Last week, I sat at an industry dinner party for my job, and listened in subtle and increasing horror as several marketers discussed with one another the books and trade publications they were reading at the moment. As you might imagine, the book titles mentioned were all marketing and “thinking” books: books about getting through to consumers, about branding and messaging, about thinking big, and about tapping into human desire, or simply “twitter”.
"Does anyone here read fiction?" I managed to pipe in. (I’ve been curious about this recently. I want to understand how people in this world think, make decisions, and spend their free time. Do people read?).
Each guest at the round table shrugged or shook his or her “no”, save for the most likable guy of the whole bunch. He whispered in my ear that he devours books weekly. We proceed to high five (seriously).
"I’m too busy to sit down and read."
"If I’m going to read, it needs to be about the latest deals and acquisitions, so I can keep up with what’s happening in the industry."
"I only read books that make me better at my job."
Well, If I had a tattooed tear for every emphatic “no” I received, I’d be gushing perpetual tears for the entire fiction industry, but mostly, for those who are missing out on being fully-formed, empathic, emotionally intelligent human beings. Out of roughly three or four dozen people, there exists one dude who steps outside of his own mind, industry and problems to escape into another. I’m under no illusion that this is unique to marketing/startups/finance, but it’s enough anecdotal evidence to be unnerving.
Let me interject with a disclaimer: I don’t have a high horse. If anything, I have something more like a mini horse, or maybe just one of those plastic pony rocking chairs for children. But I’ve been an avid reader of both fiction, non-fiction, and pretty much anything someone hands me, for the better part of my life. (I was an English major, after all). I’ve been guilty of going a month or two without indulging in story lines beyond a twitter conversation, but it’s during these months I feel bored and stagnant.
After spending a weekend with writers a few weeks ago, I made a few observations:
- Their vocabulary is infinitely better than mine, and most of my startup/marketing/finance peers
- Their curiosity about the world wasn’t about writing itself (i.e., their own industry), but about people, places, history, politics, nature and emotions.
- When I began to discuss writing (like we discuss conversion metrics and funding), they got bored.
I’d like to think I’m not naive. I know every industry is self-absorbed in its own craft and inflated in the perceived value it adds to the well-being of the entire human race. I’m sure plenty of writers discuss writing in great and immense details over whiskey and boiled peanuts on a weekly basis. I may not be a writer by profession (anymore), but this experience inspired me to start reading ferociously again. Sure, I’ve consistently read fiction for the past few years, but not at the same pace or with the same hunger I did growing up, and all throughout college.
And wow. Over the past month or so, I’ve finished three novels and a book of short stories, and am on my fourth, and have been paying special attention to/underlining the intricate and intimate human observations great authors inject into characters’ dialogue, actions and thoughts. I’ve also been reading a lot about what makes writers, writers. Unsurprisingly, a common thread weaving these authors together is their appreciation and respect for thinking. That’s right, giving their thoughts room to swirl around in the murky grey matter of their brains, letting the world confuse them, and then working through the layers of abstraction to shape, mold, edit and ultimately create an entirely new, feasible world for us to dive into and relate to.
How can we understand customers (who, by the way, are human beings) if we only ever see them as the people who touch our products or open our emails? How can we expect to have successful relationships if our only exposure to discussion is 140 characters or on-air market breakdowns? How will we develop our minds beyond what the industry mags/blogs tell us if we don’t let other ideas and plausibilities clash up against what we already know?
Even if all you read is Harry Potter, so be it! I’m begging you, try reading a few stories this month and see if you don’t feel a small world inside you open up, if only a crack. See if you don’t enjoy it, even a little. If you say you don’t have time, that’s bullshit. We choose how we spend our time, and your Instagram binge could absolutely stand a whittling down.
I don’t have personal evidence to back this up (although scientific studies exist), but I think fiction makes me a better person, friend, employee, and thinker. Are there terrible people who read fiction? Absolutely. But I think the number of emotionally stunted, boring people who don’t read fiction outnumber the former, to an embarrassing degree.
Was this a rant? Yes. And I’m standing by it.