By Michael K. Smith, Ph.D.
When I was a senior at West, my English teacher, Mrs. Hooper, had us read and study a book by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren entitled Understanding Fiction. This text presented examples of well-known short stories with detailed critical commentaries. Brooks and Warren wanted a student to develop a deeper comprehension of fiction, so that the process of reading would change the student. Otherwise, there was little merit in offering an English course: “…if the views remain substantially unchanged, if the interests which [the student] brings to fiction in the first place are not broadened and refined, the course has scarcely fulfilled its purpose: the student has merely grown more glib and complacent in his limitations.” Current social science research extends Brooks and Warren’s vision: Reading fiction can actually increase empathy and help develop social skills.
Reading fiction can actually increase empathy and help develop social skills.
In a review article for the Association of Psychological Science (APS), Scott Sleek summarizes the findings of recent research: “…a number of studies suggest that books—and specifically literary fiction—can also affect social skills, emotional intelligence, and behavior throughout life. As Canadian novelist and psychological scientist Keith Oatley, an APS Fellow, has written, stories appear to offer a deeply felt simulation of social experience, expanding our understanding of ourselves and others.” For example, Dan Johnson and his colleagues had students read either a fictional excerpt from a current novel or a non-fiction summary of this excerpt. The novel was Saffron Dreams by Shaila Abdullah. The protagonist, Arissa, is a Muslim woman living in America whose husband was killed in the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. Arissa is walking alone at night in Manhattan, wearing her veil. She is threatened by a group of teenagers, who do not believe the story about her deceased husband. Here is part of this fictional excerpt:
“I heard heavy breathing behind me. Angry, smoky, scared. I could tell there were several of them, probably four. Not pros, probably in their teens…They walked like boys wanting to be men. They fell short. Why was there no fear in my heart? Probably because there was no more room in my heart for terror. When horror comes face-to-face with you and causes a loved one’s death, fear leaves your heart.”
Here is part of the non-fiction summary:
The scene starts with Arissa getting off the subway train. She is being followed…Four people are walking behind her. Initially confused by the lack of fear in her heart, she realizes that it is the consequence of losing someone so close to her.
After reading one of the two selections, students were presented with 18 male faces generated by special software. The faces were an ambiguous mixture of Caucasian or Arab characteristics. Students had to categorize the faces as Arab, Caucasian, or a mixture of the two. Students who read the fiction excerpt tended to judge faces as a mixture of characteristics. Students who read the non-fiction excerpt tended to characterize the faces as Arab. Johnson and his colleagues concluded that literary fiction has the possibility of changing racial perceptions. Literary fiction, in other words, can help us understand how different cultures can co-exist and perhaps prevent us from automatically stereotyping others by outward appearance.
Brooks and Warren felt that reading fiction satisfied “the demand for imagination” and “the impulse to enlarge experience.” Reading fiction, whether in school or as adult, becomes a creative endeavor that helps us understand and empathize with characters and cultures different from us. I will always be grateful to Mrs. Hooper for helping me first understand and appreciate the role that reading fiction would play in my life.
Michael K. Smith, Ph.D., is owner of TESTPREP EXPERTS (www.testprepexperts.com ) which prepares students for standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. He is also a consultant to Discovery Education Assessment. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.