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?


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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 :)
  • Delta M

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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.
  • W T

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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
  • W T

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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 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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    W. Ying

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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.
  • May 12 2013: Though I haven't felt my appetite for fiction waning in recent years, I do agree with Brent about the importance of language. Sometimes a simple, but original, metaphor or turn of phrase can bring the reader up short - make us wonder how we had never seen that connection before. A good writer constantly surprises us with the possibilities of language, and if the story is a page-turner all the better.
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    May 12 2013: Ah, that’s OK Greg. I can see you have a wicked sense of humour. Actually, my appetite for fiction has declined recently, primarily, I believe, because I rarely emerge having learned something new, anything that has enriched my own perspective. Novels can make you laugh and even cry. This is good, strengthening the emotions. What else is there? The stories are just someone’s imagination. Is that valuable? Maybe not.
    So that leaves us with the language. Is it typical talk that one could hear over the fence or on a bus? Not terribly useful. But, if the words are carefully chosen, forming expressions you have never heard, using metaphors that carry you higher and farther and deeper than you have ever been, verbs and adjectives appearing in surprising ways and places, then you will have learned the power of language.
    In life, we speak rather simply, to exchange news or views, yet we do not see our listeners’ mouths open with fascination, intrigue, delight at hearing unique expressions that have made their minds work harder than their ears.
    I fear that most authors race forward with their narratives convinced their characters and events will do the heavy lifting. Not true. Tell a reader a saga of fantasy and at the end the tale soon drifts unremembered, and the reader not remarkably rewarded. Yes, we can suspend our disbelief for quite some time while we flip the pages but surely it is better to be endowed with belief, with the recognition that words are art, that a word can be worth a thousand pictures. Certainly not all of us can paint, but we can all speak and if a novel doesn’t show you how to add colours and dimension to what you want to say, then the writer has wasted your time.
    I bet that’s how you feel, Greg.
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      Jun 3 2013: I admire your love for language. But I think that a beautiful formulation of language can be expressed in any medium. A novel, a book, a movie. It doesn't give a reason for why we should look for it in novels instead of any different medium.

      Thanks Brent for joining us,
  • May 11 2013: We read novels to find ourselves, to be reassured that we aren't alone in all our loneliness. Much as one can see a star better without looking directly at it, we sometimes need that bit of distance to see and forgive ourselves--laugh at ourselves and go forward.
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      May 12 2013: getting ourselves out of this world and taking a look at things from distance,,, I like that.
      Thanks Carol for your contribution!
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    May 11 2013: Novels explore ideas, usually via a narrative structure that mimics life.
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      Jun 3 2013: Amgad, my friend, you courageously persist with your question: why do we love novels or not? The fact that you pose it several times shows you have not yet received an answer. Perhaps the focus should be how do novels spark appreciation or not? There haven’t been any comments addressing that, maybe because we don’t really know how they please us, only that they do, or don’t.
      Excluding my previous rant about words being the all-important medium, let’s look at the plot, characters, and message, if there is one. Does the plot needs a beginning, middle and end? That’s a bit linear. Consider the effective flashbacks in movies, showing events that are explained much later. I would quite enjoy a novel that began with “Rest in peace, you miserable bastard!” and then be carried to an earlier time to learn why the deceased deserved that final salute.
      An end? Jeffrey Archer wrote a short story that had no end, asking the reader to select one. That was fun. A middle? Does your life have a middle? I doubt it, given all the peaks and valleys that often fling us onto different trails, causing us to start again.
      Many say they emerge with new knowledge, fresh perspectives, donated experiences that allow one to avoid the possible pain or mistakes of the personal challenge. Valuable indeed, if that’s true. Grisham hasn't taught me how to be a lawyer, broker or corporate partner.
      We can, however, walk the sewage-filled London streets with Dickens and see how far we have come. Why do we like Fagin but hate Scrooge? Therein lies his art. We can wonder at the convoluted system of marriage with the Bronte sisters and Austen. So the ‘how?’ could be authors’ exposures of what we once were, what we might have continued to be, what we are now and what we might become. Those are valuable lessons, aren’t they?
      I’ll stop here, but fortunately, this will not mean the end of this thread.
  • May 10 2013: Reminds me of Harry Nilson's "The Point." All novels have one or more points, even if you can't find it. However, it is not the novel that has the point really, it is the thinker. A novel gives one the setting for a train of thought(s) that are usually a chance to grow. Not in the way one thinks, normally, but down different roads or directions. In a conversation one has cultural issues that do not afford one the opportunity to go far, because the other participants want you to go down their path or train of thought. Now there are novels that construct a reality which is more rewarding than others, but there is often a repetitiveness that is boring and ends up being a book we do not finish. There is also the fact that if the novel is not giving you a construct that you want or understand you may not be ready or actually be past it's usefulness for various reasons. Often books that we think of fondly and try to read again are a complete letdown and makes us think about why did we like that book. Now for another issue; emotional stimulation. We all know that women like romance novels, while men generally do not (we actually bought that Playboy for the pictures no matter what we said about the articles!). We are a mass of chemicals and thought processes and living is playing or using these as we grow. That growth puts us in a lot of different states that need different stimulus. So Novels are primarily for thinking about subjects or metaphysical gymnastics that are relevant to the developmental level we are at. Then we come to the handicap of novels, which is our common reality. A novel has to have a reality or construct for your mind to exist in. Fantasy and Science Fiction novels are free to create a setting that does not or never will exist for us to think in. A good example is God. Older novels and movies had to have the existing religious trappings, and usually the "accepted" one. So to be truly free in a novel one had avoid this reality.
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      May 10 2013: Thanks Jerry for your comprehensive view. I like how you made novels look like friends, we can be open and vulnerable when discussing their ideas cause we're not fearful of judgment or being labeled.
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    May 10 2013: Novels are from life . From novels ,we can experience different lives without taking prat in . we see the right and wrong in the novel thus causing a subtle influence on the behavior in reality .
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    May 8 2013: in my opinion, information is inferior to fabrication. What was it that Einstein once said about imagination and knowledge...?
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      May 9 2013: Had to look that one up Scott. Here it is for the rest of us to enjoy.

