Does Reading Make You A Better Person? Study Suggests It Depends On What You Read

Literary fiction might be more empathy-generating than genre books.
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In 2012, when bookstores and book clubs were alight with talk of Gone Girl, a vital modifier was attached to descriptions of Flynn’s fast-paced story: it’s not just a thriller, it’s a literary thriller.

“Literary,” in the case of a book about a marriage gone violently rancid, suggests that Flynn wasn’t only concerned with what happens in the story; she was interested in the nuances of the characters’ inner lives, too.

Naturally, some writers who devote themselves to crafting straightforward thrillers (or romances, or fantasies) take issue with the “literary” distinction, because it undermines the value of their own work. And indeed, salient arguments have been made against genre categories, which are said to be more of a marketing tool than a useful means of sorting and suggesting books.

But, according to a new study conducted by David Kidd and Emanuele Castano, books that carry the “literary” banner may offer unique benefits to readers.

The pair asked over 1,000 participants to check off literary names they recognized before identifying the emotions being expressed in various photos, drawing a positive correlation between literary awareness and emotional intelligence. The study controlled for self-reported empathy levels, and still found that those who’ve read more literary fiction books in their lives were better at recognizing the emotions of others.

Not all fiction draws on the same psychological processes in the same way [...] over time, habitual reading of literary fiction is associated with differences in interpersonal perception that are not associated with regularly reading genre fiction.

A Reader’s Digest post on the study stresses that even the study’s authors “point out that their findings should not be taken as evidence of ‘the superiority of literary fiction.’” This may be because a similar, less rigorous version of the same findings that lead to controversy in 2013.

So, reader, read what you wish. But know that the classics ― Toni Morrison, Harper Lee and Don DeLillo among them ― might yield greater rewards.

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