I was the weird, awkward kid, the one who always had a book or magazine on hand, and not necessarily content written for my age group — by the time I was thirteen, I had read everything Stephen King had written to date. I doubt this was the kind of stuff my parents were thrilled to see me reading at that age, but they reserved their complaints for my tastes in music.
Even as an undergrad, my days packed with full-time school and part-time work, I managed to tackle the entire Dune series by Frank Herbert as well as the first five Harry Potter books. (Hmm … do I want to study Plato for the exam or do I want to read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban? Oh, hello, Harry.)
Mind you, this reading-for-pleasure thing nosedived when I was in grad school. I read the odd story, but I was buried up to my eyeballs in philosophy books, articles, and undergraduate papers and exams. Read for pleasure? No thanks. I was busy grinding my way through Hempel and Heidegger while trying to impress my professors and still get more than four hours of sleep per night. My daily percentage of sleep time didn’t improve, but it was worth trying. However, I may never read Hempel again. Ever.
But along came a man named T.S. Garp, who reminded me how amazing it felt to be sucked into another person’s world and, for a time, watch it unfold in marvellous, miserable, and occasionally mystifying ways. Granted, I had to resurface in reality eventually, but it was a tremendous relief to be reminded that all lives are messy and difficult, not just mine. It was also distinctly gratifying to connect with the characters and feel my way through the events of their lives as much as visualize them.
It’s interesting, too, that in the last few years, studies have begun to show a correlation between reading literary works and the level of empathy a reader expresses in real life. Mind you, not everyone agrees with the research, and even some of those who are encouraged by the results express reservations, but the research is still young, so more conclusive evidence has yet to be found.1
Whatever the case, I love reading a good book, and if anything I read makes me a better person, lends greater insight into human behaviour, or provokes philosophical thought, I’ll take it, studies or no studies. And if it just makes me laugh … well, I’ll take that too.
- See also Psychology Today’s blog article by Keith Oatley, PhD, for a different study. ↩