      "Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand." Albert Einstein
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    May 8 2013: The most read novel is “The Lord of the Rings” and although every character and location in is made-up/fictional the morals and virtues are real. So good novels are entertaining lessons, that have a long lasting effect on us.

    Electronic games is still a young art form, and at its best will be a combination of a great novel with visual art, preforming art, and music in an interactive manor.
    And as a whole it can become greater than the sum of its parts.
    Right now they are somewhere between a cave paintings and the Mona Lisa, comic books and Gone with the Wind, chanting and Beethoven’s 5th, it being a team art form it likely the reason most don’t see it as an art form.
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      May 8 2013: To be honest with you I never read or watched any of the lord of the rings :D
      But I like the sound of this: "good novels are entertaining lessons, that have a long lasting effect on us".

      As for games, I don't want to shift the topic of the conversation here. But I find most electronic games to be a mean of entertainment we can hardly say they try to teach us values or lessons, specially if you're playing a villain or a member in a gang. Of course not all games, but quite a few. My point was; should reading a novel be just a way of entertainment or is there a secret value we harvest as we read along.
      Thanks for jumping in, Don.
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    May 8 2013: In reading novels, when we think about the characters and their situations, we consider hypothetical paths to solving problems that often have a universality to them and observe different modes of interacting with others. These experiences, though the situation is fictional, extend our experience (of the what ifs and possible consequences) and add to our range of ideas for solving our own problems, for empathizing with others in a variety of situations, and for dealing with relationships and conflicts.

    Movies can do the same, except that in novels we have more control of our processing pace. It is a longer, often more thorough experience, and we can pause or reread.

    I cannot speak to the comparison to video games, as I do not play them, but it would seem novels and movies both have a greater ability to capture complex characters and situations.

    The only Egyptian novelist whose work I have read is Naguib Mahfouz. I thought the Cairo Trilogy (Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street) was a masterpiece.

    Another masterpiece, I think, set in Egypt is Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet, which tells the same story in four different novels from the perspectives of four main characters.
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      May 8 2013: Great comment. I can see why you host many threads.

      You summarize so much of my poorly formed thought -- that I have very little (if anything) to add here.

      I guess the best thing about novels in English, is having a department of English to study with at University. If you are a native speaker of English, and English is your first language, the novel in English is most of what you study in the field of English language and literature.

      If we got rid of the novel, we wouldn't have any English majors in college. Not only that, but there wouldn't be a publishing industry either. Some might argue the point, but I'll keep things the way they are for now. And as far as the novel is concerned, what would we replace them with?

