Why Should We Read Novels? / by Rachel Eva Lim

Indulging in literary fiction may just make us better agents of change. 

In the new media reality of hot takes, click bait, and the capacity to access thousands of news articles with the click of a button, the novel seems to have taken a backseat. After all, who other than literature majors really has the time (or, quite frankly, the patience) to lose themselves in a 500-page Charles Dickens novel or plough their way through the annual Pulitzer Prize shortlist? Consider this a defense of the novel—or at least a claim for its potential to make us more effective social agents.

Numerous writers, philosophers, and overeager high school English teachers have long asserted the novel’s ability to help us better understand human nature and, in turn, make us better people. “The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question,” states the Czech-born writer Milan Kundera. “There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude.” Robert Penn Warren, an American novelist and literary critic, once wrote an essay entitled “Why Do We Read Fiction,” in which he argues for the unique ability of literature to broaden our empathetic capacities. 

One can’t underestimate the value of empathy in today’s world. As our six degrees of separation has dwindled to zero, we’re coming into contact with increasing numbers of individuals from diverse backgrounds. And successfully interacting and working with those who differ from us requires a greater depth of understanding than we may be used to. “Over the past decade there has been an extraordinary shift in thinking about how change happens,” writes Roman Krznaric, a respected cultural thinker. “A concept that has been buried in psychology textbooks for nearly a century—empathy—is coming to be seen as one of the fundamental forces for tackling global challenges.”

There’s also scientific evidence to back up the link between reading and the power to empathize with others. A study conducted by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, psychologists at the New School for Social Research in New York, concluded that reading literary fiction increases our potential to identify and understand others’ mental states. The pair performed a series of experiments where subjects were randomly assigned extracts from an array of historical and contemporary works. When it came time to measure how accurately participants could identify emotions in others, they found that those who read literary fiction—the category that most novels fall under—scored higher than those who perused either genre fiction or non-fiction texts. 

Indeed, rather than removing us from society, novels encourage us to see the latter in a new light by bringing us into moments of intense connection with those who are, more often than not, wholly unlike ourselves. “Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration,” Kidd and Castano’s study states. From sympathetic villains to conflicted protagonists, the complex characters that litter the landscape of the novel train us to see people as multidimensional human beings. 

Great authors have the ability to convince readers to wholly invest in the lives of the text’s characters, causing us to feel for and with them as they proceed on their various journeys. These relationships, which transcend the materiality of the text, broaden our sympathetic capacities. This in turn enables us to approach our real world connections with a heightened sense of understanding, consideration, and perhaps even kindness.

One of the great things about globalization is that it allows us to connect with people who are oceans away. And if novels can help us better understand them, maybe it wouldn’t hurt if we all put down our phones and pick up a book once in awhile.

Commissioned by Ui CULTURE