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Got Empathy?

Got Empathy?

Do you have trouble “reading” the emotions, thoughts, or body language of other people? Is it difficult for you to imagine lives different from your own? Do you wish you could be less quick to judge and have more empathy for others?

Two recent studies show that reading literary fiction helps to increase your capacity for empathy. Wow! Besides expanding your mind, reading can also help you to become more compassionate!

One of the studies, published in the journal, Science (10/18/13) found that “after reading literary fiction people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence.” The researchers who conducted one study are social psychologists at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan; the other study was conducted by researchers in the Netherlands and produced almost identical results. They discovered that when you are engaged in reading literary fiction your brain is literally living vicariously through the characters. This is because literary fiction (as opposed to popular fiction or nonfiction) requires you to put yourself into someone else’s position. By contrast, in popular fiction, the author is in control; the story tends to center around plot, and the characters tend to be more stereotypical. Characters in literary fiction tend to be quirky and idiosyncratic, just like real people; they do not fit into a certain ‘type’. Because of that, according to one of the researchers, “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 something that you also have to do in real life.”

If you already love to read literary fiction this is hardly news to you. One of the likely reasons that you enjoy doing so is because of the humanity and uniqueness of the characters. You can puzzle out psychological traits and motives and feel as if you are getting to know these characters as real people. You care about them and can imagine how you might feel or react if you were in their shoes.

How often, as we go about our day, do we encounter people who seem to care only about things that directly affect only their own lives - who see things only through their own limited viewpoint? We encounter people who seem to have almost no capacity to imagine themselves living another kind of life - be it as a person who speaks a different language, is a different race or sex, practices a different religion, is living with a disability, has a different sexual orientation, is homeless or fighting addiction or mental illness, or countless other variations. Unfortunately, a deficit of empathy seems to be increasingly common in our world.

The studies that link reading literary fiction to an increased empathy quotient provide especially useful information for parents and teachers. By encouraging young people to read literary fiction, and speaking with them about it, we can help them grow into adults who have the ability to imagine how it might feel to be a person living a life different from their own. They could grow up to be kind, understanding, and compassionate instead of judgmental, critical, and hurtful. Now wouldn’t that be refreshing?!! It’s never too late. We can all become more empathetic. Read some literary fiction today!

Here are some suggestions of literary fiction for adults and teens:                                                                                        (For suggestions of Children’s Literature, please see one of the librarians in our Children’s Room!)

 Americanah

Adichie

Angela’s Ashes

McCourt

Angle of Repose

Stegner

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Diaz

Calling Me Home

Kibler

The Color Purple

Walker

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time 

Haddon

Cutting for Stone

Verghese

Digging to America

Tyler

The Ghost at the Table

Berne

The Good House

Leary

The Grief of Others

Cohen

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents

Alvarez

The Invisible Bridge

Orringer

The Kite Runner 

Hosseini

The Light Between Oceans

Stedman

The Last First Day

Brown

The Lowland

Lahiri

Middlesex

Eugenides

Our Souls at Night

Haruf

The Piano Teacher

Lee

A Prayer for Owen Meany

Irving

Salvage the Bones

West

Snow Falling on Cedars

Guterson

The Space Between Us

Umrigar

State of Wonder

Patchett

A Thousand Acres

Smiley

Vaclev and Lena

Tanner

Waiting

Jin

White Teeth

Smith


Lauraine Farr

Lauraine Farr

Lauraine Farr, the Assistant Library Director has been a librarian since 1981. She has been an avid reader forever, and is usually in the middle of at least two books. She has a BA in the Humanities, with a Minor in English, and an MS in Library Science. She especially loves reading contemporary literary fiction and historical fiction, as well as discovering new authors. Her other interests include yoga, writing, embroidery, hiking, and exploring Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Washington DC with her grown sons and husband. Click here to subscribe to Lauraine Farr's blog posts!

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