Empathy's been getting a lot of press recently. The crucial skill of being able to put oneself in another's shoes and feel what that person is feeling is being used to reduce aggression in widely successful school programmes and even championed as the key to saving the world. And now a recent study has shown the potential for literature-loving adults to improve their ability to empathize.
'Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind' is the title of a recent study published in the journal Science that gives lovers of literary fiction a moment to congratulate themselves on unlocking social value each time they crack open their favourite book. In essence, David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano have found through five experiments that literary fiction sharpened readers' sense of empathy to an extent not found in 'mainstream' fiction or non-fiction.
The reason literary writing encouraged empathy more than the standard airport fare and non-fiction titles is linked to what Roland Barthes calls 'writerly' versus 'readerly' texts. While 'readerly' texts entertain readers and allows them to remain passive, 'writerly' texts require more work: the reader must sense or deduce what is not spelled out. This is good practice for real life, when we have to interpret the cues we receive and fill in the blanks ourselves.
Does this mean that passing on Danielle Steele in favour of Anton Chekhov makes you a better person in the short-term? Possibly—as long as you're not a snob about it.