Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Read, read, read

I've already told you I love books. I've recently had three experiences that have only served to reinforce books as a wonderful thing to love.

First, I'm participating in 1Book140 this month.  It's a monthly Twitter-based book club sponsored by The Atlantic magazine.  As of this week there are over 10,000 participants. The book chosen for this month is Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, a book I've read several times before, but I realize now that it has neither been been recently, nor carefully.  This community of readers is teaching me to read more conscientiously.  And yet there are times I begrudge them for the same.   I find when I read with intent, I read word by word by word and appreciate the science of the text, but often lose the art.  When I read for pleasure, I turn off the analytical* side of my brain, read by phrases and become flooded with images. Though only black lines on a white background, novel text transports me to an ethereal and yet somehow completely tangible environment.

Then, earlier this week I met Beth in Mankato to attend the Traverse des Sioux Library System Storytellers series featuring Jennifer Weiner.   While waiting for the event to begin, Beth and I got caught up in a conversation with another attendee.  Among the three of us we were able to share stories of reading our favorite books and how the text we read became a part of our realities.  How reading a great book made us think about our own lives differently.  Also, we got to listen to Ms. Weiner speak and answer questions  - the author bringing us more in touch with her characters.

Which brings me to this article based on this study.  Though dated in December, I've only just seen it. Based on data analysis of 30 years worth of responses to the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, Sarah H. Konrath and her colleages have found that "almost 75 percent of students today rate themselves as less empathic than the average student 30 years ago." The article goes on to state that Americans have become more socially isolated and less likely to read fiction over than same period of time. "The number of adults who read literature for pleasure sank below 50 percent for the first time ever in the past 10 years, with the decrease occurring most sharply among college-age adults."

But humanity's saving grace may in fiction.  From Raymond A. Mar's article:
While frequent readers are often stereotyped as socially awkward, this may only be true of non-fiction readers and not readers of fiction.  Comprehending characters in a narrative fiction appears to parallel the comprehension of peers in the actual world, while the comprehension of expository non-fiction shares no such parallels...The tendency to become absorbed in a story also predicted empathy scores.

Who knew there was symbol for empathy? 
Many of us are reading information (non-fiction) from the time our cell phone alarms wake us in the morning till we take that one last look at the Google news before going to bed.  We have Twitter feeds, Facebook updates, work email, personal email, text messages, online magazines, news aggregation sites.  But stop and think with me for a moment, which made you better understand the experience of those living in Afghanistan over the last 30 years: the innumerable news articles we've seen or Khaled Hosseini's heartbreakingly beautiful novels, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns?

Admittedly, there is a bit of self-selection here.  As someone who would rather read fiction than non-fiction, the idea that fiction could be emotionally and socially beneficial gives purpose to my favorite reading pastime.  But doesn't it also give purpose to us all, a medium to reach out and connect with those around us? A fuel to power the empathetic human experience.

*Apparently the spell checker I use does not like analytical, wanting me to use analytic in it's place.  An internet search reveals they are synonyms with the "al" suffix being slightly more American.


  1. Fiction can also be confusing. One of my favorite memories is from a time when my roommate and I were both reading the Tales of the City books, and out of the blue one evening my roomie turned to me and said, in complete oblivious seriousness, "I wonder what Mona's up to tonight? We should give her a call." I stared at her for a minute, wondering if she was having a stroke, and then she blushed and buried her face in her hands: Mona, of course, was simply one of Armistead Maupin's characters. But that's how real a novel can become sometimes.

  2. Now this makes me want to read The Blind Assassin again. I feel like I could read Margaret Atwood's book about four times each before I absorb all the brilliance she's filled them up with. And I plan to poach that quote from Mar's article. It perfectly sums up what always seemed like a "duh" kind of realization for me. Book worms, especially fiction book worms, are some of the most sensitive, empathetic, thoughtful people I know. Good post!

  3. Ironically my security word was "genre." Ha!