Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Literary Fiction - A Way to Read the World

Young Woman Reading
by Lovis Corinth 1888
oil on canvas, 67.3 × 54.5 cm
Private collection
via Wikimedia Commons
The other day a friend sent me the link to an interesting article on Arts.Mic about “recent” studies dealing with the effects of reading on the brain. It only combines and summarises Liz Bury’s post of 8 October 2013 on the book blog of the Guardian (»»» see Reading literary fiction improves empathy, study finds) and the results of another study presented by Carol Clark on the eScienceCommons blog of Emery University on 17 December 2013 (»»» see A novel look at how stories may change the brain). So all things considered, the Arts.Mic article doesn’t say an awful lot, and yet, I found confirmed what I always felt: reading helps me to better understand my surroundings on the emotional, psychological and sociological levels. The surprise is that quality actually seems to matter!

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m very fond of literary fiction, the more thought-provoking and the more complex the better. My list of reviewed books only partly reflects this taste for the difficult and profound since I also take occasional side steps into pure entertainment (sometimes knowingly, sometimes rather by accident or because I can’t dig up anything better for a reading challenge)… only to find that such light reads tend to leave me dissatisfied and sort of “mind-numbed” for lulling to sleep certain sections of my brain instead of making them buzz with activity. Mind you, after reading one of those popular novels with conventional plots and one-dimensional characters I sometimes feel like a zombie, i.e. no longer truly alive.

Maybe I’m too firmly rooted in Descartes’ view of human existence expressed in his famous catchphrase “cogito ergo sum”. Or perhaps I’m just addicted to the vibrating of thoughts. On the other hand, the above mentioned studies clearly show that reading leaves more or less lasting traces in the mind. Heightened connectivity in several key sections of the brain can be observed not just while reading but even hours and days later. That books influence our perception of and reaction to the world isn’t much of a surprise. It isn’t entirely new, either, that reading can have a positive impact on social empathy. A psychological study performed at the New School for Social Research in New York even proved that it makes a difference what we read.

As it turns out, above all my favourite – literary fiction – helps to better understand others in a social context because characters use to be nearly as complex as in real life and writers allow their readers to find a very personal point of view, while popular fiction and non-fiction don’t seem to have the same impact because they lead the reader to a much greater degree through facts, events and even emotions. I must admit that I don’t always trust psychological studies because we still know so terribly little about the workings of the brain, but in this case I’m inclined to believe the results because they correspond with my own experience… and my preferred way to read the world.

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