By January 21, 2012 0 Comments Read More →

Reading and Empathy

Today, I came across an interesting article about reading at the Harvard Business Review of all places. It explores how reading novels can make one more successful in the business world. I’m not terribly interested in the business aspect, but the fundamental argument of the piece is that reading novels makes one more empathetic to other people, more aware of their emotional states.

It turns out that new brain research is bolstering arguments about the many values of reading made by folks like Catherine Sheldrick Ross (see her wonderful Reading Matters) and Martha Nussbaum (take a look at Cultivating Humanity). A study at York University found that the more fiction people had read, the more able they were to identify the emotional state of people by looking at a photograph of their eyes. Further research in 2009 by the same team found even broader correlations between reading and emotional stability, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness. The bottom line seems to be that reading about characters in fiction, whether they are like us or not, helps us to understand how other people think and feel.

I suspect that reading’s power to enhance empathy is part of the secret behind the success of book groups. By comparing our reactions to the emotions of characters in group discussion, we enhance our emotional intelligence even further. Bonding over the emotions that we encounter in books is at the heart of the powerful social connection we can develop in the group. There’s a power in reading together that goes beyond even that of reading alone. But then those of us who frequent Book Group Buzz already knew that, didn’t we?!

 

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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