There have been rumours of this for years, but a recent study in the journal Science certainly gives added gravitas to the notion that reading literary fiction enhances our empathy and emotional intelligence. To summarize the study plot, readers were given two to three dollars to read for just a few minutes. Some were given excerpts from Wendell Berry or Don Delillo while others were given passages from Gillian Flynn or Robert Heinlein. You can read more about the testing procedure here. If the proof is in the pudding, yes, indeed you will become a more empathetic person by reading literary fiction.
But is there a downside to constant empathy? I have just finished my 18th Lee Child, Never Go Back, in five years. I started reading him when my father died and found that I couldn’t concentrate. It provided much relief because at least it allowed me to read. Since then, I’ve discovered many other espionage and crime writers that have given me a lot of pleasure. When I start a story from this genre I don’t stop. My head is down for a couple of days and, for the most part, I’m able to crawl into a space that has nothing to do with me or the world around me. And I race read.
But now that my reading concentration has returned I usually have two books going—one in which I am chasing spies or drug barons, the other which allows me to amble and reflect. I interchanged Never Go Back with Canadian short story writer Shaena Lambert’s Oh, My Darling. I couldn’t race read her. Often her writing shimmered so much that I re-read passages just for the pure wonder of how a human being can so perfectly capture a moment. At one point, some of the sorrows of the life of my own mother flooded into my consciousness in a way that I have never experienced them. And this was because of just one sentence in Lambert’s writing.
I guess this is what you might call balance in reading. The adrenaline high from racing through a thriller can be wonderfully counterbalanced from the insights that you might experience in the literary world. Cheers to both!