Eighteen years ago, when Julia Simpson was pregnant with her second child, she read Beloved. "Toni Morrison took me into a world that I, as a white, middle-class woman, would never, ever experience. And yet I could connect to Sethe as a mother," says Simpson, a high school English teacher in Massachusetts. Seeing a bit of herself in all the characters, Simpson came to realize she "could be any one of them if tested in such extreme ways." Beloved, she says, helped her become more human in her judgments of others.
Reading fiction, it turns out, is a surprisingly social process. A study at the Journal of Research in Personality showed that frequent readers of narrative fiction scored higher on tests of empathy and social acumen than did readers of expository nonfiction. A follow-up study showed that fiction could actually hone these skills: People assigned to read a New Yorker short story did better on a subsequent social-reasoning task than did those who read an essay from the same magazine.
"All stories are about people and their interactions—romance, tragedy, conflict," explains Raymond Mar, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Toronto and lead author of both studies. "Stories often force us to empathize with characters who are quite different from us, and this ability could help us better understand the many kinds of people we come across in the real world."
Lisa Zunshine agrees. An English professor at the University of Kentucky and author of Why We Read Fiction, Zunshine argues that as social creatures we're drawn to fiction because stories require us to "read minds"—to guess what a character is thinking or feeling, say, when she glances at her watch or trembles at the mention of another's name. Different genres flex different mind-reading muscles: whodunits have us suspect every character of lying, while Jane Austen novels engage us in a complex game of figuring out "what he was thinking about what she was thinking," Zunshine says. Playing these games as readers, she believes, gives us the satisfying feeling that we'll fare well in the real world, which calls on mind-reading skills all the time.
So why turn to fiction at all, when we can enjoy the real thing? For starters, works of fiction don't simply mimic real life. "They intensify it and make it much more interesting," Zunshine says. What's more, stories let us play with the fire of emotions from a safe remove. "You know that this whole set of events is contained and you can get up and leave or you can put your book down," explains Keith Oatley, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto. With a thriller, for example, you can feel the hero's grief and anxiety without actually losing your family or being pursued by assassins. And unlike real friends, your literary soul mates expect nothing of you. As Oatley puts it, "You get these emotions for free."
At its best, fiction can change our thoughts and actions, too. Victoria Long of Stockton, California, read Anna Karenina while going through a rough patch with her husband. Thinking of leaving him, she was drawn to the story of Anna running off with her lover. But Anna's eventual suicide, Long says, made her think of the ways that she was taking her life. "It made me realize that I should be happy with my husband, who loves me as much as Anna's husband, but fought for me instead of letting me go."
Anna Karenina, like many great works, offers perspective and hope. In fact, when Jackie Stanley of Greensboro, North Carolina, practiced divorce law, she'd recommend the Russian classic to her clients who couldn't see past their current crises. "It's a big, messy book, but it has the most meaningful ending in literature," Stanley says. Your life may be messy, but that's all part of the plot, she explains. "To get the full experience, you have to keep turning the page." Stanley went on to write Reading To Heal, which explored bibliotherapy, a field founded on the potential of books to help people work through their problems.
Although bibliotherapy has been practiced for decades, especially with children and adolescents, research psychologists have just begun to explore how and when readers connect with fiction. One clue to a good match, according to research out of Oatley's lab, seems to be the right emotional distance: For the story to work its magic, it should remind us of personal experiences neither too recent and raw nor so remote that they no longer touch us.
If you find yourself returning again and again to lighter fare, there's no need to feel bad. Mysteries and romances are likely to boost your empathy and social savvy, and they definitely will shift your focus from self to others, according to psychologist Victor Nell, author of Lost in a Book. A good read, he found, "completely envelopes us in a trancelike state." This state resembles "flow," immersion so deep and satisfying that we don't notice the hours flying by, says Melanie C. Green, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. According to Green and Nell, such engrossing reading dispels negative thoughts. "By reading fiction," Green says, "we get into a whole different world and leave that other stuff behind." If you're feeling self-absorbed, get absorbed in a good book.
Of British women's top 20 life-changing novels, number authored by men: 6
Of British men's top 20, number authored by women: 1 (Harper Lee)
Rank of the Bible among most shoplifted books: 1
Number of years Ulysses was banned in the U.S.: 15
Of top 100 books most nominated for banning, number by Judy Blume: 5
Romance's share of popular fiction sales: 40 percent
His and Hers Bookshelves
What men and women desire in fiction.
By: Brandon Keim
When it comes to favorite fiction, men and women aren't on the same page.
Over the past two years, Lisa Jardine and Annie Watkins of London's Queen Mary College asked 900 adults about the novels that shaped their lives. Of each gender's top 20 titles, only four were shared—Catch-22, To Kill a Mockingbird, Heart of Darkness, and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Men preferred protagonist-centered stories of isolation, overcoming, and redemption—think The Stranger, 1984, and The Metamorphosis—while women tended towards the more emotionally rich, relationship-oriented fare of works like Wuthering Heights, The Handmaid's Tale, and Pride and Prejudice.
Why the split? Men initially resisted talking about how reading affected them, but in interviews, Jardine and Watkins found that while women use novels as sources of metaphor and inspiration throughout their lives, men often read novels during their formative years as if they were how-to manuals, then moved on to nonfiction.