The consensus among the people I talk to on the topic of fiction is that they choose not to read it because it, “isn’t real,” and therefore useless. Fine, I’ll accept the premise. It’s true that reading fiction will not offer anything to be extracted, enacted, and benefited from the way 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Think and Grow Rich, or 12 Rules for Life can.
If your goal for life is to go around extracting info for your own self-interest, then you’re doing right by yourself staying away from fiction, but it would be wise to ask yourself what kind of life that is to live. Fiction exercises the same part of the brain that experience does: simulating situations, expanding creative faculties, and exercising the imagination. It isn’t about the facts, but the story.
If you’re intimidated by fiction, or just don’t get it, it’s important to understand that it takes time, like any discipline, to become a better reader. The below books are my suggestions for those willing to try. Each one of these is short, easy to read, and written by capable authors from various time periods and styles.
Note: These are NOT the "greatest works of all time," they are not necessarily my favorites either, but they are approachable and enjoyable enough to wrap one's brain around, even on a tight schedule.
Perfume by Patrick Suskind
"The story of a murderer." A great influence on Kurt Cobain during the making of Nirvana's In Utero album. The song "Scentless Apprentice," is based on the book's main character.
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
An Appalachian odyssey. The story of Confederate soldier Inman fleeing the war to return to his love.
The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams
From a talented new author in the U.K. This a story of words and the influence they have on our lives without our knowledge.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway's final book written about, well, you get it. This isn't the greatest prose you'll ever read, but the story is clean and true, filled with humanity and sorrow.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Unlike most of the list, this IS one of my favorites. Written in sporadic, experimental prose, this is the story of Abraham Lincoln's son, Willie, and his experience in between this life and the next.
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
A private-eye classic. This is an L.A. noir written in the 1930s, and it's on the list for those who need a little sex and violence to pay attention.
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
You're going to feel like you're reading from the script of the "Murder Mystery" episode of The Office. Faulkner is, famously, Capital-S Southern, and so is this story.
Casino Royal by Ian Fleming
Bond...James Bond. Need I say more?
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The tragic poet's only novel. Published in 1963, the book follows Esther Greenwood through her institutionalization following her mind's collapse, and her undoing all the way through. Plath died by suicide only a month after the book's release.
Dracula by Bram Stoker
You know the story, but you've never read it — have you? Muhahaha and all that.