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…

the sting Milestones

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

European Commission increases support for the EU’s beekeeping sector

More protection for our seas and oceans is needed, report finds

Which country offers the cheapest mobile data?

INTERVIEW: ‘Defend the people, not the States’, says outgoing UN human rights chief

10 ways central banks are experimenting with blockchain

Can the US-Iran rapprochement change the world?

DR Congo elections: ‘historic opportunity’ for ‘peaceful transfer of power’ says Security Council

What can be done to avoid the risk of being among the 7 million that will be killed by air pollution in 2020?

Is there a de facto impossibility for the Brexit to kick-start?

How trust and collaboration are key in India’s last mile response to the COVID-19 crisis

Investors must travel a winding road to net-zero. Here’s a map

Engaging women and girls in science ‘vital’ for Sustainable Development Goals

‘No steps taken’ so far to end Israel’s illegal settlement activity on Palestinian land – UN envoy

In visit to hurricane-ravaged Bahamas, UN chief calls for greater action to address climate change

Illegal fishing plagues the Pacific Ocean. Here’s how to end it

How AI and machine learning are helping to fight COVID-19

EU tells Britain stay in as long as you wish

Financing fossil fuels risks a repeat of the 2008 crash. Here’s why

Here are 4 tips for governing by design in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

How curiosity and globalization are driving a new approach to travel

Coronavirus (COVID-19): truth and myth on personal risk perception

The battle for the 2016 EU Budget to shake the Union; Commission and Parliament vs. Germany

Innovation can transform the way we solve the world’s water challenges

#WorldBicycleDay: 5 benefits of cycling

Missile strike kills at least 12 civilians, including children, in Syria’s Idlib: UN humanitarians

4 steps to developing responsible AI

Mental health and suicide prevention – What can be done to increase access to mental health services in my region?

UN chief outlines ‘intertwined challenges’ of climate change, ocean health facing Pacific nations on the ‘frontline’

New US President: MEPs hope for a new dawn in transatlantic ties

Desires for national independence in Europe bound by economic realities

European Union and African Union sign partnership to scale up preparedness for health emergencies

Yemen war: UN chief urges good faith as ‘milestone’ talks get underway in Sweden

Spring 2019 Standard Eurobarometer: Europeans upbeat about the state of the European Union – best results in 5 years

Coronavirus: Commission approves contract with CureVac to ensure access to a potential vaccine

Outbreak of COVID-19: The third wave and the people

A day in the life of a Venezuelan migrant in Boa Vista, Brazil

EU Copyright Directive: Google News threatens to leave Europe while media startups increasingly worry

3 ways to fight short-termism and relaunch Europe

Accountability in Sudan ‘crucial’ to avoid ‘further bloodshed’, says UN rights office

UN committed ‘to support the Libyan people’ as Guterres departs ‘with deep concern and a heavy heart’

Antarctica: the final coronavirus-free frontier. But will it stay that way?

Mario Draghi didn’t do it but Kim Jong-un did

UN chief welcomes G20 commitment to fight climate change

MEPs: Access to adequate housing should be a fundamental European right

More countries are making progress on corruption – but there’s much to be done, says a new report

Mountains matter, especially if you’re young, UN declares

EU food watchdog: more transparency, better risk prevention

Young activists share four ways to create a more inclusive world

The European Sting @ the European Business Summit 2014 – Where European Business and Politics shape the future

More than one million sexually transmitted infections occur every day: WHO

These countries spend the most on education

How a new approach to meat can help end hunger

MEPs cap prices of calls within EU and approve emergency alert system

Electronic cigarettes: is it really a safe alternative to smoking?

China confirms anti-state-subsidy investigation on EU wine imports

Century challenge: inclusion of immigrants in the health system

Here’s how we reboot digital trade for the 21st century

Britain and Germany change attitude towards the European Union

UN, global health agencies sound alarm on drug-resistant infections; new recommendations to reduce ‘staggering number’ of future deaths

Ten new migratory species protected under global wildlife agreement

More Stings?

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s