Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Does reading fiction make you a better person?

According to an article in Psychology Today, "frequent readers of narrative fiction scored higher on tests of empathy and social acumen than did readers of expository nonfiction."

The article goes on to say that a follow up study showed that starting to read fiction could actually hone those skills... answering the chicken and egg question. (That is, do empathetic people read more fiction or does reading fiction help make you empathetic.)

This seemed pretty obvious to me -- at least after I'd read it. I know one of the main reasons I love reading fiction is to understand better how other people think, to walk in someone else's shoes for a while, to, through understanding and exploring the emotions and experiences of others -- even fictional others -- understand better how I feel/act/react to the world.

A doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto, Raymond Mar, was the lead researcher on both studies. Yay, Ray. My new hero. He is quoted in the article I read as saying, "Stories often force us to empathize with characters who are quite different from us, and this ability could help us better understand the many kinds of people we come across in the real world."

I think this really sums up what I most enjoy about reading or basically any kind of story. (Frequent readers of this blog and my own, will know I see the occasional movie and watch just a tiny bit of television, in addition to reading. LOL.) I think statement also explains why I enjoy character driven movies and stories the best. I was talking the other week to my fellow drunk writers about how even the most theoretically fast paced film (like 300) can totally bore me, (okay, I wasn't that bored looking at those buff naked men) while theoretically slower paced films like Short Cuts or The Station Agent (just two that came to mind at this instant) can hold my attention, such that the time flies by.

A sidebar article in Psychology Today compares the reading habits of men and women and what kinds of books they list as ones which helped to shape their lives. This was interesting, too...

It got me thinking about what books have helped shape my life. I haven't thought about it long enough to come up with a definitive list, but I know of two for sure.

Okay, slightly more than 2 because one is a trilogy.
First, The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies: Fifth Business, The Manticore and World of Wonders. Reading these 3 books as a young adult (many Canadians read Fifth Business in high school. I didn't) I made some decisions about how I felt about organized religion, about Jungian psychology, and I developed a deeper understanding of how events like the depression and WWII affected the world. I also think I got a stronger appreciation for being a Canadian, a stronger feeling of my identity as a Canadian through Robertson Davies' books.

The other book I instantly thought of was The Cider House Rules by John Irving, who, incidentally, was mentored and greatly influenced by Robertson Davies. This book helped me decide how I feel about many things, abortion in particular, but also about social disobedience and how sometimes it can be better and braver to follow your conscience regardless of "the rules". Or at least to question the rules.

Remembering how the Deptford Trilogy helped me make some conclusions about religion made me think of a movie that was pivotal for me... The Mission. Now Molly and I disagree about this movie. It's one of my absolute favorites and she think's it's flawed. But I was a different person after I saw that movie. It made me see how even with the best intentions, people can do so much harm to each other. (Plus it was the first time I ever set eyes on Liam Neeson and that changed my life, too. LOL)

What books have been pivotal in your life?


Kimber said...

Well, reading romance makes me less crazy so I guess that counts as being a better person.

Don't read a lot of fiction other than romance novels and even some of those are too heavy for this simple gal.

Maia said...

I loved this post, Maureen. I nominate you for the thinking blogger award! I hadn't thought that reading fiction would make the reader more empathetic. Of course!

When I was nineteen, my brother died, and I had a lot of questions as to why some people live, others die. I read Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge and Tolstoy's War and Peace at that time. They both raised questions in my mind as to the nature of the individual vs. the collective. As well as being great literary novels, both books were very spiritual, and got me thinking about the whole illusory nature of our time here on earth.

Oddly enough, The Razor's Edge gave me some hope that we are all on a reincarnational cycle, and that there's life after death. I'm not so sure about that now, but at the time, it was needed information.

Sinead M said...

Maureen, you're killing me.. How the hell am I supposed to follow up a post this intelligent..

Great concept. Wish I could tell you how and why amazing books changed my life view, because I just wasn't aware enough to really understand it, but I'm pretty sure they did.

Great books and movies certainly changed the way I view storytelling, but that's pretty simple.

hmmm.. I'm going to write Friday's post on hot men, or something simple.. otherwise, I'm going to look really dumb in comparison

Molly O'Keefe said...

AH - Maureen you've outed yourself as the thinking one among us. As a kid Laura Ingalls Wilder was paramount. It was history and drama and romance and it really worked for me. THen it was Emily of New Moon from L.M> Montogmery -- she made me want to be a writer and finally Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mother's Garden's I felt spoke to my kind of feminism and idea of womanhood. I loved those books - those books are still the best books I've ever read.

Maureen McGowan said...

For me as a kid it was Little Women. Jo was the first feminist I read about I think. Also the Narnia books, although all the religious stuff went totally over my head at the time.

Sara Hantz said...

I loved all the classics when I was young.... Little Women, Jo's Boys, Little Men; What Katy did (and others); Ballet Shoes; Heidi, Heidi Grows Up... not to mention all the books set in boarding schools...

Very thought provoking and insightful post, Maureen,

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