Reading literature probably seems like a boring idea to most of us. Why read a 500-page book with complex characters and a complicated plot when you can pull up your favorite TV show and veg out after a long day at work? I’ll freely admit that, even as an English major who loves to read, committing time to a large book is a much harder decision than watching 45 minutes of a TV show. While most of us have always suspected reading is really better for us, it’s been impossible to say for sure. However, recent evidence shows that reading literature is indeed better for us, and can actually make us nicer people.
According to three separate studies published in 2006, 2009 and 2010, researchers found that people who had read fiction literature had a higher capacity to understand others and empathize with them. When people read literature, they engage in “deep reading,” a focused type of reading that involves more emotional complexity and engagement than something like a magazine article. It is this type of reading that improves a person’s knowledge and understanding not only of others, but of themselves. Children are especially affected by “deep reading,” as their brains are more susceptible to developing empathy.
As Annie Murphy Paul at Time points out in her analysis of these studies, immersion in a work of literature is harder than ever to come by. The ubiquity of digital screens and the Internet have made quick glances at short blurbs the norm, with fewer people taking time to sit down and let themselves be absorbed by the characters and story only a book can provide. As she says, “Although deep reading does not, strictly speaking, require a conventional book, the built-in limits of the printed page are uniquely conducive to the deep reading experience. A book’s lack of hyperlinks, for example, frees the reader from making decisions — Should I click on this link or not? — allowing her to remain fully immersed in the narrative.”
The point of this research is not to demonize digital screens or criticize the lack of literature in schools. I myself read more short online articles than 300-page fiction these days, and I understand that both kids and adults have precious little time to spread around. However, these studies clearly demonstrate that reading literature can help everyone, especially children, better empathize with others and be nicer in the process.
Do your students read literature? What about yourself? Let us know what you think in the comments below.