Another reason to pick up a good book

My town is a great one for festivals, and there’s a new one in the offing this weekend. The first Milford Readers and Writers Festival will be held at the Milford Theater and other venues Sept. 30-Oct. 2, with three world-class authors—Gloria Steinem, John Berendt and M.K. Asante—as the headliners.

Reading (writing too, for that matter) is a solitary activity, so it will be a treat to gather with others who love to read. And yes, old-fashioned reading remains an important activity even in an age when our eyeballs are monopolized by tweets and Facebook status reports.

Aristotle explained hundreds of years ago how the “pity and fear” we feel while watching good drama help us better grasp the human condition. Now scientists are exploring the mechanisms by which this catharsis occurs, examining how reading—especially of literary fiction—builds empathy. Genre fiction doesn’t have the same effect.

“These effects are due partly to the process of engagement in stories … and partly to the contents of fiction, which include complex characters and circumstances that we might not encounter in daily life,” the psychologist Keith Oatley recently reported in Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Understanding stories engages the same parts of the brain as understanding other people, Oatley said.

We need this deep understanding now more than ever, but collectively we’re getting less of it. The National Endowment for the Arts disclosed in August that the practice of reading for pleasure had fallen to its lowest point since the agency began tracking data in 1982.

In the NEA study, less than half of all Americans—just 43 percent—reported having read at least one work of literature the previous year. The agency tracked discretionary reading only, and didn’t count books assigned for school or work purposes.

By way of comparison, in the NEA’s first survey 34 years ago, 57 percent of Americans reported reading a work of literature in the prior 12 months.

For purposes of the study, the NEA defined literature as novels, short stories, poetry and plays. I would argue that literary nonfiction and memoir should be included too. Just think of the impact of a book like “The Diary of Anne Frank” on our understanding of the Holocaust.

Women were more likely to read for pleasure than men (50 vs. 36 percent), the NEA found, and there were differences based on ethnicity and educational level as well. People with a graduate degree, for example, were the biggest readers, at 68 percent.

Storytelling is available in forms other than books, or course. Movies, TV series and podcasts help fill our human need for complex narratives to help us make sense of the world. In fact, TV and even video games have been shown to positively affect empathy test results.

But books are the beginning. As the Washington Post noted in an article on the NEA findings, “If we’re reading less literature, it stands to reason that we may be becoming a less empathetic country as a result.”

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