Will Reading Fiction Make You a Better Programmer?

Written By Jonathan Wood

For programmers who love to constantly learn throughout their careers, general reading can do a lot of good. I don't mean reading only technical books, or even non-fiction, which is where many of us land when looking through the bookshelves.

Reading general fiction can help you improve as a programmer.

Honestly, I didn't give fiction full credit until I read Neil Gaiman's The View from the Cheap Seats. In this book, Neil includes a few essays and articles about why fiction is important. Let’s go into some of Neil’s key points as well as some of my own that I’ve come to realize as I’ve been reading more fiction.

Reading Fiction Improves Creativity


Reading fiction can help improve your creativity. It introduces you to new ideas and thoughts, and, as you read, these ideas will come to life in your imagination.

Not only are you being introduced to new ideas, such as how technology may change and advance in the future, but you can also imagine how those ideas could work in the real world. You may then think about having that type of technology now and how it would impact your life as it is today.

Imagine how different the world would be if many important science fiction novels hadn’t been published, and if young soon-to-be scientists and technologists had never read them. Maybe after reading about the three laws of robotics, you will help uncover a key element to improving artificial intelligence.

Reading Fiction Can Help You Escape

Reading fiction can help you escape the pressures of daily life. Movies and video games can do the same, but it’s good to get away from a computer or TV screen for a while each day.

While there are several reasons to unplug from technology, one of my favorites is that I can use what I read from fiction to create discussions with my friends and family. This can spiral into them going into what novels they have read, and we can discuss what ideas we took from those novels.

I’m sure there are plenty of times you wanted to escape the everyday life of programming.

A lot of you may have one or two personal projects that you’re working on at home in your own time. Burnout can happen, and the best way to overcome that is to take a break. What better way to take a break than to sit down and read how a time traveler handles the year 802,701 AD?

Taking an hour or even just 30 minutes a day to read will help you escape your routine and recharge your energy.

Reading Fiction Is MeditativeMeditation

Meditation has been shown to help increase creativity and focus, and in relation, reading can be meditative or zen-like. When you focus on reading fiction, you concentrate on the words and imagine the world and characters the author builds for you.

Because you’re fully engaged in the story, your mind isn’t wandering in a million other directions. Daily reading of fiction can help build this “muscle” of staying engaged in a task, whether it’s reading or something else.

Reading fiction can help reduce any stress the day may have brought. We have all heard how bad stress is for our health, and every job will produce stress at some point. Relaxing with a novel will lower that stress, especially when you’re reading about characters who have it rougher than you. For instance, have you ever read the adventure of Frodo taking the One Ring to Mt. Doom?

Reading Fiction Boosts Empathy

Reading fiction can help boost your empathy by practicing your ability to see the world through other people's eyes, whether it be the author's or a character's.

As you read, you begin to care for the characters. You will want and hope for the protagonist can overcome their obstacles throughout the story. You will want and hope for the antagonist to fail as they try to stop the protagonist from accomplishing their goals within the story. Who wouldn’t want Edmond Dantes to return to his former life after being falsely imprisoned?

This involvement with characters practices the empathy “muscle,” and you will start doing more of this type of caring for people in your life. By having extra empathy, developers will care even more about the software they build and how it gives value to their customers, whether it be a product to help them with their jobs or a service to help save them time.

Having more empathy can also help your work relationships. Instead of writing an email to the boss that will blame someone for a mistake, having extra empathy will cause you to rethink your wording to make it less blaming and more understanding.

Reading Fiction Helps Improve Memory

Novels, especially the really long ones, help improve your memory. It’s hard to finish a novel within a day, or even in one sitting. You will have to come back to it the next day to continue reading. That means it could be 24 hours, or more, until you return to the story.

When you return, you will have to remember what has happened in the story, so you will know the context of where you pick up the narrative again. By constantly recalling key elements of the story you’re in, you are improving your memory. This will be extremely helpful if you want to start reading War and Peace.

Now, imagine that improved memory being applied to your career. Perhaps you’ll be the one to remember that one important thing said in a meeting no one else took note of. Maybe you’ll be able to remember more of certain documentation you were reading the day before while others may have to reference it again, causing you to be that little bit more productive. Or maybe you are given a task that causes you to go back to something you wrote six months ago, and you can remember what you were writing at that time so you don’t have to go through all of the code again just to understand what it’s doing.

Reading Fiction Improves Your Writing


Writing is important for your career. You write every day, whether it is technical documentation or that email to your boss. What better way to help improve your writing than to read what other authors have written?

It is a well known fact that reading can help your writing. Reading fiction, in particular, will improve your own writing by giving you a better understanding of the author’s flow and storytelling ability. Non-fiction is typically much drier in tone. With fiction, you get a better sense of how an author keeps their audience engaged in their writing.

Gaining instant audience engagement is crucial because, if you lose your readers after the first couple of sentences of your email, they probably won’t read the rest of what you have to say.

Can You Get the Same Benefits From Non-Fiction?

While reading non-fiction has its own benefits, it will be hard to get the same benefits that reading fiction can give you. Does reading a book on machine learning help you escape the stress of everyday life? While non-fiction helps you learn more about a specific skill or knowledge set, reading fiction will help you relax and wind down from all that you have done today or have to do tomorrow.

Relaxing with a novel can give you other benefits, such as boosting your empathy which is something that reading non-fiction may struggle to give you. Non-fiction can give you new ideas, but those ideas will be more along the lines of current ideas that are already out in the world. Fiction gives the author’s creativity free reign, so it has more “what if” ideas, ideas that explore what the world may one day have, whether for the improvement of civilization or not.

What’s on Your Reading List?

Reading is something we’ve all been told is good to do, and I hope this article shows that even reading fiction can be beneficial to you as a programmer.

Perhaps reading a science fiction novel will give you an idea for a project that turns you into the next great entrepreneur, or reading the classics will bring you newly-realized revelations or extra relaxation during the evenings.

Whichever novel you choose, I’m sure you will receive most or all of these benefits. Most importantly, though, I hope you enjoy the novel that you pick out to read. There’s nothing better than having a good book keeping you company.