Why novels deserve a spot on your post-pandemic bookshelf

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Mo Chatterji, Project Fellow, Scale360° and Senior Consultant at Kearney, World Economic Forum

  • While business and self-help books remain popular among executives, they have limitations.
  • Novels can help busy professionals see the world through a new lens – and they’re fun to read, too.
  • When you get lost in a work of fiction, you can gain a better understanding of the world and the people who inhabit it.

“If you want to get better at something, read a book about it.”

This uncontroversial advice is handed out to innumerable children, students and employees, every day. And there is nothing new about it: reading has been the foremost method of gathering knowledge since the invention of the printing press back in the 15th century. For those of us working across the private and public sectors, when a skill or knowledge gap needs to be filled, finding and reading an appropriate “business”, “personal development” or “self-help” book is usually the first port of call (assuming a quick Google search is not enough).

This makes sense, particularly when the gap to be filled is highly specific. If you want to understand search engine optimization better, for example, then reading a bestseller on e-marketing is a smart move. The books which make up this “genre” are typically practical, implementable and also usually pretty easy to read and digest. Classics such as The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and Good to Great remain relevant – and the “self-help” genre, which typically includes many business books, has almost doubled in size since 2013.

Self-help book unit sales, 2013-2019
The number of self-help books published has nearly doubled in size since 2013.

However, “business” and “personal development” books have their limitations, especially if they make up the lion’s share of your reading material.

As these books usually focus on a specific topic and are often both prescriptive and process based, their strength – filling a specific knowledge gap – can become a weakness, as a prescriptive approach can curb creativity.

Second, this “genre” is often not enjoyable to read. Often written in the plainest language possible – which is great for comprehension but not for engagement – these books are deliberately simple.

Finally, they are generally written by business professionals who have a particular lens through which they observe the world. As behavioural economists and management experts have pointed out, viewing the world through multiple lenses is necessary to understand and react appropriately to its complexity.

None of this means that business books should be off the table. However, they should not be the only books on your reading list. While pop-psychology, military history and biographies often occupy prominent positions on executives’ bookshelves, novels rarely feature. Indeed, novels can be viewed with suspicion by those who subscribe to the personal development ideals of the 21st century – entertaining at best, frivolous and self-indulgent at worst.

This could not be further from the truth. As Robert Hagstrom argues in Investing: The Last Liberal Art, making good business decisions requires a multi-disciplinary approach. This holds true across many business functions. Novels – alongside various other genres – teach us about the world and the people who inhabit it. Funnily enough, the first recognised English novel was Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, which now also lends its name to an economic framework taught in classrooms across the world.

Far from being irrelevant indulgences, novels contain a wide range of insights which can be split into four main camps:

1. Psychology: As HBR or Forbes will tell you on a semi-regular basis, leaders often lack empathy. This makes it difficult for them to predict the effects of their actions on others, hampering their ability to strategize, negotiate and sell (amongst others). Since Defoe, novelists have strived to understand humans’ inner workings and the complex interactions between them, focusing on creating authentic characters whose psychology we can identify with. The more you read about characters and the thoughts going on in their mind, the easier it is to read the emotions of others – crucial for success in most jobs.

six novels on a bookshelf
Reading novels can help you read the emotions of people around you. Image: Elena Kloppenburg/Unsplash

2. Business: The aim of novelists is rarely (if ever) to demonstrate business principles, but this is often a by-product of their work. While initially considered vulgar topics for novelists, commerce and trade are often explored in novels, including rags-to-riches entrepreneur tales comparable to the deified biographies of the 21st century’s foremost entrepreneurs. If it is worth reading the biography of the latest Silicon Valley superstar, it is worth reading novels, too.

3. History: Modern novelists increasingly look backwards to tell forgotten historical tales from bygone eras. Examining the past often helps shed light on the present. Just as military history is often touted as important reading material for strategy professionals, historical novels also have their place. Many focus on events which shaped the world we live in (revolutions, wars, crises, tragedies) and offer lessons on topics which many leaders have no experience (e.g. crisis management). Perspectives which are not normally discussed (e.g. slavery through the eyes of a slave, or World War II through the eyes of an Indian fighting in Malaysia) become accessible. This can both sharpen understanding of contemporary issues – think of the “decolonize your bookshelf” movement – as well as open up new perspectives and approaches to solving problems.

4. Culture: Modern work often requires collaboration within teams based all over the world and composed of many different nationalities. Despite all of the communications progress over the last 40 years, communicating effectively in this context is very hard – and will get even tougher as virtual onboarding becomes more commonplace. Reading novels provides insight into important cultural references. Being familiar with these references can be invaluable in building trust and goodwill with collaborators, particularly when interacting digitally.

A good novel is a journey. Take the first steps and you may be surprised by how much you start to see…

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