In praise of the literate life

Book lovers are more empathetic according to research, points out reporter Sally MacDonald

I’ve always thought that people who read books are the best kind of people, and now I’ve found scientific evidence to back it up.

Time columnist Annie Murphy Paul has collated three studies conducted in 2006, 2009 and 2010 by Canadian psychologists. The research by Raymond Mar of York University and Keith Oatley of the University of Toronto found that people who often read fiction are better able to understand other people and empathize with them.

And it starts at birth. One study found that young children who have stories read to them have a better grasp of other people’s intentions.

The type of reading we’re talking about here is the kind where you become only dimly aware of your surroundings. You don’t feel the cat kneading at your bare skin; you lose track of time until it’s 2 a.m. and you have to get up for work in five hours.

It requires the sort of excellent story telling that transports you to another place, that makes you feel like you have been somewhere because you’ve read a book that’s set there. Your imagination produces the scenes and the faces of the characters you are living through.

And when you’ve finished the book, you close the cover and a small part of you grieves for the characters you have just said goodbye to. Because for the past few hours, days or weeks, you have lived through them and felt what they were feeling, just as you would a dear friend who was confiding in you.

You can’t have this kind of reading experience browsing the internet. Even long reads online are usually punctuated by hyperlinks and images that draw you from the narrative and entice you to be distracted. It’s too easy to stop mid-thought. You need to let the writer have all of your attention, even if it’s in short bursts, to weave a web of character, place and story that entraps your mind.

Last summer, I spent three months reading a book each week and reviewing it here as part of a personal summer reading challenge. I’d found that I was drifting away from the pathological reading that filled my youth.

The experience was, as a matter of fact, challenging at times — a book a week is kind of a tall order — but also very fulfilling. Because I not only read those novels but also wrote about them, the places and people contained within them have stayed alive for me in a way they usually don’t.

I promised to do the challenge again this summer, but I won’t be able to because we’re expecting our first baby any day now. I’ve been busy reading child care books and preparing for the new addition, so I haven’t had much time to read fiction.

But give me a couple of months and I’ll be happily discovering a whole new joy of reading — reading aloud to our child. I’ve already pulled out my favourite children’s stories from storage and loaded the book shelf in baby’s room, ready to pick up at a moment’s notice.

It’s reassuring to me that as our child grows, I will be able to say to them, “Put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” and they will be able to imagine how that feels, because they read.

Yes, reading makes you a better person. It may sound snobbish, but literature makes for a better world. Would that we could all put down our phones, turn off the television, shut down the computer, and immerse ourselves in a world seen from another’s perspective.

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