The co-stereotype of someone who’s “bookish” is absolutely wrong, as it turns out. That kid with her nose buried in a book all the time is actually more empathetic than her non-reader counterparts.
So says “Changing Our Minds…By Reading Fiction” (and it’s worth reading the entire article.) Their thesis:
Through a series of studies, we have discovered that fiction at its best isn’t just enjoyable. It measurably enhances our abilities to empathize with other people and connect with something larger than ourselves.
They tested this several ways, although I’m sure greater minds than mine would be able to argue with their methodology. The idea is that because the brain does well what it practices (remember the 10,000 hours thing from last year?) people who read fiction are practicing “being” other people.
And if you practice being someone else or thinking like someone else, then you become more empathetic simply because you’re so used to doing it. You become more practiced at thinking thoughts in a way that would never come naturally on your own. Hence, when you see someone making a different decision, you can more easily follow that person’s logic without having to turn that person into a villain. You can predict other people’s feelings. You can meet others’ needs.
My next question: how does sharply limiting the kind of fiction you read affect that ability to empathize? For a while I was reading Christian inspirational fiction and I stopped because I kept finding it so unsatisfying: everyone thought the same way. The bad guys did bad things for cartoony reasons, not as believable characters. Because, of course, it was message-driven fiction.
But if the authors of this article are right, the best way to drive home a message is to create believable characters (which we want to do anyhow) and allow the reader to fully inhabit that character’s headspace. Give that person a chance to think like a politician / a widow / a doctor / a slave trader / a Martian, and that other person will be less knee-jerk judgmental about the other. Because for a little while, the Other was Oneself.
Wow — that kind of throws my job as a writer into a new light. I’m not an entertainer after all. I’m a portal into The Other.
And Mom, you can stop worrying now. All those times I brought a book on family outings or locked myself in my room reading? It was just training for the job of loving my neighbor as myself.