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Amgad Muhammad

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What's the point of novels?

All of us would agree that reading for facts and knowledge widens our perspective, but what does reading novels do?
Do we read novels for the sole purpose of entertaining ourselves or does it make us intelligent in some way?
How can one take lessons from a story that was made up and characters that do not exist?

Is reading novels just a waste of time? a sort of video game for those who like to read?


Topics: books
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    May 9 2013: getting experience is risky, because by definition you get into the learning situation with no experience, and thus you are unable to avoid trouble. that's why we need simulated environments to learn, and in fact all developed animals do that. that is why we play. that is why we have formal education. and that is why we have novels too. you can put yourself in a virtual position without actually realizing losses but on the other hand reaping any "real" (material) benefits.

    but of course there are vitamins and there are artificial flavorings. some of these simulated environments give you no meat, but only a feeling that you have eaten something. some of them are actually poisonous or addictive. but just like flavored and colored drinks does not invalidate the general concept of drinking, useless novels should be considered as bad examples, and not the rule.
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      May 9 2013: Krisztián, thank you! thank you for writing your thorough opinion on the matter.
      I totally agree with you, but what would you call a "bad novel" ?
      What would make a novel a "colored drink", poisonous, or addictive?
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        May 9 2013: for example novels (or anything) having the sole purpose to reinforce the current views of the audience, so they feel good about themselves, regardless of the validity of said views. i would call that a flavored drink with artificial sweetener. if i named examples, it would immediately derail the conversation into a flame war between the fans and the haters, so i would rather skip that.
    • May 9 2013: Wow, you just read my mind, and wrote my thoughts in a better way that I could have written! :)

      I was a vigorous reader when I was a child and a teenager. Nothing thought me more about good behavior in general, and gave me better counsels about life, friendships, family and such subjects, than the novels I loved to read. Adults chastising me weren't effective, because they never explained to me why I should do this, or why I shouldn't do that. And I always want to know the reason for something. Good books filled this need for me.
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        May 9 2013: thanks. btw i recently came to that conclusion when i tried to define "game", in the light of some recent video game debates about what can we call a video game, what are the requirements of it. i can't just pass by such a question. i have to find and answer to it, it spins in my head :)
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    May 13 2013: This brings to mind one of my dearly loved quotes by Neil Gaiman, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

    They teach us something about ourselves and our place in the world. They touch our emotions and stir our dreams. They way we react to what we've read is as personal as the way the author wrote what they felt, no two books are written the same, and no two readings of the same book are read the same.

    Stories - all stories - be they any length in any medium, from novels to flash fiction, from bedtime fairy tales to spoken elder circles - stories are important because they are an expression of human soul. They take someone else's experiences and make them your own, they reach across time and space, bridging generations and nations and cultures.

    Even if dragons don't exist, it's important to teach that they can be beaten.

    To quote again, Terry Pratchett sums it up as, "Humans need fantasy to be human." I truly believe that. Novels are proof that we are still human.
  • May 12 2013: To me, it's giving you another person's perspective... How differently they would look at things. And sometimes it becomes a way to get away from the reality of my own life... I can end up going into the world of the novel.
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    May 11 2013: The best novels are stories that resonate with us, that entertain while also teaching us something about life, or love, or happiness, or dangers. I believe that a great story can change the way you think about things - regardless of what genre it is. I believe you can be moved as much by a well-told popular novel as you can by anything on a literary prize list.

    When we read fiction we relax and allow the author to take us by the hand to wander through a world of their creation. As we're enjoying the story, learning about the characters and situations in which they find themselves and the worlds in which they live, new ideas can be conveyed that we might not be receptive to had they been delivered in a lecture or non-fiction account. I believe that amazing stories can enrich our knowledge of the world around us almost without us realising. Our imagination is our greatest asset and stories feed this.

    As an author, the greatest compliment anyone can pay me is when they tell me, 'I loved your story. After I finished the book I kept thinking about what happened to this character/ that situation/ my own experience of what the story was about...' Stories that move us, make us consider our own experiences and stay with us long after the last page are powerful and make life a lot more interesting. Even if they're about vampires, or spies, star-crossed lovers or hard-bitten detectives...
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      May 12 2013: Hey Miranda, thanks for spending some time writing your thoughts on this, I really appreciate it.
      My question to you is regarding this sentence: "I believe that amazing stories can enrich our knowledge of the world around us almost without us realizing".
      Does this apply to fake stories as well? to stories that are made up, that might be directive or trying to draw an image of a reality that cannot exist, to pursue false dreams. Do you get me :S ?

