Why Programmers Should Read Good Fiction

assorted books display on shelf

If you are a programmer looking to improve your professional craft, there are many resources toward which you will be tempted to turn. Books and classes on programming languages, design patterns, performance, testing, and algorithms are some obvious places to look. Many are worth your time and investment.

Despite the job of a programmer often being couched in technical terms, you will certainly be working for and with other people, so you might also seek to improve in other ways. Communication skills, both spoken and written, are obvious candidates for improvement. Creative thinking and learning how to ask proper questions are critical when honing requirements and rooting out bugs, and time can always be managed better. These are not easily placed in the silo of “software engineering,” but are inevitable requirements of the job. For these less-technical skills, you will also find a plethora of resources claiming to help you in your quest for improvement. And again, many are worthwhile.

For all of your attempts at improvement, however, you will be tempted to remain in the non-fiction section of your favorite bookstore. This would be a mistake. You should be spending some of your time immersed in good fiction. Why fiction? Why made-up stories about imaginary characters? How will that help you be better at your job? There are at least four ways.

Exercise your imagination

Programming is as much a creative endeavor as it is technical mastery, and creativity requires a functioning imagination. To quote Einstein:

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.

You can own a hammer, be really proficient with it, and even have years of experience using it, but it takes imagination to design a house and know when to use that hammer for that house. It takes imagination to get beyond your own limited viewpoint. This can make it easier to make connections and analogies between things that might not have seemed related which is a compelling definition of creativity itself.

Your imagination works like any muscle. Use it or lose it. And just like any other kind of training, it helps to have an experienced guide. Good authors of fiction are ready to be your personal trainers.

Understanding and empathy

The best writers can craft characters so real that they feel like flesh and blood, and many of those people can be similar to actual people you know. Great writers are, first and foremost, astute observers of life, and their insight into minds and motivations can become your insight. Good fiction can help you navigate real life.

One meta-study suggests that reading fiction, even just a single story, can help improve someone’s social awareness and reactions to other people. For any difficult situation or person you come across in your profession, there has probably been a writer that has explored that exact same dynamic. The external trappings and particulars will certainly be different, but the motivations and foibles will ring true.

In one example from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas is a father who puts too much faith in the proper appearances, and after sternly talking to his son about an ill-advised scheme, the narrator of the books says, “He did not enter into any remonstrance with his other children: he was more willing to believe they felt their error than to run the risk of investigation.”

You have probably met a person like this. You might have dealt with a project manager like this who will limit communication rather than “run the risk of investigation.” No news is good news. Austen has a lot to teach you about how one might maneuver around this type of personality. Or, you might be better equipped to recognize such tendencies in yourself and snuff them out before they cause trouble for yourself and others.

Remember, all software problems are really people problems at their core. Software is written by people, and the requirements are determined by other people. None of the people involved in this process are automatons. Sometimes, how one system interfaces with another has more to do with the relationship between two managers than any technical considerations.

Navigating people is just as much a part of a programmer’s job as navigating an IDE. Good fiction provides good landmarks.

Truth and relevance

This is related to the previous point but deserves its own section. Good fiction can tell the truth with imaginary facts. This is opposed to much of the news today, which can lie with the right facts, either by omitting some or through misinterpretation.

Plato, in his ideal republic, wanted to kick out all of the poets because, in his mind, they did nothing but tell lies. On the other hand, Philip Sidney, in his Defence of Poesy, said that poets lie the least. The latter is closer to the truth, even though it might betray a pessimistic view of humanity.

Jane Austen’s novels are some of the most insightful reflections on human nature. Shakespeare’s plays continue to last because they tap into something higher than “facts.” N.N. Taleb writes in his conversation on literature:

...Fiction is a certain packaging of the truth, or higher truths. Indeed I find that there is more truth in Proust, albeit it is officially fictional, than in the babbling analyses of the New York Times that give us the illusions of understanding what’s going on.

Homer, in The Iliad, gives us a powerful portrait of the pride of men reflected in the capriciousness of his gods. And, look at how he describes anger (from the Robert Fagles translation):

...bitter gall, sweeter than dripping streams of honey, that swarms in people's chests and blinds like smoke.

That is a description of anger that rings true and sticks. And maybe, just maybe, after you have witnessed example after vivid example of the phenomenon in The Iliad, you will be better equipped to stop your own anger from blinding you like smoke.

How many times will modern pundits get things wrong, or focus on things that won’t matter in another month? How many technical books will be outdated after two years? Homer will always be right and relevant.

You also get the benefit of aspirational truths. Who doesn’t want to be a faithful friend, like Samwise Gamgee, to help shoulder the heaviest burdens of those you love? Sam is a made up character. Literally does not exist in this mortal realm. Yet he is real. He is true.

Your acts of friendship might not save the world from unspeakable evil, but each one reaches for those lofty heights. Your acts of friendship are made a little bit nobler because you know that they do, in some way, push back the darkness.

Fictional truths give the world new depth to the reader. C.S. Lewis, in defending the idea of fairy tales, wrote:

He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.

Likewise, to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.

The right words

One of the hardest problems in programming is naming things. For variables, functions, and classes, the right name can bring clarity to code like a brisk summer breeze, while the wrong name brings pain accompanied by the wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Sometimes, the difference between the right name and the wrong name is thin and small, but represents a vast distance, like the difference between “lightning” and “lightning bug,” or the difference between “right” and “write.”  

Do you know who else struggles with finding the right words? Great authors. And particularly, great poets. Samuel Taylor Coleridge once said:

Prose = words in their best order; — poetry = the best words in the best order. 

“The best words in the best order” could also be a definition of good, clean code. If you are a programmer, you are a freaking poet.

Well, maybe not, but this does mean that a subset of the fiction you read should be poetry, though any good fiction will help you increase your vocabulary. Poetry will just intensify the phenomenon. And when you increase your vocabulary, you increase your ability to think clearly and precisely.

While this still won’t necessarily make it easy to name things properly - even the best poets struggle and bleed over the page before they find what they are looking for - it might make it easier.

What to read

Notice the qualifier “good.” That’s important. There were over 200,000 new works of fiction published in 2015 alone. Life is too short to spend time reading bad books, especially when there are too many good ones to read for a single lifetime. I don’t mean to be a snob, just realistic.

Bad fiction will, at best, be a waste of your time. At worst, it can lie to you in ways that twist your expectations about reality by twisting what is good and beautiful. It can warp the lens through which you view life. The stories we tell ourselves and repeat about ourselves shape our consciousness, and so we want to tell ourselves good ones.

So how do you find good fiction? One heuristic is to let time be your filter. Read older stuff. Most of the stuff published today will not last and will not be the least bit relevant twenty years from now. But some of it will. Some will rise to the top and become part of the lasting legacy of our culture, shining brighter and brighter as the years pass by and scrub away the dross. But it's hard to know the jewels in advance, so let time do the work for you.

The other way is to listen to people you trust and get recommendations. In that spirit, here are some recommendations from myself and fellow Lullabots:

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Matt Robison

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Matt has been working with Drupal since 2008. He loves spending his time reading, writing, playing with his three kids, and eating lots of ice cream.