This is How Literary Fiction Teaches Us to Be Human

Practicing empathy through drama and poetry and art and games and face-to-face conversations and human acts of all kinds matters. This article covers the specific social benefits that come from reading literary fiction.

Film critic Roger Ebert called movies the most powerful empathy machines, but someone with the right knowledge base can say pretty much the same thing about other genres. What we can say about the virtues of movies over the last 100 years can be said in some form about video games over the last 40 years, or novels over the last 400 years, or plays for the last 2500 years, etc.

Nevertheless, the novel has some unique qualities. It is meant to be experienced by an individual reader, who is totally in charge of the pace. The reader is not expected to plough through the whole thing in one sitting, and thus will likely move back and forth between the fictional world of the novel and the real world in which the dishes must be washed and the kids must be shuttled and the bills must be paid.

Being well-read does not inoculate people against elitism or the echo-chamber effect; however, researchers found that reading a literary text with a sympathetic Muslim protagonist led to “a reduced bias in the perception of Arab and Caucasian faces.” Researchers also found that reading non-narrative texts or plot-driven genre fiction does not produce the same positive effect as literary fiction.

Screen-Shot-2016-11-12-at-2.57.40-PM-1Literacy itself has proven key to a person’s ability to function in modern society, even if all one ends up consuming are tweets or news headlines; there has also been pushback from proponents of new media against those who are tilting at windmills (to draw a reference from literary fiction), hampering our civilization’s advancement by clinging to older forms of mass-communication. How will these conversations change if science can prove that certain reading experiences are crucial to the development of the human conscience? —Signature