      Sometimes I reflect upon stories and contemplate upon their ideas, but then I think, well the story is made up, so maybe the character cannot do this or that, and maybe such circumstances are illogical and won't happen in real life, so why bother?
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        May 12 2013: Thanks for your kind words!

        I think even if stories are made up and we don't agree with them, the point is that they have provoked a reaction. Sometimes it's good to read someone else's idea of the world to determine our own. Fiction provides a 'safe place' to consider it. And in any story, however fantastical, there are elements of real life and human experience. It's in the skill of the storyteller to bring those elements into the story. As such, I don't think anything is wasted - if it makes you consider it even for a moment, I think it has value!
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      May 12 2013: Miranda, I just searched your name on goodreads, I didn't know you're like, a real author :D
      I Will definitely mark some of your work to-read. Best of luck!
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    May 9 2013: i feel the point of reading novels are actually ways to stretch out our mind and flex our thought patterns into ways we could not conceive previously.

    A good example i can use to show this is one of a typical speech topic for children at school. Children who read novels tend to learn to express themselves better than children who go all out for the content part. and the difference is learnt from the well worn art of writing. this cannot be directly deciphered by a child in elementary school really yet, but then get a feel for it and apply the same logic to the way they handle things!
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    May 9 2013: Novels are one way of showcasing imagination.

    Imagination gives knowledge 'wings'.
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    May 26 2013: I don't think I have a particularly comprehensive answer to the question but I can draw some aspects to the answer from experience. I study political science and the one thing I am invested in the field in is the reflection of political theory and political sociology (along with history, psychology and a host of other related disciplines) in novels. There's an hypothesis actually that in some contexts - like that of the Arab world - authors of novels are far more capable to translate the reality in their works than 'objective' political scientists and scholars. A major part of this has to do with the 'emotions'. While there has been a trend in humanities and social sciences lately to better understand 'emotions' and deconstruct them as text and context, the methodology is not yet crystallized and therefore the same study can result in paradoxical results. Novels on the other hand rely on the emotional response of the reader and they are therefore far more apt at deconstructing the emotional makeup of a group or phenomenon, be it political or otherwise. The problem however arises in the fact that in order to translate the author's dealing with emotions into something 'practical' so to speak, one would have to deconstruct the novel itself which usually butchers the art of it all. The beauty and brilliance of novels is interrelated, they are not separate. The brilliance of relation to emotions as well as objective theories,perspective or hypotheses is also the aesthetic beauty of a reader's attachment to the characters of the novel.
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      May 27 2013: What concerns me through out the 80+ comments so far is that some of you guys think that playing with emotions in a novel is a good thing as it makes the reader more absorbed in what the author is trying to convey. But you're also saying that novels help us see through an abstraction of what might have been or what might become. Isn't it a little worrisome that perhaps the view of things the author is providing is delusional and we don't even know it? That we're building conclusions and opinions on a work that puts emotions ahead of facts and objectivity?

      I find what you said about novelists being more objective at certain points very interesting. Perhaps they, even though not obliged, are more realistic than most of our political observers! Thanks Nadine for jumping in.
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        Jun 1 2013: I just have a question re your point on authors of novels being delusional: do you equate that with subjectivity or are they separate? i. e. would you call a political scientist who calls for an extreme ideology delusional despite their objective approach to the subject?

        And yes, I do believe that authors of novels are more realistic; I just don't think that necessarily has to mean that they are objective. In fact, I believe that part of why they manage most of the time to be so realistic is that they don't shy away from subjectivity and emotion; they don't treat them as obstacles to reaching, finding or describing the truth.
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          Jun 3 2013: 'Objective approach to the subject', how is that even possible :D ?

          I don't think I get your question. But if you're asking if being delusional and being subjective are the same, No. They're certainly not. But I can't rely on a 'subjective' narrative to build my opinions or else I'll be in 'delusion'.

