A Scientist’s Defense of Reading for Pleasure

I love to read. On average, I finish about two books per month. I read mostly fiction, but I dabble in everything from classic science fiction stories, like Ubik and The Sirens of Titan, to contemporary literary fiction like Americanah and A Little Life, and sometimes even popular series, such as The Hunger Games and Twilight series (please don’t judge me).

Almost as much as I love reading, I love discussing books. I could spend hours swapping stories about fantastical hypotheticals or hilarious characters or passages that continue to haunt me, from books so good I had to forgo everything–social events, meals, sleep–just to devour them. My personality, at any time, is probably 50% the last book that I’ve read (sorry Mom and Dad for that Sylvia Plath phase).

But increasingly, when I turn to another graduate student in biology to discuss a book I recently finished reading, I hear variations on this theme:


“I don’t have time to read for fun, I only read scientific papers.”


I hate this statement. First, “not enough time” is usually just a matter of priorities (I’m lookin’ at you Instagram, Reddit, Netflix). Second, it seems to imply some kind of false trade-off between reading scientific papers and reading for pleasure. Third, because I strongly believe that all types of reading, even reading children’s books, can make you a better scientist.

The main argument here is fairly simple: the best scientists are great storytellers. Russ Poldrack, a neuroscientist and professor at Stanford University (whose work has been cited >30,000 times…so listen up!), writes on his blog,

“Great science is not just about generating reproducible results and “letting the data tell their own story”; it should also give us deeper insights into how the world works, and those insights are fundamentally built around and expressed through narratives, because humans are story-telling animals. We have all had the experience of sitting through a research talk that involved lots of data and no story, and it’s a painful experience; this speaks to the importance of solid narrative in our communication of scientific ideas.”

So how does one learn to craft more compelling scientific narratives? By reading a lot great stories, of course! And those stories could come from anywhere. Reading for pleasure and reading to become a better scientist don’t have to be mutually exclusive activities. Fun, non-scientific works can teach you just as much, if not more, about logic, structure, style, grammar and all the fundamental elements of storytelling. At the very least, maybe someday you’ll get to join the crowd of geeky literary scientists who name a hypothesis (e.g. Red Queen hypothesis) or species (e.g. Ampulex dementor) after characters from their favorite books. Read for pleasure. Please! Your fellow scientists will thank you.

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