- Reading fiction rarely comes up in broader conversations about mental wellness, especially for men.
- Data suggests that reading fiction fosters critical thinking, emotional vocabulary, and empathy.
- Engaging with fiction characters may improve real-life social interactions and empathy.
- Fathers play a pivotal role in bridging the gap between masculinity and literacy.
In a haunting scene from Khaled Hosseini’s bestselling first novel, The Kite Runner, a young Amir watches helplessly as his best friend Hassan gets assaulted. As Amir stands paralyzed on the sidelines, we are pulled into a gut-wrenching moment of boyhood betrayal.
Reading fiction is much more than leisure. It teleports us to foreign lands with make-believe characters and relationships, where we discover truths about ourselves. Storytellers like Hosseini whisk us away into the shadowy corridors of the human mind in a way that the fluorescent lighting of psychology textbooks cannot. In movies and TV, the sensory experiences are served to us—but when we read fiction, our imaginations must do the heavy lifting.
In recent years, I’ve gravitated toward nonfiction but have been rekindling my affection for fiction, a commitment demanding sustained focus, a challenge in this thumb-swiping age of “stolen focus.” My tendency to get fidgety when diving into made-up stories suggests it might be the medicine I need.
Just like mindfulness meditations ask us to return to our breath, reeling our mind back to the narrative is a practice of mental discipline.
This has led me to wonder why fiction rarely comes up in broader conversations about mental wellness. Perhaps reading fiction belongs in the everyday self-care lineup alongside fostering deeper adult friendships, fitness, nutrition, psychotherapy, or meditation—especially for men looking to prioritize their emotional health. While Renaissance men eagerly read fiction, modern men seem less interested in this pursuit.
Women drive about 80 percent of fiction sales across the U.S., UK, and Canada, so it’s no surprise that 88 percent of private book clubs are all-women groups. Women produce the most books and dominate publishing, a pendulum swing from the 1970s, and men tend to read fewer books written by women.
A recent study projects that males globally may spend less time reading in the upcoming year and beyond. Does that matter?
The Reading Gender Gap
By the time boys get to high school, they tend to lose interest in reading and lag in achievement in large numbers. Girls show more interest in reading, on average, with 44 percent of 15-year-old girls endorsing reading as a favorite hobby, compared to 24 percent of boys who may have prioritized gaming in recent decades.
Boys and girls have distinct approaches to reading, according to experts interviewed in an article by freelance writer Linda Jacobson. Girls often equate fiction with pleasure and relate to book characters, while boys, according to Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, an English education expert, “want an immediate function for what they read and learn.”
Into adulthood, men may also read to boost competence in business or history, overlooking writing focused on relationship dynamics or character development, seemingly lacking the same practical value.
Perhaps the “do-goody earnestness” of modern novels, as labeled by writer Matt Haig in his Instagram post, is less appealing to a teenage boy wired for entertainment and risk with a video game controller at his fingertips. Maybe this is the developmental period where we begin to lose large numbers of male readers.
Also, the fiction publishing industry caters to its higher female readership. Female novelists have gained increasing attention, prizes, and bestsellers, possibly affecting men’s perception of today’s fiction.
Part of this gender gap seems to arise from a deep-seated association between fiction and femininity. This may be true, but I view the push for men to read more fiction not as a feminist agenda but as a cross-training one that stretches our cognitive, social, and emotional horizons.
Fiction, Empathy, and Social Cognition
I was encouraged by data that supports the notion that reading fiction can enhance our social and emotional lives. Recent research indicates that reading fiction fosters critical thinking by presenting ideas subtly and in more roundabout ways than nonfiction. One study of adolescents found that frequent fiction readers possessed more robust emotional vocabularies, and another showed a link between experience reading fiction and recognizing complex emotions.
Other data suggests that understanding characters in fiction parallels real-world social skills in ways that nonfiction does not, and a reader’s ability to become immersed in a story predicts levels of empathy. These data align with fiction writer and cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley’s body of work on the links between reading fiction and increased empathy.
Reading fiction may seem solitary, but it’s fundamentally social: Studies reveal how reading fiction activates the same brain areas that process smells, textures, and body movements, creating an experience that mirrors “real-life social encounters.”
Some fiction genres might be more effective than others in promoting social sensitivity, as illustrated in a study published in Science, suggesting that literary fiction’s complex narratives and character development show unique benefits over popular fiction (and nonfiction) in enhancing theory of mind—an ability to comprehend what others may be thinking or feeling and to anticipate their actions.
Evidence from five studies suggests that fiction positively impacts mood and emotion—but with reflection and discussion, echoing Edmund Burke’s quote that “reading without reflecting is like eating without digesting.” This presents a case for establishing fiction book clubs geared to men. And, if publishers spent more money marketing fiction towards men, it may help increase male fiction readership. An article, “Why Men Should Read Fiction,” by Kate and Brett McKay, makes a more extended argument and offers reading recommendations.
Male Role Models, Literacy, and Technology
Fathers are vital in reuniting masculinity with literacy and building future generations’ socio-emotional skills. Dads contribute uniquely to their children’s literacy and cognition, especially in low-income families. The presence of fathers as readers becomes even more crucial given the scarcity of male elementary English educators.
In our coming era of artificial intelligence, real-life emotional intelligence may become a more in-demand competency. After all, some evolutionary scientists hypothesize that narrative fiction arose as a cultural product, one of humankind’s earliest technologies designed to captivate attention and build cooperation. It’s also a time-honored mental wellness regimen hiding in plain sight.
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Hosseini, K. (2003). The kite runner. Riverhead Books