As a lifelong bookworm, I always had an elitist view on reading: it made me smarter, and who wouldn’t want that? Naysayers think reading is purely escapist and readers are hiding from the outside world. But what if there were more intrinsic improvements being made to your mind every time you read fiction? In a Boston Globe article “Why Fiction Is Good for You”, Jonathan Gottschall writes, “Fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction.” Studies are indicating fiction has the power to open our minds to social molarity and even change our beliefs.
I hate to think I’m being brainwashed by the books I love, so what is it that fiction is really teaching us? Gottschall suggests that fiction has several effects on the reader, including enhancing empathy, broadening social values, and reiterating the need for justice, particularly poetic justice. As with other media types like television and video games, many people believe society is negatively affected by fiction’s influence and that “fiction is dangerous because it has the power to modify the principles of individuals and whole societies.” If I wasn’t keen on the idea of self-improving through reading before I read this article, I was totally on board with this statement. Fiction as a dangerous tool that gives me power? Wow, pass the dystopia and let’s start revolution!
Of course with great power comes great responsibility, and Gottschall reminds us that fiction works both ways. A story can broaden our horizons just as it can encourage old stereotypes to remain. So every time I read a book from the Over the Rainbow List, I have more empathy for people of the GLBT community. However if read a book that is dismissive of GLBT issues, I am helping undo what I previously learned.
Since fiction has the ability to teach us how to be caring individuals, why are so many books filled with miserable characters and horrible occurrences? It turns out we as humans are judgmental and we like having others to judge. A book with evil makes it easier to discern right and wrong, which feeds our need for justice and order. By identifying wrong and wishing for its end, we accept the author’s assertion about what is good and bad. Together the author and the reader agree on a societal norm–“that if they are more like the protagonists, they’ll be more likely to live happily ever after.”
The key is balance in life and literature. A wide variety of friends and fiction will give you a gamut of information from which to make choices of morality. You can even use the books you read as tools to help others see the future you know is possible. So remember whenever you pass along a book to friend, make sure you are choosing fiction set on improving their social and emotional awareness and not hampering their ability to effect change. No pressure. :)
— Laura Perenic
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