Hey, big surprise! A librarian suggesting that reading makes the world a better place. Right? Well, I’ve been reminded serendipitously of late several reasons that reading can improve our world, and I want to share two today: reading fiction builds your empathy muscles, and reading helps resist the anxiety and fear many people feel at this current moment in history.
You may or may not be surprised that reading helps to make you more empathetic. Scientific studies have shown the correlation (bit.ly/2mOlC6y, bit.ly/2lxlnwr). And the world can always use more empathy.
The gist as I understand it: when we read fiction, we activate portions of our brain that are used in recognition of language and in creating the sensations of real-time activity even if we are just imagining that act. So when we read and we identify with the characters and imagine what they feel, we get practice empathizing with others.
What’s the significance of empathy? Have you ever been seething mad at someone for insulting you, then a friend suggests that this person might be human and motivated by a feeling–perhaps of fear or anxiety–that they might not be able to completely master or control, and your anger evaporates like a forgotten dream? If so, you’ve experienced the power of empathy. That person at whom you were angry and by whom you had felt insulted is a human being, too, and imagining their possible feelings led you to understand them better or at least treat with them more patience.
Our current moment is full of anxiety and fear–inspired by sources too numerous to list here–and reading can help resist our impulsive responses to these emotions. “Confirmation bias” and the “illusion of explanatory depth” make it easy for us to live without deeply considering our own blind spots. (For more try Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker, where she talks about the limits of reasoning and research around things like confirmation bias: bit.ly/2lV3ELq.)
Taking the time to read widely and deeply can lead us each to taking responsibility for our own perception of the world. This responsibility might lead to a quieting of that anxiety and fear. Reading widely and deeply can also, when combined with the resulting deeper empathy, guide us to leading more enriching, thoughtful, generous, kind lives.
So, join me in reading more, reading things out of our normal scope, and reading and thinking more deeply and less reactively. Let’s build our empathetic response and make the world a better place. And if you feel really adventurous, join me in writing about things that are hard to understand. Here’s a quote from Aleksandar Hemon’s “The Aquarium,” an essay about a young daughter’s illness, in which he describes why one of his children has created an imaginary friend who has also become ill: “I recognized in a humbling flash that she was doing exactly what I’d been doing as a writer all these years: the fictional characters in my books had allowed me to understand what was hard for me to understand (which, so far, has been nearly everything).” (read the essay: bit.ly/2lUgR6v)
Until next time, empathize with your enemies.