      There is too much about reading fiction that I enjoy.
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        May 8 2013: Hi, Juan. I don't host the individual threads. Amgad is, for example, the host of this thread. I am a host in TED Conversations as a whole, which means I do my best to help people get something good out of their participation here.
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          May 8 2013: Thank you for that. I don't think it is possible for me to enjoy TED any more than I already do. The collective and productive exchange of ideas here has really added a lot to my day.

          Thanks again
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      May 8 2013: Thanks Fritzie for participating, you remind me of something I read in "Made to Stick", a book by Chip and Dan Heath, they said stories put knowledge into a frame work that is more lifelike. I think good authors can use novels to put ideas in a way that makes it easier for us to comprehend.

      If you're a fan of Naguib Mahfouz I recommend you read "Children of our Alley". It was banned in Egypt for years until 2006. A great read.
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        May 8 2013: Thank you for the recommendation. I just happened to finish reading a novel yesterday and will look into Children of Our Alley for next in my line-up. I see there is some controversy about whether Children of Gebelawi represents the more authentic translation.

        Do you have a thought on this?
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          May 9 2013: The literal translation is the Children of our Alley. 100% sure about that.
          Gebelawi is a character in the novel with a certain symbolic meaning. I can see why they would change it, but I think Alley better match the novel.
  • May 29 2013: Reading anything can initiate you to new vocabulary (do not take the vocabulary I will use in here as an example, my first language is not English), new point of views, and depending on the writer's research more knowledge, especially if you read the footnotes.

    It is not because it is a novel that what is describe in it is not true, if you want knowledge about how it may feel to get yourself in a lawsuit you might want to read John Grisham books, he was a lawyer before he changed career to become a novelist, if you're thinking about studying healthcare to work in a ER, you might want to refer to the first years of ER TV show written by novelist Michael Crichton who studied medicine, and to the professional working in real ERs the show felt too much like work for them to enjoy it.

    There is some interesting facts to be found in historic novels if you read the proper ones, that is where I first learn, that natives American people had mined copper and put it to good use before European people landed on the shores.

    Fun fact, I was really not focused in class when I was in high school, I was reading novels in class hiding my books under the desk, and on the first day of the semester of physic class I was keeping my bad habits when the teacher asked a question to which I just read a answer that was never spoken of in class the year before, so I gave it to the teacher who became ecstatic. If I would not have been reading in class that day, maybe that answer would have come out eventually, but it would have been way less memorable.
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    May 29 2013: If we didn't have novels, we wouldn't have screen writers. And if we did not have screen writers, then where would all the TV shows and the Movies come from? Didn't think about that, now, did ya'!
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    May 27 2013: In my opinion, we can learn from the fact that the story was made up and the characters do not exist: we can learn things that cannot be learnt from the truth. In addition, we can get lessons or emotions greater than the ones we get out of a non-fiction.
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    May 27 2013: I think, novels help us understand our own experiences, experiences of others, and the world in general. It's best to consider an example. Take "Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy. It raises lots of real questions - the role of family in society, how women are treated in family relationships compared to men, why people commit adultery - what's going on in their minds. There is also a host of social, philosophical, and political issues discussed in the novel.

    In a sense, everything we know is a fiction. Just because a story is not based on facts does not make it untrue or useless.
  • May 12 2013: Nice to hear, Amgad. Novels face some stiff competition these days.
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    May 12 2013: Writing novels is a means to make money and sustain a lifestyle. Very few write to educate the world. It's a form of entertainment like watching TV or listening to the radio, or playing a video game.

    Most of what I read are Tech books and magazines, mostly online. I like ScFy but once the science is broken, I can't read any further. So I don't read very many SyFy books anymore.

    I like biographies. It's always interesting to see how someone accomplished the exploits in their life, especially from the winners perspective. In particular I like sailing stories.

    Have you studied Joseph Campbell and his book "Power of Myth" ?

    This is a must read for anyone who would like to be critical of novels.

    Kenneth Burke is also a must read to understand how the power of Retoric can be used, even in a fiction novel, to pursuade the minds of the masses.
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      May 27 2013: Thanks John for joining us!

      I think what most of the guys here said really revolve around the idea that a myth/imaginative stories can be educational. That when authors create a fake world it makes us ask questions about our own realm, such questions can't keep going if the only thing we perceive is what we are, not what we might be.

      I haven't read the book, but it has been in my to-read list for quite some time now. might start reading it after finishing my exams!
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        May 27 2013: Well, there you go. Novels are good for entertainment. Last nite I read about string theory till my eyes fell out. I probably know as much about it as when I first started to read. The math is horrendous.

