The Benefits of Reading


In the film, Shadowlands, Anthony Hopkins playing the brilliant professor and author, C. S. Lewis, observes: “We read to know that we are not alone.” Little does he know how right he is — and now there is solid research to back him up.

Two researchers, Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd, social psychologists at the New School for Social Research (New York City) wanted to know how reading directly influenced people’s perceptions; specifically, how does reading literary fiction, popular fiction, or nonfiction change a person’s level of empathy? The researchers recruited subjects (customers of and had them read short sections (2-3 minutes) from well-known fiction and nonfiction works. After the participants finished their reading assignments they took a number of tests that accurately measured their to read social or emotional cues.

The researchers published the results of their study in Science in a report titled “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind.” “Theory of mind” is a psychological concept that describes a person’s ability to understand that others have different beliefs and aspirations and that these may differ from their own. The new research provides empirical evidence that reading passages of literary fiction, that focus on a subject’s thoughts and inner feelings, increases a reader’s theory of mind tasks, i.e., empathy, emotional intelligence, and social perception.

Dr. Nicholas Humphrey, an evolutionary psychologist at Cambridge University, praises the researchers for their findings: “It’s a really important result. That they would have subjects read for three to five minutes and that they would get these results is astonishing… and to demonstrate that [literary fiction] has different effects from the other forms of reading [ — popular fiction and nonfiction — ] is remarkable.

While popular fiction is more focused on plot and exterior reality, literary fiction is more introspective — focusing on characters and their inner thoughts and feelings. Kidd elaborates: “[The popular fiction] author is in control, and the reader has a more passive role. [In literary fiction novels] there is no single, overarching authorial voice. 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.”

Castano and Kidd’s study results, underscoring the value of the humanities, couldn’t come at a better time. In a report titled “The Heart of the Matter (June, 2013),” the American Academy of Arts and Sciences states: “At the very moment when China and some European nations are seeking to replicate our model of broad education in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences as a stimulus to innovation and a source of social cohesion, we are instead narrowing our focus and abandoning our sense of what education has been and should continue to be – our sense of what makes America great.” The report argues that the humanities should be a foundational aspect of a college education; specifically the report notes “college and university curricula must also offer the broad-gauged, integrative courses on which liberal education can be grounded, and such foundations need to be offered by compelling teachers.”

And what could be more compelling than reading to understand and empathize with our fellow man? Perhaps we should add to C.S. Lewis’s observation, “And we read to become better human beings.” Class dismissed.

Read related posts: Why Read Dickens?
The Power of Literature

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How Many People Read Books?

atkins-bookshelf-booksNovelist and essayist Umberto Eco once wrote: “A book is a fragile creature, it suffers the wear of time, it fears rodents, the elements and clumsy hands. So the librarian protects the books not only against mankind but also against nature and devotes his life to this war with the forces of oblivion.” But what happens if these books, that represent the memory of mankind, remain safe and protected but are not read?

In 2002, the National Endowment of the Arts published a report, Reading at Risk, that attempted to answer that very question. Conducted by the Census Bureau surveying more than 17,000 individuals, the report provided a snapshot of the role of literature in America. Respondents were asked if they had read any novels, short stories, poetry, or plays in their leisure time over the past year. The results paint a bleak picture: “[Reading at Risk] comes at a critical time, when electronic media are becoming the dominant influence in young people’s worlds. [The report] contains solid evidence of the declining importance of literature to our populace. Literature reading is fading as a meaningful activity, especially among young people.”

Some details from the Reading at Risk report:
1. Less than half of American adults now read literature. In 1982, 56.9 adults read literature; in 2002 only 46.7 read literature. That decline of about 10% represents the loss of 20 million readers. (Gallup conducted a poll in 2005, confirming a similar result: 47% of people reported reading books.)
2. The decline in reading literature parallels a decline in reading any book. In 1992, 60.9% adults read books, in 2002 that rate drops to 56.6%. In 1992, 54% of adults read literature; in 2002 that rates drops to 46.7%.
3. Women read more literature than men (55.1% vs 37.6%)
4. Reading of literature is declining among all education levels (high school: -16.6%; college: -15.4%)
5. Reading of literature is declining among all age groups, especially in the youngest age groups (18-24: -28%; 25-34: -23%; all ages -18%)
6. Literature competes with a vast array of electronic media. Non-readers watch more TV than readers. The average American home has 2.9 TVs, 3.1 radios, 1.4 video games, and 1 computer. In 1990 book buying was 5.7% of recreation spending; spending on audio, video, computers and software was at 6% — by 2002 that climbed to 24% (while book buying declined to 5.6%).

The authors of the report conclude with a distressing assessment: “The accelerating declines in literary reading among all demographic groups of American adults indicate an imminent cultural crisis. The trends among younger adults warrant special concern — unless some effective solution is found… Indeed, at the current rate of loss, literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century… Reading at Risk reveals [a] dire situation, a culture at risk.”

Unless we want our libraries to become museums, and our books to become rare relics, we need to return to basics — to put down electronic devices and grasp in our hands — what brilliant literary critic Northrop Frye accurately described as “the most technologically efficient machine that man has ever invented” — the printed book. Otherwise, we will surely Google our literary and cultural heritage into extinction.

Read related posts: The Memory of the World
The Power of Literature
Why We Read Poetry
Education Reform

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