A recent study published in the journal of Science found that after reading literary fiction people performed better on tests that measure empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence. They also tested people who had read popular fiction, or nonfiction, and those people performed worse than those who read literary fiction. For us book nerds out there this seems like good news. Science has proved something that we have known all along–that reading immerses you so completely in the world and characters it creates, worlds that are complex and sometimes even perplexing, that it can help you to understand the world that you live in. What’s interesting about this study is that it gives a quantifiable effect of reading literature and that this effect was produced after only minutes of reading literature.
Pam Belluk, a journalist for the New York Times, seemed to have some questions on why these results were produced from reading literary fiction but not popular fiction. Belluk quotes Albert Wendland who claims that in literary fiction “each character presents a different version of reality, and they aren’t necessarily reliable. You have to participate as a reader in this dialectic, which is really something you have to do in real life.” Literary fiction asks the reader to work to understand the characters, and in this way helps us to understand the world around us. But what I find particularly interesting is that, unlike most of the high school English curriculums I’ve encountered, this doesn’t mean we should discount popular fiction entirely. Wendland suggests that “maybe popular fiction is a way of dealing more with one’s own self, maybe, with one’s own wants, desires, needs.” I think that this is a really interesting distinction–that literary fiction helps us understand the world, but that popular fiction helps us to understand ourselves–and one that I agree with. Perhaps someday science will find a way to quantify that as well. But in the meantime, I guess we’ll just have to keep on reading.