        Some novels are based on real life and how we perceive it. Books like, "Gone with the Wind", mirror real life events and how people react withing the framework of historical, real life situations.

        A Novel can be one long story that lends us insight into how we might react under certain circumstances. As such, it helps us to learn how to discipline ourselves in life. I'm sure you've heard the story about the wolf and the grapes hanging high out of his reach. He ends up spitting out the word the grapes were probably sour anyway. A novel can illustrate a long story that hits upon this very theme.

        A novel can force us to look at the fake worlds we live in every day. Religion. Is it real? or is it imaginary? The story lines and characters certainly appear to be fake and made up sometimes. Talking animals, aliens from another supernatural realm giving us advice and commands about how we will live our lives, the unseen God(s). Where the stories about the God(s) of Egypt real or imaginary or, Fake if you prefer?

        Novels can force us to look deeper at our own, supposedly "real" lives and determine just how much illusion we create in our minds to comes to grips with the things we see, hear and perceive. How much of our daily experience is really "real"?
  • May 12 2013: Depends on the novel. There are fascinating paradoxes which when one discovers them in personally motivating ways, a story is often written to lead the reader to share the implications. An example off the top of my head would be the movie "Angels and Insects". It seems that the writer had a realization about a slight change in lettering where the word "insect" becomes "incest". The whole story became a path to and from that where an entomologist down on his luck is hired by a wealthy family and falls for one and marries one of the gentry. Plot lines are used to imply something fishy about the children they produced and in a chilling game of scrabble with the house keeper, she changes the word insect into incest and the unspoken message was very dramatic. The family member he had married was having sex with her brother and the entomologist found his children were not his. This is how entertaining novels start--with a twist that one builds bridges to and from. No one can start a novel and invent direction as they go along. It doesn't happen that way. Otherwise it's just a romance novel or self indulgent wander. Novels serve a purpose when you have something to say but either you have no credentials for people to take your non-fiction seriously so you disguise it in fiction which is entertaining or the concept is too esoteric to just disclose in short order and you need a drama to make the implications lead to understanding the concept. You invent fiction that brings non-fictional events into question--like Citizen Kane for instance. It's William Randolph Hearst and "rosebud" is what he called his g/f Marian Davies pussy. Personally there's too much non fiction for me to keep up to read novels.
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    May 11 2013: I have to declare an interest. I'm a novelist but also a reader. I majored on non-fiction as a medium of acquiring understanding and knowledge. Seventy percent of my reading has been of that kind. However, most of what I understand, as opposed to simply know, I got from great novels.
    I'd say the point of a novel (at east the kind I write, which is Literary Fiction) is to be free of the bounds of reality without losing reality. In fact, one can achieve a kind of super reality that communicates more directly and more subtly to the reader than non-fiction ever could. I have been more deeply touched by great fiction than by factual accounts of the same events.
    The contributor who said rather proudly they've not read a novel of thirty years left me reeling. What a terrible denial of the creative wonder to be found in literature. I'd be ashamed of such a sweeping declaration.
    Facts and statements, ideas and thesis have a place in feeding our hunger for knowing but really good literature can touch us in ways, that once experienced, makes the question: 'What's the point on novels,' utterly moot.
  • May 11 2013: novels are the picture frame, the flavor and the senses of the fact. otherwise its facts in a vacuum.
  • May 10 2013: I feel that novels also equally widen our knowledge and perspective in many ways. As an educator I read a lot of factual and instructional material and encourage my students to do the same but I also encourage them to read novels as much as possible.

    Novels for offer a means to escape, they allow our minds time to regenerate. They let us experience different ways of thinking, different lifestyles, different times, even different worlds. They offer things we may never have the opportunity to experience and these experiences can only go to enrich our lives.

    Like everything, these experiences are obviously dependent on the source material. I have frequently been let down by poorly written books but, when you come across a gem it can take you to another plane and live with you for a long time afterwards. José Saramago's Blindness is my current star find, I have almost finished it and I'm going to miss the characters I have come to know so well.