          My point here is that YES novels can definitely tell us more about a certain view. But does it help us shape our own? Do we get cursed by the author's narrative and become unable to pick the side we would rationally go with?
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    May 24 2013: It shows me that in the end I never walk alone and that the suffering I've been through is normal.
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    May 19 2013: Characters of Novel may or may not exist but what about rest ?
    I travel back to time when read Shakespeare or Homar to understand culture, people, society etc of that time. It's really cheap to go for such time travel.
  • May 13 2013: Novels are a means for a writer to tell a story that he feels is worth telling. They need to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The writer has complete control over can characters, settings, events and storyline and can use them as tools to evoke emotions, intrigue, passion, suspense, or any of a wide range of other feelings in his reading audience. Often, the story will have sub-plots, hidden meanings, symbols, and veiled commentary on aspects of current society or political figures. Novels challenge readers to use their cognitive skills to uncover some of these messages, interpret the true meaning of the story, remember the bits and pieces of characters or details about a situation that offer clues about a bigger theme, and think about the author's dream.

    If the novel is not at least entertaining, it will be doomed to obscurity. If it does not stir something in the readers, it will not be very popular. If it does not challenge the intellect of the reader, they will become bored. Every time you read a novel, you are exposed to a different method of conveying a message. If you study the means of conveying the message, you may learn how to better deliver your own. The theme or setting for a novel may convey attitudes, politics, or sentiments of people of the period. The novel may serve as a record of big period issues, such as slavery, women's rights, war, poverty, or injustice. The characters may represent certain traits of all humans and show how these traits serve the character in a set of circumstances. The results may cause the reader to reflect on his or her own value system, morality, or belief system.

    Novels are hardly a waste of time, but a different learning experience. I think with the development of other media forms in the past 100 years that they are not as dominant a communications form as they once were, but they offer an intellectual experience that other forms of communication just can't match.
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    May 13 2013: Novels are a great way to educate kids through the context of a story, one way we humans learn effectively.
    Reading for entertainment is also a great way to strengthen the creative and imaginative parts of the brain--written stories require participation of the reader to envision the characters based on purely written information. Plus, it's fun.
  • May 12 2013: "To Kill a Mockingbird", "The Grapes of Wrath", "The Heart of Darkness", "Lord of the Flies"; these are all novels that helped me to better understand the world and the characters that inhabit it. It helped teach me about morality, compassion, justice, bravery and also about the effects of greed, envy, hatred and cowardice. My world is so much more rewarding because of novels. Oftentimes fiction can point more clearly to truths and reality than can nonfiction. We need both.
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    May 9 2013: I just ran across this quote on my book club site, and wanted to share it with you:

    "Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers." ~ Charles W. Eliot
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    May 9 2013: Like all other types of entertainment, some are upbuilding and educational and help you grow as an individual, while others are not worth the paper they are written on.
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      May 9 2013: What would make a novel not worthy?
      Thanks Mary for joining in.
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        May 9 2013: Everyone has a different answer to this. It is very subjective.

        I already stated in my first comment what would make a novel worthy....it must educate me, upbuild me and help me grow as an individual.

        Unworthy then would be fluff..... One example......lots of authors have jumped on the 'vampire' train and written all kinds of _____ (you can fill in the blank). Do people actually read that? How is it going to make me a better individual? How will it educate me? How will it upbuild me?

        There is a book group I know called "Literary snobs"........Mind you, I dislike snobs of all sorts, but, I think when it comes to novels, and books in general, it's ok to be choosy. Don't you?
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    May 9 2013: I think it enhances inspiration and imagination, encourages people to do or think outside of their profession.
    It could serve as sort of inspiration and reality flee.
  • May 8 2013: I nearly wept when I read this, specially from someone coming from Heliopolis.

    For those that don't know before the Great Library of Alexandria, there was Heliopolis. Everyone including the likes of Pythagoras, Herodotus, Ptolemy, Plato, Orpheus, Homer, visited there, learned there, exchanged ideas there.

    Now consider that, democracy, philosophy, and believe it or not the structure of plays (and so our modern day novels) all stems from the learning and understanding of the Ancient Greeks and Ancient Egyptians.

    But what were these plays for? And similarly what are novels for? Well in fact every novel, every play, every story tells us something about the human experience, of human nature, a tale of morality if you wish, or simply put the exchange of ideas. And so by seeing them, by reading them, we inherently learn about ourselves, and hopefully we realize and understand more about who we are, and avoid the tragedies and comedy of errors, and drama, that beset us on all sides as we travel through this life. And through such realization and understanding hopefully we can become better, tolerant and a more enlightened humanity.

    So Amgad be like the phoenix rise from the ashes, of misunderstanding of novels, on the altar of the very sun god which happily and conveniently is located in... Heliopolis.

