How reading can make you a better person
“There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away…” wrote the American poet Emily Dickinson.
Anyone who has curled up with a novel in order to shut out the world knows what she meant. Fiction has an extraordinary ability to enable us to escape the present and travel to different times and places.
Leaving the stresses of the real world behind provides a welcome and healthy respite, so it’s little wonder that sales of novels surged as the world locked down in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
Of course, reading is not our only form of escapism. Since Dickinson wrote in the mid-19th Century we have developed radio and audio books, film and television, computer games and virtual reality.
But reading fiction can still provide many benefits that differ from the experience of other media. There is an increasing body of evidence that shows it offers cognitive, social, psychological and even moral benefits to the reader.
Readers of fiction develop their empathy because they are able to 'get inside the head' of the characters and understand the world from a different perspective, sometimes from multiple perspectives within the same work. A 2013 study that measured empathy scores after just one week of assigned fiction reading found readers self-reported significant changes in empathic skills. Significantly the more readers reported being transported into the world of the fiction, the more empathic they became.
A neurological study showed reading fiction improves brain connectivity in regions associated with perspective-taking and story comprehension, setting readers up to have a better understanding of narratives of others’ lives.
Fiction plays a vital role in improving reality
Professor Margot Hillel OAM believes this empathy is essential to producing well-rounded and deep-thinking citizens. Professor Hillel, who is Chair of Academic Board at ACU and National Chair of the Children’s Book Council of Australia, wants all university students to read fiction so that they graduate with an understanding of the human context of their work, not just technical skills.
In 2020 ACU introduced a Book of the Year, given free to all students across every faculty, to encourage students to read and discuss fiction.
“It’s important that all students, whatever they are studying, have a grounding in, and an understanding of, the liberal arts because it engages them with the humanity of people,” said Professor Hillel.
“If you are a health sciences student, for example, you are engaged with humanity on a physical level but reading fiction gives you an idea of the way other people think. It broadens your horizons and makes you aware of the individual worth of every person.”
A shared experience
Professor Hillel also points to the power of shared reading to create social connections – one reason she prefers paper books over the electronic variety. Seeing someone reading a book you have read provides an immediate pathway to conversation and a shared subject that moves the discussion to a higher plane.
“With e-books, you lose that serendipity, which is a shame,” said Hillel.
Shared reading experiences are specifically associated with improved psychological wellbeing, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal, which pointed to the utility of reading groups as a practical intervention in diverse settings, from prisons to hospitals with patients living with depression, dementia, chronic pain and neurological conditions.
Even for those without these vulnerabilities there are many studies that show reading fiction improves pro-social behaviour and is beneficial for mental health.
For young people, in particular, reading provides an opportunity to expand their sense of possibilities, explore alternative and aspirational identities, and practice confronting life’s challenges and dilemmas.
ACU literature researcher Dr Maggie Nolan has identified book clubs as a space where ordinary readers navigate complex ethical quandaries in how we approach the act of reading and how we talk about books.
She says the popularity of book clubs, despite increasing demands on people’s leisure time, shows reading matters in people’s lives. It also means it’s important to understand the nature of the conversations people have about books and how they affect our attitudes to one another.
“Book clubs are ethical spaces that promote dialogue and negotiated understandings. Book talk is used to discuss ethical issues of both personal and public significance. In the Australian context, this may mean, among other things, thinking through what it means to be part of a settler colonial culture and its devastating legacies,” said Dr Nolan.
Key issues for reading ethically include how we identify with characters, how we deal with uncertainty, and how we confront issues of privilege, gender, class and history.
Reading a book from the perspective of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander character, for example, may increase your empathy for Indigenous people but it may also give you the delusion that you “understand” experiences that are much more complex, diverse and nuanced.
“Book club readers bring a high degree of openness and engagement to their understanding of others, even in cross-cultural contexts. Readers tend to judge the success of books on how easily they can identify with characters, and there is a danger, perhaps, that in seeking a shared emotional response, real differences can be erased,” said Dr Nolan.
“The dialogue is frequently about morality, about empathy and identification, and it often intersects with both the personal and the imaginative realms. For book club readers, reading is less about interpreting a book and coming up with a definitive sense of its meaning, or even necessarily judging the book, than about participating in a communal activity that generates discussion about contemporary desires, experiences and ideas, including ideas about what it means to be an Australian.”
Reading fiction is overwhelmingly a positive for individual mental health and for our society – but that doesn’t mean it is without pitfalls.
Dr Nolan says those who embrace the experience of empathy and understanding through reading novels need to be careful they don’t let themselves believe they have actually walked in another’s shoes. She points out book clubs are overwhelmingly dominated by middle-class women who may discount their own privilege in perspective-making and have unrealistic ideas about the power of reading to make them sensitive and socially-aware.
“Book club reading is not reducible to the pure pleasure of consumption, but nor should it promote a moral and aesthetic fantasy of virtue,” she said.
Interested in expanding your knowledge? Explore the courses offered at ACU.