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How Reading Improves Your Social Life

Reading fiction exercises our empathy muscles.

For the last few years, about 90% of my reading diet has been non-fiction, most of it about human nature. Three of my favorite books are: Jonathan Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis, which I recommended recently; How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer (a "popular neuroscience" writer, if there is such a thing), and Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihlayi. I also consume lots of articles on the Web about evolutionary psychology, social neuroscience, behavioral economics -- anything that promises to answer the questions of Who We Are and Why We're Here.

When I was younger, my reading patterns were very different: I read mostly fiction. Then, somewhere along the way, I lost patience for it -- for the made-up stories and intricate plotlines. Nonfiction seemed to provide more direct answers to the questions that consume me. I still make room for novels that are gorgeously written or irresistibly page-turning, but that's a much higher standard than I set for non-fiction.

But lately, I've started to think this is a mistake. I wonder if a single work of great fiction is a better route to understanding people than a mountain of psychology papers. I've noticed that I often feel for people who are very different from me by calling up fictional characters I "met" decades ago. When I read a newspaper article about extreme poverty, for example, I think of Rukmani, the Indian peasant heroine of Nectar in a Sieve, which I read when I was ten -- and how terrified she felt that she'd run out of rice (she often did) to feed her family.

I tell you all this because I just came across a study suggesting that fiction readers tend to be more empathic than non-fiction readers. This could of course be correlation rather than causation -- maybe the kind of person who likes fiction is more empathic to start with -- but the researchers think not. They believe that there's something about exposure to fiction -- the direct immersion in another person's mind and body -- that stimulates our empathic muscles.

This hit home for me, and it got me thinking that I'd like to start reading more fiction again. Awesome readers, can you please send me (and each other) your recommendations? Please also share your favorite memoirs -- a genre I believe is the best of both worlds and have always loved to read, even during my recent Serious Nonfiction Jag.

OK, I'll start:


The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving

Howard's End, by E.M. Forster


Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, by Jung Chang

Growing Up Bin Laden: Osama's Wife and Son Take Us Inside Their Secret World, by Najwa Bin Laden and Omar Bin Laden, with Jean Sasson

*I'd also love any recommendations of books that produce in grown-ups that spine-tingling, suspense-filled feeling that children come by so easily when they read fantasy stories.

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