    I hope to see you, and many others, one day, in the great city of Heliopolis. That is my dream.
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      May 8 2013: Hi Tify, I think this is a misunderstanding.
      I'm not anti-novels, in fact, half of the books I read are novels.
      This discussion is not meant for people to defend novels but rather to define that thing we experience through the pages that I personally cannot name. I wanted to know what the people of TED thinks of novels, whether they knew why we love them or not.

      I know that novels deepens something in us that we can't tackle with other forms of art. But I don't know why or how, I thought it would be nice to discuss it here.

      Hope I cleared it out.
      • May 8 2013: Hi Amgad, no my friend no misunderstanding :)

        I get what you meant, but I, like the ancient Egyptians, tend to encode answers, which will lead you to ask more questions. At least I hope it does, because when it does, it forms a tree of questions and answers, that tree being the tree of knowledge. And as a tutor, I always like to encourage people to find the answers themselves (with a little help) as it's more satisfying to the questioner to believe they found it out, to see (pupil) for themselves, as it further encourages them to know they have that capability to find out so much more.
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    May 8 2013: As a child, I loved the days when I could go to the library so I could bring home as many books as I could carry. This love never left me, even though now I have less time to enjoy catching up with my favorite fictional heroes. I enjoyed novels because they provided an escape and enticed my imagination. This in turn enhanced my creativity. I didn't realize until I was a more mature reader how much novels affected me. Books taught me morals and lessons. The characters of books showed me the importance of never giving up, no matter how defeated I felt. The most important effect books had on my was that I learned to think critically in everyday life. Initially, I only analyzed books when my teachers required it and standardized tests asked me. By the end of high school after reading hundred of books, I thought critically about books, life, my future, etc. I think this was the greatest gift given to me. Books were my constant companions and they taught me how look at something and think something different.
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      May 9 2013: My childhood was a pile of comic books, I don't think I would be reading anything today if it wasn't for them.
      I like to believe that comic books are novels for children :)
      Thanks for your warm participation Morgan
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        May 9 2013: Haha, that's fantastic! I think you're right. I wish I had read more comic books. Maybe they would have inspired me to improve my very lacking artistic abilities? You're quite welcome!
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          May 13 2013: My childhood was a series of Sweet Valley High books and today I can't put down books about neuroscience, reading, learning or anything else I find interesting. So, I'd say, the time reading wasn't wasted even though Sweet Valley High may not be classic material.
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        May 13 2013: I wrote a grant years ago to purchase comic books for my classroom library. They're wonderful for children learning English as they are full of pictures and figurative language.
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    May 8 2013: Novels are a unique medium. Yes, they can be nothing more than rainy day entertainment and as a novelist, I indulge in that now and then. I could watch a stupid rom-com movie, but i am nothing more than a recipient and when I read the same silly rom-com novel, I am interacting and forming the scenes and action in my own mind. In my novel 'Cast the First Stone' I wanted to explore the internal conflict of a young professional cyclist who decided to go along with a team doping program. Why? I just wanted to know and what I found during my research frightened me to the point where i gave up writing it for two years and instead wrote another book "Open Your Heart with Bicycling..." The result is a book that made a lot of people very uncomfortable. I have finished writing a new novel that falls generally into the thriller genre, but more along the lines of John leCarre. I have been fascinated and disturbed by the expanding and vitriolic culture wars, and I experience them most in my own Catholic church. In this novel, both the liberal LGBT faction and the ultra militant conservative faction resort to violence as they fight over issues such as abortion, gay marriage, female ordination etc. I didn't want to take sides, but rather examine how far these culture wars could go and what the consequences might be. I would hope this will start a discussion on that very topic now before the violence happens. Ok, that's my humble contribution.
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      May 8 2013: Thanks for your participation Shawn, it really adds to the conversation.

      So I guess what you're trying to say is that novels can be a way of living a situation or experience that would otherwise not exist in real world. Interesting.
      Good luck with your writings.
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    May 27 2013: Re: "How can one take lessons from a story that was made up and characters that do not exist?"

    This is at the core of religion
  • May 27 2013: i think it's immensely beneficial to read about imaginary worlds and situations. what has happened is interesting to be sure, but what about what could have happened? it also tends to get us into the habit of thinking about what could be rather than only what is, and it's this thinking about possibilities that drives all human progress.
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      May 27 2013: "what could have happened? ".. I like that, thanks Ben for joining us.
  • May 26 2013: They can introduce a topic that is controversial.. They can capture a time period or emotion. They can give understanding of a subject or persons or event. For example Trinity by Leon Uris is a novel that describes irish history and its revolution with more emotion than any historical text could ever convey.

