The conversation usually starts out like this:
“What types of books do you like to read?”
“I only read nonfiction.
Fiction is a waste of time when there is so much to learn from nonfiction.”
or worse —
“What kind of books do you read?”
Quite honestly, the latter seems to be the more common response. Both of these responses worry me, and no, it isn’t just about job security. Recent studies have done work to confirm what we fiction readers have been experiencing for decades – reading fiction changes you.
One of the more recent studies that found a correlation between fiction and empathy was conducted by psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano at the New School for Social Research in New York. Using a variety of Theory of the Mind techniques, Kidd and Castano (2013) found that reading literary fiction, specifically, enhanced the reader’s ability to recognize and understand other people’s emotions. There is much debate about what constitutes “literary fiction” and the study authors are hesitant to pin down their own definition, but the study seems to suggest that readers learn empathy skills from novels that focus more on the psychology and emotions of the characters themselves. Whereas popular novels tend to be plot-driven with formulaic characters, literary fiction presents us with characters who challenge our stereotypes, interrupt our perceptions, and teach us how to understand those who are different than ourselves.
Reading fiction allows us to experience other worlds from a safe distance. When we are immersed in the lives of characters, we can listen in on their internal dialog. Where else are we invited to eavesdrop on the inner conversation that takes place in someone else’s mind?
Oddly enough, as an animal lover one of the first books I can remember reading that helped me “experience” the life of another was not that of a human, but that of a horse in Anne Sewell’s classic, Black Beauty. Told in the first person voice of a horse, I was around age ten when I read the story for the first time and I’ve never been able to forget Beauty’s description of the use of a bearing rein:
“York came round to our heads and shortened the rein himself — one hole, I think; every little makes a difference, be it for better or worse, and that day we had a steep hill to go up. Then I began to understand what I had heard of. Of course, I wanted to put my head forward and take the carriage up with a will, as we had been used to do; but no, I had to pull with my head up now, and that took all the spirit out of me, and the strain came on my back and legs…Day by day, hole by hole, our bearing reins were shortened, and instead of looking forward with pleasure to having my harness put on, as I used to do, I began to dread it.”
Since then, my reading has branched out to considering the stories of humans. When I read Jenna Blum’s Those Who Save Us, I was forced to grapple with the desperation of a German single-mother living in Nazi Germany. I felt the pangs of hunger coupled with the intense desire to exert control when I read Laurie Halse Anderson’s telling of a young girl’s excruciating battle with anorexia in Wintergirls. When my children’s lit professor wanted us to know what it felt like to be a student with ADHD we were asked to read Jack Gantos’ Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key. Even now, as I’ve wandered the roads of East Texas in the past month I’ve entered the world of Noa P. Singleton, a women awaiting what she refers to as X-day as she sits on death row, as she tells me her story via audiobook in first time author Elizabeth Silva’s The Execution of Noa P. Singleton. In fact, I’ve noticed in recent years that especially when I listen to audiobooks, I get so involved in the character’s story that I often find myself making the same facial expressions that I imagine the characters would have while telling their story. Again, odd, but what can I say? These fictional characters somehow become a part of me as I read them.
Another study conducted by Mar, Oatley, and Peterson (2009) also explored the connection between reading and empathy. When observing the relationship between narrative transportation (the ability to “lose” ourselves in a novel’s world) and empathy they stated the following: “It seems that a ready capacity to project oneself into a story may assist in projecting oneself into another’s mind in order to infer their mental states.” The authors point out that more research is needed, but for now, it seems that reading fiction has “important consequences.”
Honestly, the list of fictional characters that I’ve learned from or reference when I encounter a life experience different from my own could go on and on. These stories stay with me in a way that influences how I interact and empathize with the people around me. One of my all-time favorite literary characters taught his young daughter about empathy when he asked her to think about what her teacher must have felt like on her first day of school:
“You’ll never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
– Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird
Reading fiction allows us to try on the “skin” of a character and walk around in it. For every time that I rejoice in a student’s new-found appreciation of a scholarly journal article or climb on my soap box about the value of information, there is an equal part of me that gets excited to talk to people about the place that stories should have in our lives. The next time that you find yourself struggling to understand someone different than you, I encourage you to find a work of fiction with a similar character. The people in our world need us to read fiction so that we can feel with them.
I’ve just scratched the surface on the stories that have influenced me. What about you? What stories have you read that have helped you empathize with someone?