The home I grew up in had a lot of TV blaring in the background, relatives always over, a ton of noodles and fried rice, but precious little books. My parents, Chinese immigrants from Taiwan, never took me to the library nor read a single book aloud to me. Were they really going to bring home Goodnight Moon or Curious George when they could scarcely read the bills that came in the mail every day?
It was the blessed school librarian who led me to my first story. She let my 3rd grade class browse the shelves quietly for 15 minutes during language arts period. I brought home Island of the Blue Dolphins and read the entire book in one sitting the next day. I remember being astonished that Saturday afternoon when I finished the last page and closed the book, awestruck. What time was it? I had no idea how long I’d been sitting there. I only knew through Karana’s story, I traveled across time and space to a rocky island in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California over 100 years ago, there to be deserted until finally rescued by a ship.
From then on I was hooked on fiction. Books were no longer inert objects collecting dust in air conditioned libraries. They were portals to interesting places and fascinating people. It should be self-evident to anybody who has ever been transported by literature how powerful the medium is. We shouldn’t need scientific studies to prove to us how reading fiction trains us in empathy, how it enables a person to live several lives, to be different people, to see from other perspectives. Yet scientists continue doing studies on reading fiction because people still wonder: what exactly are the benefits of reading literature?
It’s a valid question and I’ve had my share of people voicing their doubts about the value of literature over the years. A young, engineering friend once bravely asked me about my English degree. He couldn’t understand the utility of it nor see why anybody would choose to waste four expensive years of their higher education reading fiction.
“What does it do?” he asked innocently.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I mean, what does it do in real life?” he tried again. He probably wanted to know what job it would prepare me for, the way a degree from a trade school could guarantee preparation for a particular vocation. E.g., you study engineering to become an engineer. So, you study literature to become a…what?
“For one, it helps you learn how to communicate,” I said.
He nodded but stood aloof. He still didn’t get it.
But I understood his skepticism. To people who build bridges and skyscrapers in real life, literature and its imagined worlds are hugely impractical. To them, fiction is an escape from real life, not a reckoning with it. In the physical world, literature can’t house you, grow food for you, do open heart surgery, treat metastasizing cancer. Its benefits are intangible, if any.
Is that why leisure reading in America is at an all-time low? Because it’s too impractical? Because we’re too busy doing real-world things? Because there’s too many alternatives to literature and too little time to pick up a novel anymore? I know for myself, when I graduated and went into interior design, something happened to me. I suffered some sort of regression in verbal thinking. As I left literature behind, my whole world became visual and I found myself thinking in pictures. The part of my brain that I used for work—the part that designed furniture, space planned, juxtaposed colors and textures for visual harmony—grew larger as the verbal part of my brain shrunk. Reading slowed to a trickle and I found I had no attention span for a novel, hardly enough even for a magazine article.
I didn’t recognize myself after a couple years of this. I became a woman who would flip through the glossy pages of a magazine, scan the text impatiently, then spend several minutes ogling and analyzing the illustrations. The visual reveal was all that mattered; words irritated me. I continued to take my beloved books with me to every new apartment I moved into, but they existed almost as artifacts of a former self, or worse, as decorating objects. I officially became part of the population of Americans who don’t read for pleasure.
I’m glad I didn’t petrify into this way of life. I eventually turned around and picked up a novel again. The first book I opened after years of mental slumbering was Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. What a way to clear way the cobwebs! It was a wake-up call to shock me out of the complacent stupor I had fallen into.
What happened to me during those hibernating years, though? Aside from neglecting my intellectual life, giving up literature turned me into something I never expected to become: an unimaginative, judgmental, and dull person. I wasn’t a terrible human being but I definitely felt my lively mind shrivel up into dry crust. It shouldn’t surprise me that I lost my curiosity and zest for life—that certain appetite to know the minds of others. My cognitive flexibility disappeared and I became a person who resorted to the comfort of reducing issues and people into black and white categories.
What happened to me made sense after I read the research on what reading fiction can do for us. In her article “The Case for Reading Fiction,” Christine Seifert points out one study which suggests that reading literature is an effective way to enhance our ability to keep an open mind, a skill which is particularly important for people who have a high need for what they call cognitive closure, or the desire “to reach a quick conclusion in decision-making and an aversion to ambiguity and confusion.” Resisting this need, it turns out, makes us into individuals who are “more thoughtful, more creative, and more comfortable with competing narratives—all characteristics of high EQ.” She goes on to explain how “research on reading shows literature study to be one of the best methods for building empathy, critical thinking, and creativity.”
It’s also interesting to note what fiction can do for you that no other medium can. In “Does Reading Fiction Make Us Better People?” Claudia Hammond discusses three advantages which fiction has over true stories we read in the news:
“We have access to the character’s interior world in a way we normally do not with journalism, and we are more likely to willingly suspend disbelief without questioning the veracity of what people are saying…[Novels] allow us to do something that is hard to do in our own lives, which is to view a character’s life over many years.”
After being reinitiated into the literature-reading fold again, I can personally vouch for the power of books, especially fiction, and most especially literary fiction. It’s helped me feel comfortable with ambiguity again, to be comfortable not knowing all the answers. I’m not so quick to take up sides anymore. I’m more willing to listen. As I withhold judgment, my curiosity has come back along with an open mind, which isn’t surprising considering what researchers have confirmed all along.