Be More Empathetic. Read More Fiction.
Novels transport us into the interior lives — full of nuance and emotion, pain and pride — to make us as readers more empathetic and compassionate in real life.
When I was young, I was obsessed with the notion of seeing through other people’s eyes. Literally. I wondered how others saw the world. Did they see colors in the same way I did? What if blue to them looked different than it did to me? I wanted to find a way to observe from inside someone else’s mind, so I could see, hear, taste, think and feel what they did, to know if we experienced life in the same or different ways.
Isn’t that what a fiction does for us?
I’ve been thinking about this since a recent book club meeting. A friend shared that she prefers to read fiction for escape, not necessarily to be immersed in the struggles of hard lives. She explained that when she wants to be informed about things, like oppression, she reads non-fiction. But when she chooses a novel, she prefers one with more escapism.
I get it. We are bombarded with the news and knowledge of hard and depressing things all the time. Even when we’re not doom scrolling Twitter. Sometimes a bit of a reprieve is desirable (…which is why I started re-watching “The Golden Girls” in 2020…).
All of this came about as we discussed The Girls in the Stilt House by Kelly Mustian. Our conversation included the discussion of race, patriarchy, agency, and autonomy. Let’s just say, this book may not be what some would consider a light, beach read. And for me, it was perfect.
People read books for various reasons. For my friend, fiction doesn’t always need to deal with the hard stuff. For me, I appreciate the stories that take us to difficult times and places because I get insight that I couldn’t otherwise. I get to do what I wanted to as a child: experience life through someone else’s perspective.
Fiction can bring dimension to lived experiences in a way that the facts and text of non-fiction can’t always. A good story can transport us into the experience so that we see through the eyes of someone other than ourselves. Novels transport us into the interior lives — full of nuance and emotion, pain and pride — to make us as readers more empathetic and compassionate.
And here’s a little science to prove that point…
In the BBC article “Does Reading Fiction Make Us Better People?”, writer Claudia Hammond discusses studies that have looked into this idea. Here are a few highlights and direct quotes from the piece:
- “Just as pilots can practise flying without leaving the ground, people who read fiction may improve their social skills each time they open a novel.”
- “At the Princeton Social Neuroscience Lab, psychologist Diana Tamir has demonstrated that people who often read fiction have better social cognition. In other words, they’re more skilled at working out what other people are thinking and feeling.”
- “Finally, novels allow us to do something that is hard to do in our own lives, which is to view a character’s life over many years.”
- “So the research shows that perhaps reading fiction does make people behave better.”
And couldn’t we use some better-behaved people right about now?
So, here is your permission to read more. Crack open that book. It doesn’t have to be dark and full of tragedy. Choose the genre you desire. But choose to escape the world as you experience it and instead immerse yourself into a different perspective.
May we all spend more time nose-deep in a novel. It might just make us a bit more empathetic and compassionate. And — dare I say? — maybe it could make our world a little bit better overall.
P.S. — If you need a recommendation, check out The Girls in the Stilt House. It’s an impressively-executed debut novel, full of rich detail and lyrical prose. You’ll feel as if you’re swept away to the Trace, living each moment of tension right alongside Ada and Matilda.
I have great news: my historical fiction novel will be available March 7, 2023! Don’t miss news about THE LAST CAROLINA GIRL. Subscribe to my enewsletter for updates, sneak peeks, giveaways & behind-the-scene stories of my journey to becoming a debut author.
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