Last term, I took Composition II toward my Marketing Management degree and had to write a paper. The topic was open so being the book nerd I am, I chose something… bookish. Also because I don’t like to waste effort, I thought I’d share my final paper on my blog. Please bare in mind this is academic writing which is very strict on voice and tone, but even I learned something in my efforts to research the topic. Enjoy.
Most middle school students search for a place to belong and for some, the discovery of the school library’s fiction section gives that student just such a place to inhabit and learn. A novel about a girl who wanted to be a knight or a boy who wanted to be a wizard could catch the attention of a young mind and entice them to keep reading. That one novel could turn countless people into lifelong readers. Such youths could make many trips back to the school library and the local library to check out stacks of books almost too large to carry. An avid reader would have read each book cover to cover before the return date only to repeat the process with a new pile of novels. Each book can take the reader to a new magical world they wanted to experience with fantastical creatures they wanted to meet and engaging characters that they grew to love. Unbeknownst to the reader, a passion for books has more than entertainment value. Through the reader identifying and relating to fictional characters, they were gaining an emotional intelligence that they may not otherwise have experienced. They may gush about their literary finds to their friends, not realizing they were strengthening their connection to them through the written word. By watching a fictitious young woman swallow her fear and tackle a challenge to attain her dream of becoming a knight or stand by a boy who strove to be a wizard against great odds, they learned to find strength in themselves to overcome their own anxieties and doubts. Although these experiences are anecdotal, there is science behind these statements and soon the world will discover what bookworms have suspected for a long time. Research suggests that daily reading benefits a person’s general well-being because it gives them a sense of community, helps develop empathy and emotional intelligence, and helps people cope with mental illness.
First, with billions of people living on earth, its assumed its easy to find a community to belong to or a place to fit in, but that isn’t always the case today. Well documented by Robert Putnam, there has been a steady decrease in communal orientation and civic engagement in the United States in the last thirty years. This means people engage less with their local government, community centers, or even their neighbors than they did just three decades ago (as cited in Aubry 2011). However, daily reading can combat a feeling of disconnectedness from society. This is accomplished by the reader placing themselves in the story itself, imagining themselves in the shoes of the main character of the novel. While there is a large scope of fiction on the shelves ranging from billionaire werewolf romance to space pirate westerns, increasingly, readers choose to consume fiction about small-town American life where they can experience a close-knit community when one may not be available to them in real life (Aubry 2011). In this way, a reader can increase their feeling of community by walking down the imaginary streets of Small Town, USA, if they lack a community around them in real life.
Beyond the imaginary community gained by reading books about small-town life, a reader can create or join their own community by joining a book club. A book club is a small group of people who meet at regular intervals to discuss the same book that they have all previously agreed upon and read. A book club can meet in someone’s home, in a library, bookstore, or coffee house, or anywhere the members feel safe. This reoccurring socialization about books helps foster a community of avid readers who wish for nothing more than to talk about their latest great read. Book clubs can be in person or online through chatrooms or forums that offer the same benefits. With the technology today, friendships fostered online can be just as meaningful as those formed in real life. On top of a community, book clubs offer the chance to discuss different viewpoints otherwise not considered. Because the group collectively chooses a book to read, the individual is exposed to literature they may not have picked up otherwise. The resulting discussions result in a deeper understanding of the subject matter (Coleman 2016) and propose an alternative reality outside the reader’s life experiences. The new perspective, that other people have different life experiences and views, can assist in many aspects of daily life.
A wider perspective can lead to the second claim, that daily reading develops empathy and emotional intelligence in the reader. Studies have shown that people make the same connections to people in real life as they do to with fictional characters (Worth 2017), so by reading more and thus mentally interacting with more characters in more social situations, the reader empathizes more than those who do not read daily. Each suspenseful boardroom negotiation or ballroom dance flirtation a person reads on the page can teach the reader something about life situations, although the correlation may not be obvious. As with any mental discipline, daily practice is key for development in empathy and emotional intelligence. A reader seeking to expand their mind more should read more and select books beyond their normal purview to maximize their gain. So, while it may look like a relaxing past time, sitting for hours at a time and reading, it requires quite a bit of emotional labor and mental engagement to follow a fictional character through their narrative.
