just did not measure them.”


If you’re stuck for inspiration about what to read this summer, here are a few ideas.

The Farm

By Tom Rob Smith

The FarmTom Rob Smith’s first book ‘child 44’ was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and his second book ‘ The Farm’ is no less compelling. An addictive, psychological thriller with a pacey page-turner feel, it nevertheless gives plenty of space in the story for thought, reflection and brain power. With a single phone call, everything changes. Daniel, the protagonist, is immediately caught between his parents – whom to believe, whom to trust? He becomes his mother’s unwilling judge and jury. Presented with a horrific crime, a conspiracy that implicates his own father, Daniel must examine the evidence and decide for himself: who is telling the truth? And he has secrets of his own that for too long he has kept hidden. A good read, but also one that stimulates the mind.

A Girl is a Half-formed thing

By Eimear McBride

A Girl is a Half Formed ThingThis is a coming of age novel – and a love story of brother and sister – like no other you will ever read. Not quite stream of consciousness, in her debut novel Eimear McBride has created her own language with an audacity and an originality that rings true to anyone who has listened to their inner mind. In the very first chapter, she had me in tears, writes Emma Cowan. The book, published last year, won the 2013 Goldsmiths Prize, was shortlisted for the 2014 Folio Prize and longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014. As Simon Hammond of Literary Review said: “This is the work of a writer with the courage to reinvent the sentence as she pleases, and the virtuosity to pull it off.” Easy, it’s not, but it is worth it!


By Thomas Piketty

Capital Thomas PickettyIf you absolutely MUST stick to business, try the economics book that’s taking the world by storm. ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’, written by the French economist Thomas Piketty, was published in French last year and in English in March of this year. The English version quickly became an unlikely bestseller and it has prompted a broad and energetic debate on the book’s subject: the outlook for global inequality. Some reckon it heralds or may itself cause a pronounced shift in the focus of economic policy. What do you think? Read it and see…

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