    I encourage my students to try genres they wouldn't normally choose, it helps to broaden their outlook on life. Unfortunately todays preference for Twitter, Facebook and their ilk is making reading anything longer than a few hundred characters a chore to many. I fear that the joy of sitting down to read a good novel is slowly disappearing amongst our younger generations. Nicholas Carr's The Shallows sums this up very well.
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    May 10 2013: I don't like novels, I haven't read one for thirty years.
  • May 8 2013: I can't resist the implication that the two, that is, facts/knowledge--learning--to widen our perspective, are mutually exclusive. How could they be? All stories, novels, have themes. I'm sure, well, at least I hope, this wasn't the intended meaning because you can see that it is a bit ridiculous. Because I couldn't resist, why do you ask this question? What lead you here? At the risk of being wrong, my gut feeling is that that is the more interesting discussion!

    More to the point, nothing is a waste of time, I think if you really put thought to what that statement is, you'll find that it's meant in production terms. You should be working! You should be doing something productive! Is your cognitive well being not of the utmost importance? As Americans, you know, we see this a lot, and I feel a bit enlightened by you that perhaps you folks feel some of the same pressure. I suppose though, that's only for me to take away :D
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      May 8 2013: Hey Matt, I'm not sure I got your first point I'd be grateful if you could explain it :)

      The topic of discussion Matt is whether novels truly are a positive impact on our cognitive well being. And more importantly "in what way?"
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
      • May 8 2013: Sure, sure, no worries, you seem to suggest that reading a novel doesn't apply facts or knowledge. Or that the two are wholly separate. In all three cases, you're learning, take the story of the celebrated Ahmad ibn Fadlan. Popularized by Crichton's book and the adaptation, the 13th Warrior. It's unquestioningly a novel, as a lot had to be invented or reasoned into it to create a story. You learn great lessons about people as a species, and you're wildly entertained. At least, I was.

        Also at the risk of being offensive, if so, forgive me, but I think these are some of the better examples, take the Bible and the Qur'an. The stories in it are allegorical, mythic, symbolic and most are quite simply made up. The themes they present are still worth learning, people still cling to them, for whatever reason. Just as, ugh, Twilight, I'm sure provides some insight to sheltered teenage girls for its' themes, beyond mere entertainment. Personally, I have never read a novel that did not have me thinking, indeed this is my favorite part about reading, it fosters an environment where I question ideas or branch on theirs. Just as someone said, you can pause and reflect while reading, this is one avenue of tremendous intelligent discussion, albeit, with yourself!

        I'm still curious though, why do you ask this question? What lead you here? Thanks all the same my friend!
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          May 9 2013: Thanks for writing back Matt!
          I write this question because I was curious. We spend much time reading novels and I wondered what if there's a way to get more benefits out of it. Is there a way we can reflect on novels to get a maximized outcome (I'm an engineering student, forgive my quantitative terms!)

          As for your point, your thoughts are close to the ones expressed here, that whether it's fiction or not, novels make values and life lessons closer to human understanding when they're put in a frame of a story.
  • May 8 2013: to enrich the lives of others knowledge fun supporting a cause all of the above.
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    May 8 2013: Yes, very much like science fiction, fantasy, paranomral and other genres that explore the non-existent and the presently impossible.
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    May 8 2013: No reading novels is not a waste of time at all and I would also argue that there is some benefits to playing video games but that wasn't what the question was about.

    Reading anything can always improve our reading, writing and concentration skills so reading novels can help us in that sense. Novels do normally have important lessons in them as well. No these lessons will not be lessons in solid facts but moral lessons and can teach us about new ideas and new ways of thinking. Not to mention the huge fact that reading novels can help build our imagination which in turn can help our critical thinking and ability to create.

    There is also the fact that even if it was just for entertainment that isn't a bad thing. We all need ways to de-stress and entertainment where you are taken to another world is a great way to do that. There is also a social aspect to reading popular novels. I have met many good friends though the books I read and a really good book can create a community *cough* Harry Potter *cough*.

    All in all reading is never pointless it has endless benefits to our development.
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      May 8 2013: Hahahaha, Hey Kirstie, thanks for joining the conversation.
      I agree, reading for entertainment might be the healthiest way to entertain, but what about autobiographies as an example of something that's story-like but also of historical benefit.

      I think the question here is do we read for the sake of reading or for something more.
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        May 8 2013: Well I would personally read a novels over autobiographies because with a novel your really feeding you imagination and reading fiction often puts me in the mood for doing something creative and productive. I also love the idea of stories that are so complex and out of this world it actually takes work to figure them out I think if you can picture these complex worlds that are created in novels you are learning how to picture things in general as well. This can help us greatly with learning new skills and creating new things.