Reading is good for you! It brings pleasure, it broadens perspectives, it builds language, it imparts knowledge . . . readers know this. Research is starting to show that what we read is also important and are finding positive results from reading literary fiction, as compared to non-fiction or popular fiction. A recent round-up of this research by Will S. on The Literacy Site included the following four examples.
- People who read literary fiction are more empathetic. Reading a story provides a compelling experience that helps the reader understand another person’s mental state, say researchers David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano. In other words, it provides the experience of walking in another person’s shoes, and “the more stories you read, the more shoes you’ve tried on,” says Will S.
- Stanford University researchers have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRIs) to study the brains of people active engaged in close reading—in this case, a text by Jane Austen. The results show that careful reading (versus skimming) engages many parts of the brain and requires “the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions.” This suggests that studying literature—beyond its other benefits—trains people to engage their brains more fully, an increasingly valuable skill in an era of constant distraction.
- In an article titled “The greatest magic of Harry Potter: Reducing prejudice,” children who identified with the character Harry Potter and read and discussed specific passages about prejudice responded to Harry’s “sympathy for marginalized groups” (such as Muggles or Mudbloods) by showing greater open-mindedness toward outsider groups in contemporary society (immigrants, refugees, gays).
- Harry Potter works for children and literary fiction works for adults because “the characters are complex, ambiguous, difficult to get to know, etc. (in other words, human) versus stereotyped, simple,” according to Kidd and Castano’s research cited above. Literary fiction forces the reader to work harder at fleshing out the characters, and trying to understand what makes them tick mirrors what is required in relationships with other people.
In sum, while reading in general has many benefits, “literary reading amplifies this effect,” Will S. says. “By reading a challenging book, you’re not only becoming a smarter person, you’re also become more empathetic.” Harder books stimulate the brain in more ways. So, he recommends, “In choosing your next book, make it a tough one. Your brain will thank you.”