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Fiction or Nonfiction?

Posted on September 1, 2016
Image of 11 fiction books on a shelf

In July, McKinsey & Company published an article about summer reading. They listed 17 CEOs and what they were reading this summer. Of the 57 titles listed, 84% were nonfiction. Only 9 works of fiction were listed, including a Mandarin Chinese version of Mulan (that was interesting).

In my opinion, CEOs read nonfiction because they are, by nature, life-long learners and it is assumed that one learns from reading nonfiction. Some of the titles on their long list of nonfiction included:

The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks by Joshua Cooper Ramo, published by Little, Brown & Company, 2016

Enter Helen: The Invention of Helen Gurley Brown and the Rise of the Modern Single Woman by Brooke Hauser, published by HarperCollins Publishers, 2016

Ronald Reagan by Jacob Weisberg, published by Times Books, 2016

The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukerjee, published by Scribner, 2016

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World by Tim Marshall, published by Scribner, 2015

Note: of the 17 CEOs, four of them listed The Seventh Sense.

However, there is this misconception that nonfiction is for learning and fiction is for entertainment or escape. I beg to differ. Of course, there are works of fiction, AKA the beach read, which aims to simply entertain. But through most works of fiction (even those beach reads), there are valuable lessons to be learned, many of these lessons are highly applicable to the world of business. For example:

1) Better understand the human condition – through deep and flawed characters see ourselves and others and how they respond to events and situations, which allows us to better interact with our colleagues, as well as anticipate actions and reactions from others

2) Time to walk in someone else’s shoes – therefore feel empathy for others as they experience what life has to offer, an imperative skill for any leader

3) Make us think and use our imaginations – foundations for critical thinking

4) Allow us to grapple with moral and ethical dilemmas - all sound business decisions should be made from a moral and ethical base

Want to know what I've been reading? Here is the list in the order in which I read them:

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, published by Penguin, 2015 (fiction)

The Devil's Diary: Alfred Rosenberg & the Stolen Secrets of the Third Reich by Robert Whitman and David Kinney, published by HarperCollins, 2016 (nonfiction)

Blue Mountain by Brian Panowich, published by Putnam Books, 2016 (fiction)

The Dinner by Herman Koch, published by Hogarth, 2013 (fiction)

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2 by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany, published by Arthur Levine Books, 2016 (young adult fiction)

Some Luck by Jane Smiley, published by Anchor Books, 2015 (fiction)

Early Warning by Jane Smiley, published by Anchor Books, 2016 (fiction)

What did these books do for me? I relished returning as a muggle to the wizarding world of Harry Potter, it felt as if I was visiting old friends. In Blue Mountain, I was transported to a rural part of the Blue Ridge Mountains delving into what motivates people. I grappled with ethical questions surrounding how far a parent would go to protect a child in The Dinner. Learning about the rise of Hitler and the philosophy of the Third Reich in The Devil's Diary provided eerie access into the mind of Hitler. The Invention of Wings described a young girl who, after being given a slave as a gift pre-Civil War, courageously expressed her opinion and distaste for the institution of slavery. Finally, Smiley's books follow a family through time and across the globe over decades, allowing me to feel the effects of the Great Depression through their hardship, feel the loss of a loved one during WWII, and root for the entrepreneurs who left the farm to pursue different interests.

I'm not suggesting that one should only read fiction, but rather reading both fiction and nonfiction provides a healthy balance. Nonfiction provides facts and ideas steeped in scholarly research, while fiction applies those ideas and facts to everyday life.

So what's on your nightstand?


Anne Converse Willkomm
Director, Graduate Studies
Goodwin College
Drexel University