books on couch

As an undergraduate English major, I thought that nothing could matter more than books. I even told my family that books were my life, and it’s one of many things I most regret saying. After all, we read because we desire a connection with other people and saying that books are your life leaves those relationships out of view in a way that isn’t constructive.

Books are immersive, profound and often transcendent. They feature voices different from our own, reveal another’s consciousness and expose us to lives we’ve never lived. But books are only one part of our realities, meant to show us how to walk outside the pages and experience our life stories alongside other people. The connection between reading and real life is undeniable, but if we never use what we learn in books to help others, then we’re reducing our ability to live meaningfully.

Here are four ways to apply the lessons of fiction to real life:

Remember that character is the heart of fiction.

In several writing workshops, I’ve heard this time and again. Quite simply, the beginning of a book sets up a character and a situation that makes you want to continue the story. Regardless of whether you like a character, you’ll stick with them throughout the book if you find them interesting enough.

In real life, you will meet people who are different than you. Maybe you won’t get along with them at first, but every person you meet knows something that you don’t. Take the time to listen, just as you would to a new character in a book that you’re patiently reading. Sometimes we love the characters we read about, but other times we simply listen to and learn from their struggles. Let real life be a similar exercise.

John Cheever once wrote, “Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos … to celebrate a world that lies spread out around us like a bewildering and stupendous dream.” Sometimes reality can feel like chaos, but we succeed together when we celebrate the unique characters in our lives. Celebrate those different from you, and be open to meeting people in surprising places.

desk books

Bring the empathy you feel for characters into real life.

This study points to the fact that literary fiction improves a reader’s empathy and even undermines prejudices. Reading is so profound that it can even be used as therapy. Literary theorists have often supported this: As Virginia Woolf wrote, “Books are the mirrors of the soul.”

While most of us book lovers report being devastated that a character died, sometimes we don’t give the same care to people outside of books. While it’s okay to spend time in fictional worlds, use the character studies of great novels to remind you that everyone has struggles that are different from your own. Emerging from a book and listening to a real-life story can help you bond with other people and even consider solutions to problems that we still face.

Maybe you won’t get along with them at first, but every person you meet knows something that you don’t.

Use new metaphors to approach your life.

If you love classic literature, one of your favorite things is probably a brilliant metaphor or a carefully constructed sentence. After all, semantics matter and tired clichés don’t always accurately depict our lives. Ralph Waldo Emerson is right: “The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.”

In the same sense, what we call people says much about how we view them. Metaphors often impact the way we approach life and decision-making. Labels and stereotypes can be damaging and should be changed to reflect the kaleidoscope of identity. Help others by advocating for the people in your life so they can identify with words that are unique to their experiences. If we bring metaphors outside of books and into the conversation, then they become meaningful tools to help others better understand different viewpoints.

books desk pen

Make time for other people.

Relationships make the world a better place. That’s why it’s okay to put your reading life on hold for your reality. If you can’t finish that book today, set it aside and spend some time with your family. You can always come back to the book later, but you may not get the same chance to be with the people you love.

Sometimes it’s tempting to turn to books as an escape, but instead, let them be your guide to the human spirit. Do this by sharing the books you read with those you care about. This is another way of making time for people.

It is said that art imitates life and life imitates art. But it may be more complicated than that. While books may contain life, they aren’t life itself. Let your love of books meet reality for a literary life that benefits others in return.

What has reading taught you about relationships with others?

Images via Sadie Culberson


  1. I have said way too many times that “Books are my life!”, it was my equivalent to the “It’s not a phase, Mom!” of any angsty high school teen! This is a great article and it offers a new perspective. While I don’t want to squander my passion nor always put a book aside to engage in other aspects of reality I can understand the value of what you are saying. I love having reading as an escape from the mundane because I can get to know someone new, in their own world of trials and troubles. But I have also realized in my life, as of late, I get to know people just like I read a book. I say hi, I listen and they tell me a story. Anyways, I love everything that you wrote, it resonates with me!

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