Unpopular opinion: Bookstores have become boring
In short, you might say Everything Is F*cked
Reading fiction, especially as a child, develops your emotional intelligence and sense of empathy. It even improves problem-solving skills. Not that I was aware of any of these long-term benefits when I was savouring afternoons in my neighbourhood library as a child, devouring hundreds of pages a day. Ploughing through the entire Babysitters Club series, reading about Matilda, a small girl who also liked libraries, and, gloriously unsupervised, discovering Dracula and Anne Rice before starting the fifth grade. That was the best part: finding new books in genres and styles I didn’t know. Each fresh perspective, a window into a different world.
While my reading habit is back after a brief dry spell (joining a digital book club was the push I needed), I still don’t frequent bookstores as often as I used to, unless one happens to be in my path. Even then, there’s an unsettling homogeneity in the array of non-fiction books looking back at me. Investment and finance books with bold letters spelling out Rich Dad Poor Dad, The Psychology of Money, The Lean Startup.
Then there’s the self-help section, invariably featuring Atomic Habits, The Power of Now, the telltale sky-blue of Ikigai (okay, not all self-help books suck). A lot of non-fiction books are neither here nor there, like Paulo Coelho’s ubiquitous The Alchemist — a self-help book disguised as a novel, and one of the only fiction titles you’ll reliably find at any bookstore these days. Or on social media lists of must-read books, which no longer recommend literary giants like Shakespeare or Toni Morrison.
Turns out, it’s not just my fertile, novel-enhanced imagination; bookstores really are becoming generic. As Juggernaut Books founder Chiki Sarkar told Caravan, “All mainstream publishing houses have a commercial division (business, self-help, celebrity books) and literary. It has eternally been the case, in India and globally, that the commercial division makes the bulk of profits. People read nonfiction, period.” Karthika KV of Westland Books agrees that in the past decade, non-fiction has grown substantially in publishing while fiction has taken a backseat. In short, you might say Everything Is F*cked.
A common thread here is that all these non-fiction books contain explicit instructions to better your life. The Secret will teach you how to manifest what you want, while Make Your Bed will improve your positive outlook. How to Make Friends and Influence People does what it says on the tin, and the same goes for Do Epic Shit (here are more money management tips from Ankur Warikoo). They aren’t about getting lost in a story, but Reading with a capital R – the difference between a stroll in a picturesque garden and a power hour of cardio at the gym.
Look, I’m not here to be the book police (what does it mean to be well-read anyway?). The transformation of reading from an entertaining hobby into another item on your self-improvement checklist, up there with journalling and not eating gluten, was inevitable. Modern hustle culture means optimising everything we do, from monetising our pastimes to tracking our sleep cycles. In this milieu, we were bound to adopt a kind of Victorian prejudice towards novels as being frivolous and lacking in utility.
Yet there’s more to growth, both mental and emotional, than you can find on the Amazon bestsellers list. The joy of stories is in the interpreting, like when you argue over why Sam could carry Frodo and not be affected by the Ring, or read an old favourite and find that different characters and scenes speak to you – because you’re not the same person who read it a decade ago.
For those who care more about productivity hacks, there are tangible benefits to reading fiction, too. As the Harvard Business Review’s Case for Reading Fiction points out, reading stories does more for your critical thinking skills, open mindedness, and social acuity than any number of books on business. Top CEOs and leaders often recommend reading, but they very rarely advocate novels, instead focusing on the performance-oriented texts that become so popular in bookstores (here’s how you can avoid burnout).
You don’t need a cognitive scientist to tell you that the practice of stepping into another person’s shoes and moving through their life expands our understanding of ourselves and the world. And unlike books that have their lessons emblazoned on their covers, you never know what knowledge you’ll walk away with when you put down a novel. That’s the wonder of discovery that bookstores used to hold.
Luckily, there are plenty of mainstream fiction bestsellers out there that will broaden our horizons beyond nonfiction. Since not everyone wants to spend weeks poring over Tolstoy, all of these picks make for light-ish and engaging reading even for those who are just flexing their fiction muscles.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
When a fledgling journalist is contacted by reclusive yesteryear filmstar Evelyn Hugo for an interview, she knows this opportunity could change her life. The question of why she’s been chosen melts away in the face of Evelyn’s tell-all interview, including the reality behind her glamorous life and her seven successive husbands. As the story twists and turns, we understand how a person can build and break their own image, and that their truth is a lot more complicated than what’s on the surface.
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
If you want to ease into a fiction read, this novel is full of digestible lessons that still leave a little room for interpretation. Hovering between life and death, Nora finds herself in a library, surrounded by books of the lives she might have lived if she’d made different choices. The library serves as a metaphor for her regrets and existential questions. Who among us can’t relate to that feeling of ‘what if?’
The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman
In this hilarious whodunnit set in a British retirement village, there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Four senior citizens from various backgrounds form a club to solve cold cases, each with their own motivations for why they want to get to the bottom of it. It’s an update on Miss Marple, and Osman’s follow-up novel, The Man Who Died Twice, is just as much fun.
Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
Okay, so this one isn’t a novel but an introspective memoir. The author, a young man, visits his old professor Morrie who has debilitating ALS. It’s a beautifully written self-improvement book, filled with insights from a man for whom the end is in sight. The ultimate lesson is that learning how to live means learning how to die.
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
This collection of short stories remains my favourite Lahiri book for its sensitive prose and stirring snapshots of relationships. When you don’t want to wade through a whole novel, this snappy anthology packs just as much narrative depth with nine short stories about people caught in the cracks between India and America. Yet there’s no preaching here, simply observations. All conclusions are your own to draw.
The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
A psychological thriller that will appeal to fans of true crime, this isn’t your grandmother’s mystery novel. A psychologist becomes fascinated with a famous patient, an artist who killed her husband and hasn’t uttered a word since. Making her speak is his pet project, which turns into an all-consuming obsession that threatens his own sanity.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
A great American novel that’s an easy-breezy read? Take notes, Kerouac. One of the original young adult novels and written in the voice of its protagonist, this classic delves into coming-of-age and themes of grief and loss without becoming too dreary. This isn’t a novel you read for the plot, but rather to witness the wobbly line of growth that the main character walks. If you like John Green, you’ll probably like this one.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
By now, you’ve seen the red robe-clad handmaids from the popular TV adaptation of this classic science fiction novel. Even if you’re into the show, the original is worth a read. Framed as an academic retrospective of Gilead, a society where women are horrifically oppressed, it’s written as the diary of a handmaid. Famously, Atwood has drawn every indignity she faces from real-world events, but the book feels like a human story instead of a feminist research paper.
It Ends With Us by Colleen Hoover
This wildly popular romance isn’t your typical boy-meets-girl story. Hoover explores themes of generational trauma in this tale based on her own parents. But the book still comes through with a brooding hero who refuses to get involved in relationships, and is an attractive doctor to boot. It’s an escapist fantasy with enough depth to make it interesting. The sequel, It Starts With Us, is slated to release next month.
Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
You can seek out the King of Horror in any bookstore, and while you can’t go wrong with the Dark Tower series, this one-shot read is less of a commitment. A gripping meta-novel that centres on an author who returns to his childhood town to write a book about an abandoned house – and as you can guess, things quickly go south when he encounters a modern vampire.