As writers, we must also be avid readers. (What a shame, eh?) Yes, we use the excuse of improving our writing to explain the constant burying of our heads in books, but according to studies from 2012 and 2013 it seems reading improves us more than we may think. It turns out that reading doesn’t just inform us on specific subjects or improve vocabulary and grammar. It also makes us more emotionally intelligent; specifically empathetic.
Now, if there is anyone reading this wondering how reading can improve the sense of empathy, consider some of you favorite novels. When I reflect on mine, I realize that The Little Prince has caused me to be more attune to taking notice of the smallest pleasures – a child’s laugh, the breeze brushing through my hair, that first sip of clean cool water when you feel a deep thirst. I think of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – how easily I recognized the story as an allusion to substance abuse and addiction and felt the chronic strain on both the addict and his loved ones. I think of how easy it was for me to relate to Steve Martin’s Shopgirl but just as easy to see the perspective of her companion.
One of the studies conducted by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Costano explored further finding evidence distinguishing the “empathetic benefits” of literary fiction vs. “pop” fiction. Due to the “complexity in stories and their characters”, literary fiction appears to be the clear winner here. When I reflect on my reading of The Life of Pi, I can most certainly agree. Not only the beautiful story of the loss at sea, which makes up the bulk of the story, but the final explanation of “what really happened” gave me such a rush of emotion and understanding of what the mind can do to compensate a horrible trauma.
But how does this inform our own writing. Well, just as our personal experience of places and events serve to help us better describe a variety of settings and experiences, empathizing with well-written characters can only serve as a means of experience. Perhaps there are many events, tragedies, and celebrations we will never experience, but when we read to exercise our empathetic muscles, we become better able to imagine ourselves in the minds and skins of our characters as we put them in these circumstances.