    Novels can also be good entertainment just like movies or television.
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    May 24 2013: many novels are made due to inner voice of writers that
    1- they have the skill to express their fiction in the form of story
    2-they really have a story
    3-they can show their expressions in such way
    4-they need to share their feelings with other people
    5-money can be gained by such way (some of them )
    for the point of being how to make use of fictional stories in our life, many novels express existed stories but not by these names particularly
    for novels that speak about the past or it`s events are historical many writers add info. about the nature of life in such times and the reader starts to imagine how the life was
    finally, we can say that, to make it real, you have to make it a story :)
    i can`t deny that lots of us read to relax their minds or make time pass or get rid of boring moments but also we can`t deny that reading is the best for all of us and reading in all fields to have open mindset that able to accept right different ideas and widen our horizons by imagining novels events :)
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    May 19 2013: It is all about reflection. Writers reflect about an experience they had or a manifestation of how the world should be. And in all cases, it gives an eye on human behavior; how to see life from the two sides. Plus we usually don't have the time to live all the experiences there is to live. So novels transfer these hypothetical experiences and wishes through an emotionally appealing context. For me, it is easier to relate to a fictional character experience than a biography of the world's greatest whatever! No offense intended but usually real biographies tend to exaggerate the writer's agony and accomplishments and it is always only one side of the story.
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      May 19 2013: I'd recommend you read Ghandi's autobiography. He told his story in a way that would make you feel he was so ordinary, and that's why he's who he's :)
      Thanks for your time Shereen!
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        May 22 2013: I have read Gandhi's autobiography. One thing I ascertained about him is that he was not an ordinary man by any means. The way he lived his personal life, the way he fasted and the ideas he had about celibacy as a married man were unusual to say the least.
        He was a good man and wanted peace and harmony for everyone but you should read his autobiography again. You will discover he was unique in many ways.
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          May 22 2013: Yes, I agree with everything you said. What I meant was that when he crafted his words to convey his story he didn't exaggerate. It felt normal to him to do what he was doing.

          When I watched documentaries and other material about Gandhi I felt they were trying to make him look idealistic, they tried to hide his imperfections, which in all cases made him who he is. I loved this autobiography in particular cause it made me feel that everybody can be Gandhi, that those great characters were not magically better than the rest of us. I think this is the greatest thing a great man can teach, how to be great by example.
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        May 22 2013: Yes, it is true that often Gandhi is idealised but he never wanted that. He was one of the great people, not everyone can be a Gandhi. But he was a human being as well. He lived his life as he chose and he believed in everyone's right to do that. He did what he did with his life because he felt that it was the only thing he could do.

        He did it for his country and people.
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    May 19 2013: .
    Good novels are the concentrate of life experiences.
    They help us know invalid (harmful) happiness and be happy validly.
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    May 18 2013: There is always something to be learned by reading any kind of literature. It keeps the brain cells working too.
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    May 13 2013: Novels do promote regular reading habits. It's always better to have a hobby where you entertain yourself and also learn something from it. Although the images that are personified in the novels may be false that might not widen your knowledge but still it instills that reading spark in you. The more interesting it is, the more connected you are !
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    May 13 2013: Reading novels is never a waste of time.
    Its a way of interaction.
    The situation described in a novel may be entirely new for you but it prepares you for the future.
    Science tells us that more new neuronal connections are made with new learning.
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    May 13 2013: Novels heighten emotional connections to the written language and increase empathy. When an emotional trigger happens, memory strengthens and learning happens. Check out the book Brain Rules by John Medina.
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    May 12 2013: Hello,

    When I read novels, I get a chance to acquaint myself with the inner thoughts of the novelist through their character and that allows me to think over some points of view to a problem or phenomenon.

    I don't think reading novels is a waste of time nor that it is purely entertainment.

    C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien for example surely write with elements which make their stories video-game-like but still they give us their philosophy or a theory (of good and evil, beauty and injustice, etc.) that we can contemplate about even a long time after reading their novels...
  • May 12 2013: For me it's simple, where non-fiction gives facts and figures, novels give insight into often creative and different approaches to certain situations. They can promote, motivation and self-reflection more readily than non-fiction. In my opinion they widen our knowledge through two different means.