Yet people cling to their reading time too because it reduces stress and helps them communicate more effectively (Watson 2016). People all interact verbally and nonverbally with professionals in the classroom or on the job or with friends and family on a personal level. It’s impossible to rehearse every possible interaction with those groups. However, a character from a book may have experienced a similar situation and a well-read person may benefit from having observed those reactions. Aside from the vicarious experience while reading the story, the reader can be at ease in a new situation if they read about it in a book. Beyond the added social experience, it’s unlikely that a reader has not read a book where they encountered a word with an unknown meaning. Along with the verbal skills used with other book enthusiasts, adding to their vocabulary by grabbing a dictionary while reading is a quick way to improve communication. No one wants to ask what someone meant in front of peers for fear of being perceived as unknowledgeable or foolish. An expanded vocabulary can assist with personal image and learning new words by reading fiction can mask that the reader is learning new things.
Indeed, reading even goes so far as to stimulate the brain. When a reader reads certain descriptive phrases, it’s the same reaction in the brain as if the object was laid before them, and the sensory cortexes of the brain light up (Reading Fiction May Be Key to Healthy Mental Development 2012). The brain doesn’t make a distinction between reading about something or experiencing it in real life. So, if a reader encounters an especially moving scene between two characters, the brain can treat it as if it were a real-life event. The reader would learn from the social interactions and be able to draw on that experience later. This improves the reader’s empathy merely by relating to a fictional character. Beyond empathy, emotional reactions to events in books affect the body. Like the brain’s cortexes reacting to a description, the heartbeat follows suit and races when a character’s heart races. The reader feels fear when a character feels fear and although very real, the reader knows they are safe. While the character may be in mortal danger, the reader is safe on the other side of the page. In this way, a reader can live a thousand lives all from the comfort of their sofa.
Lastly, this ability to empathize with fictional characters leads us to be able to learn about and cope with mental illness. Long recognized for its ability to guide through directed reading, bibliotherapy has been around since 1966 when the American Library Association adopted the definition of the word (Guha 2015). By this method, reading is used to convey information about mental illness. Even with fiction, there is a benefit to the reader; if a character identifies as having a mental illness the reader also has, the reader then relates to the character and sees parallels in their behavior. This can be used as either a method to cope or to convince the reader that treatment is recommended. Sometimes a person cannot relate to someone in their lives since the spectrum of mental illness is vast, and a fictional character may be the next best option.
Even classics such as Anna Karenina which is described as tragic, can offer hope to people in tough times (Krakovsky 2006). Often, classics endure the test of time because they offer the reader something they can relate to, something that other books don’t have. That is not to say that modern popular fiction does not offer benefits, but the classics have a long-standing track record. The key is a good match between reader and story for the most benefit. The match is reliant on a good emotional distance from the traumatic experience, being not too recent and not too raw so that the reader can reap the benefits of the story in full. The lesson can be complex or simple, depending on the individual. Commonly, the lesson is that events are in the past and can no longer harm the reader, which is something that many often forget. However, that’s not to say the reader cannot glean a different meaning since the lesson is subjective to the individual.
In conclusion, while people may have been reading and telling stories for thousands of years, the science and understanding of why societies continued the practice is becoming known. They shared their stories for more than the sake of sharing knowledge of events but to give their people a sense of community through stories. It was to help people learn to empathize with one another and build their emotional intelligence to handle challenges in the future. And it was to help cope with mental illness by learning this generation wasn’t the first to suffer through life and to know they won’t be the last. So, visit the local library or look at a book on a friend’s coffee table, crack it open and travel to a new world, meet new characters, and live another life. The prose on those pages may help with the next challenge or shed light to a current problem. It may offer a conversation starter on an awkward first date or teach a new word to dazzle at the next job interview. Either way, read with confidence because reading has been proven to improve an individual’s general wellbeing.
Aubry, T. R. (2011). Reading As Therapy: What Contemporary Fiction Does for Middle-Class Americans. Iowa City: University Of Iowa Press.
Coleman, J. (2016). Why Businesspeople Should Join Book Clubs. Harvard Business Review Digital Articles, 2–4.
Guha, M., & Seale, L. (2015). “Reading maketh a full man.” Journal of Mental Health, 24(5), 257–260.
Krakovsky, M. (2006). Novel Delights. Psychology Today, 39(6), 51–52.
Reading Fiction May Be Key to Healthy Mental Development. (2012). Curriculum Review, 52(2), 8.
Watson, E. M. (2016). The importance of leisure reading to health sciences students: results of a survey. Health Information & Libraries Journal, 33(1), 33.
Worth, S. E. (2017). In Defense of Reading. London: Rowman & Littlefield International.