These days, even at many a liberal arts college, reading literature is all too commonly seen as a luxury or a simple pastime that does little more than give us a break from the monotony of our day-to-day lives. Some perceive it as an indulgence or view it as merely an escape, far from being productive. This, however, is a false assumption of what is an important component of a liberal arts degree.
There is good reason that literature as an art form has continued to persist as an essential part of our culture. Literature provides dramatic practical benefits to all aspects of life, not just as entertainment, but as a way to inform us, to engage us creatively, and to stir our imagination.
Relaxation and Reducing Stress
Overwhelming evidence suggests that reading something we enjoy, such as literature, helps us relax and lower stress levels. Because it’s such a rewarding and immersive experience, we’re able to let our guards down and just be enveloped in the moment, forgetting the various problems in our lives. It’s a wonderful way to unwind after a long day.
Empathy, Understanding and Emotional Intelligence
Reading literature often has us tapping into the psyche of characters – real or fictional – that are vastly different from our own personalities. In this way, we learn to empathise with people who we don’t necessarily relate to right off the bat. Understanding someone’s motives and coming to realize why they are that way is an essential skill to have when working collaboratively with people.
Reading literature allows us to experience the lives and personalities of a range of vastly different characters from diverse places and times, informing how we interact in reality for the better. In our increasingly globalized society, the ability to understand and empathize with those different from us is absolutely essential.
Literary Fiction Versus Popular Fiction
Recently, there was a study done by psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, in which 1,000 participants were given an assigned text to read – either a popular fiction novel like that of Danielle Steele or a celebrated work of literary fiction like a Don DeLillo short story. They then analyzed through a series of tests the level of emotional empathy of the participants after the assigned reading. Overwhelmingly, the participants who read the more literary tomes were much more empathetic and emotionally understanding. This is attributed to the more open-ended nature of literary fiction, where readers fill in many of the gaps themselves with assumptions and imagination, whereas popular fiction generally serves to entertain at more of a surface level.
Since stories are serialized creations, reading a book over a long period of time strengthens our memory, as we’re asked to recall events and characters we encountered the last time we were reading. Reading thus frequently helps strengthen the brain's neuron connections to keeps our memories sharp. It’s like a mental workout every time you pick up a Dickens novel.
So the next time someone scoffs at how it must be nice that you can fill your days at your small liberal arts college with such silly things as reading literature, just smile and brush it off, because not only will you empathize with where they’re coming from, but your mind will be off doing about 200 push-ups.