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Do you make time to read fiction? For yourself and to your kids. If you do, why? If you’ve ever bothered to wonder (who needs an excuse to read?), most likely you named entertainment your #1 reason. As a kid I spent hours and hours at the Southbury Public Library, especially come summer. There was AC, no line for the bathroom (important in a family of seven) and no one looking for me (as the only girl and eldest of five). Mostly, though, I did it for the stories, the words on the pages.
My own daughter is a fantasy fanatic. In fact, just this week she picked up – with her own money! – Rick Riordan’s new novel, The Serpent’s Shadow. I don’t blame her for preferring it to her freshman-required reading, The Scarlet Letter. She’s escaping.
But let’s stop for a moment. Never minding high school English class and Hawthorne, is she learning something when she devours The Serpent’s Shadow? Did she or you or I learn something when we read The Hunger Games? (No spoilers please; I’m about to start Mockingjay.) What about Olive Kitteridge or even The Bobbsey Twins? I’m not referring to the actual writing, to its quality, or, in the case of Collins’s book, to the fact that kids murdering kids for another’s sport is bad. I’m talking more basic than that.
The Boston Globe recently ran a piece entitled “How fiction changes your world.” Author Jonathan Gottschall examined the historical pros and cons concerning fiction’s effects on individuals and society.
- Pros – It cultivates our mental and moral development, and
- Cons – It’s mentally and ethically corrosive.
New scientific research, apparently, is finally answering at least some of this debate, and it comes down squarely in the pro-fiction camp.
A major gist is that, sure, our favorite subject matter is often unpleasant. We like our stories to revolve around sex, violence, war, and other forms of mayhem. Just look at some of the Boston’s local bestseller’s last week: Fifty Shades of Grey (E.L. James), Mockingjay (Suzanne Collins), Defending Jacob (William Landay), and Elegy for Eddie (Jacqueline Winspear). According to Amazon (because I have not read these books – yet), they all involve death, murder, marital strife, bondage, and/or other unsavory subjects. But – and it’s a big BUT – per Gotschall and other researchers (both psychological and literary), these and most other novels increase individuals’ levels of empathy and reinforce the “ethic of decency.” Readers identified with protagonists no matter how realistic or unrealistic their fictive worlds. Bad guys are punished, and good guys live happily ever after.
So, rather than worry that your kid’s perusing The Hunger Games for tips on how to put an arrow in a nasty classmate, let him or her read on. Even better, you read the book too and have a family discussion afterwards. Later move on to Hawthorne. You’ll be improving yourself and the society we share. I’ll let Gotschall have the almost-last words:
Fiction is often treated like a mere frill in human life, if not something worse. But the emerging science of story suggests that fiction if good for more than kicks. By enhancing empathy, fiction reduces social friction. At the same time, story exerts a kind of magnetic force, drawing us together around common values. In other words, most fiction, even the trashy stuff, appears to be in the public interest after all.
May I recommend Sidney Sheldon’s The Other Side of Midnight? Read that book when I was seventeen. Loved it…
(Note: Jonathan Gotschall’s article appeared in the Boston Globe’s “Ideas” section on Sunday, April 29, 2012.)