Reading fiction makes you a better person

by Marija
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Girl reading a book

Ask a liberal arts major about the benefits of reading fiction and they’ll regale you with all kinds of nonsense about how it makes you a better person. Ask just about anyone else, and they’ll give you a dumbfounded stare. –

People often assume “liberal arts degree” is for people who don’t have a clear preference of what they want to do in their life so they choose something so broad to avoid making a decision right then and now. But I would agree to disagree, as liberal arts majors would say.

No matter what you wish to become in life, starting your education based on good literature and a basic understanding of the human history and culture will provide you with the great basis for any future learning. By making students read fiction, the whole new world of wonder is at their fingertips — the world of understanding, compassion, empathy and most importantly openness to others.

How reading fiction helps us exactly?

When you read fiction, you start with one perception of the world as it is, but toward the end of the book, you see further beyond and you are encouraged by the writer to understand others (the characters) even if you don’t fully agree with their actions. This kind of “education” is what makes people more understanding and tolerant and our perspective on life, love, relationships, and friendships broadens significantly.

Furthermore, by reading fiction, we learn how real people’s minds work. If we can understand characters in the novel we are reading, we can also understand our friends, colleagues, and even ourselves more deeply. This can bridge so many differences and misunderstandings that are inherent in the world today, and fill us with empathy and a sense of belonging.

There are numerous studies that show that reading fiction increases people’s emotional intelligence: their accurate awareness of themselves and others, and their ability to create positive relationships with others based on managing their own reactions.

In other words, when you read about fictional characters, you become better at understanding real people and real situations. And these skills make you better at your job and in life.

According to Annie Murphy Paul, the science writer:

Recent research in cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience has demonstrated that deep reading—slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity—is a distinctive experience, different in kind from the mere decoding of words.

That immersion is supported by the way the brain handles language rich in detail, allusion and metaphor: by creating a mental representation that draws on the same brain regions that would be active if the scene were unfolding in real life. The emotional situations and moral dilemmas that are the stuff of literature are also vigorous exercise for the brain, propelling us inside the heads of fictional characters and even, studies suggest, increasing our real-life capacity for empathy.  

Writer David Foster Wallace said it best in an interview published in The Review of Contemporary Fiction:

We all suffer alone in the real world. True empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with their own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.


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