And those things are demonstrably found through reading, and specifically, reading fiction, and specifically literary fiction, which tends to be considered “harder” to read than genre fiction, which tends to follow certain conventions and is therefore a bit easier to read.
Now, I’m all for reading genre fiction (heck, I write a lot of it), including “fluffy,” “marshmallow” books at times. You know, the lighthearted, escapist ones that are an enjoyable romp and don’t pretend to be anything but a fun story. “Marshmallow” books don’t pretend to be anything else. They aren’t trying to change the world or be profound. But dang, they’re fun to read, and you come away feeling happy after closing the cover.
That said, I’m a big proponent of being willing to pick up something different. And different often means hard, and not necessarily in vocabulary or reading comprehension.
Hard in the sense that the text has something that demands more of the reader to fully engage in the story. Often that thing is a worldview that is very different from mine (white, female, religious).
Maybe it’s reading about a black person’s experience (The Bluest Eye).
Or about someone with religious background different from my own (My Name Is Asher Lev).
Or someone living in a different time (A Tale of Two Cities).
Or a different place (The Poisonwood Bible, A Thousand Splendid Suns).
Or about people facing horrific challenges and triumphs (The Hiding Place, Man’s Search for Meaning).
Or characters dealing with social issues I will personally never have to face (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Secret Life of Bees, The Help.)
And on and on and on.
At times I need lighter fare after going through a deep, heart-wrenching story (after reading Anna Karenina, I binged marshmallow books for weeks) so no, I don’t always read tough books.
But I believe that avoiding “hard” books altogether would stunt my personal, emotional, and spiritual growth.
I’m a big fan of a balanced reading “diet,” which includes marshmallows (and brownies and cream puffs) as well as solid portions of vegetables and maybe even a steak now and then.
Some years ago, Dr. Van Gessel, a professor at Brigham Young University, gave a speech in which he said the following (emphasis mine):
Can we ever become better until we sense and wish to transcend the insufficiencies of our current life? But how do we gain an awareness of those insufficiencies? Through prayer and repentance, of course, but also through reading. Do we have any hope of becoming more like our Creator if we cannot “modify our natural angle of regard upon all things . . . to see [things] differently” — a vision altered, I would suggest, through reading? If we fail somehow to acquire the skill of entering into unfamiliar worlds anew, how can we avoid being trapped — literally damned — in our current imperfections, and how can we ever begin to imagine the infinities where God dwells and labors?
(Read the full transcript here.)
Reading about other people, experiences, cultures, weaknesses . . . all of it can help me grow into a more compassionate and understanding person who can make a difference in this world.
My faith holds to the tenet that one thing we can take with us into the next life is what we have learned. Therefore, the more I learn vicariously, through reading, the more understanding and compassion I will also have in the next life.
In short, we increase our empathy by regularly reading literature, defined in some studies as “literary,” meaning books not written to fit a popular genre, such as fantasy or mystery. For our purposes, genre fiction can be classified as marshmallow fiction. The empathetic muscles don’t work as hard on those books because they follow structures and formulas demanded by their genres.
Yet without doing a scientific survey of my own, I’m quite certain that reading any fiction helps. And if we’re talking about children, getting them to read at all — let alone enjoy it — can be tough. Forcing them to read classic literature before their minds and maturity are ready for them is a just asking turn that child against books.
And a population that reaches adulthood without reading books creates a less compassionate, less empathetic, less kind world.
In 2008, J. K. Rowling gave the commencement address at Harvard. Her speech has two main parts: the benefits of failure, and the benefits of imagination.
The entire speech is worth watching, but for our purposes, listen to the part about the benefits of imagination, from about 11 minutes to 18 minutes.
She talks about how humans are the only creatures on the planet who can mentally put themselves into another place and position, into another person’s life . . . often through reading . . . and how that fact brings us power to do good: the power of human empathy. Imagination and reading are some of the most powerful ways to find such empathy. And she mentions those who close their minds, refusing to know and understand.
She says, in part:
Many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are . . . They can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally. They can refuse to know. . . . I think the willfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid. . . . What is more: Those who choose not to empathize enable real monsters.
I’ll never stop indulging in literary marshmallows, but you’ll also never convince me to avoid “hard” books altogether that have characters, themes, and stories that make me stretch, learn, and maybe even ache.
Stories that maybe, just maybe, will help me develop a bit of godlike compassion and understanding.
“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” — Ray Bradbury, after authoring his cautionary novel Fahrenheit 451.