Shelf Awareness with Julia Engel logo

Last month in my post regarding Romance books, I briefly touched on the benefits of reading fiction. This month, I wanted to delve into this a bit more deeply. Reading fiction of any kind can help us build empathy, resilience and critical thinking skills. These are all vital for helping us cope with everything that is going on in our lives right now.

The last two years of distancing and separation have been hard for all of us, especially for children doing more virtual learning and being physically apart from their peers. This separation has left a lot of us feeling as though we are missing important opportunities for socialization. To help combat this potential atrophy, reading fiction can improve a reader’s capacity to recognize what others are feeling, as well as gain a better understanding of one’s own emotions.

This goes for any type of fiction. I’ve been thinking a lot about different styles of books lately, and have been trying to read more widely. In the book world, one hears terms such as “literary” and “genre” fiction. Genre fiction is a blanket term used to refer to romance, mystery, sci-fi/fantasy, western and sometimes historical fiction. I have been wondering, is there really a difference between these books and “literary” fiction novels?

I’m not a literary scholar, but perhaps I have been mistaken in strictly categorizing books this way in the past. Sometimes I’ve noticed that “genre” or “popular” fiction sometimes carries a negative stigma or connotation with the literary elite, but just because a novel focuses on a romance or mystery doesn’t necessarily mean it is poorly written. It also doesn’t mean that they don’t have literary merit or that we can’t gain important skills by reading them. I believe there is value in all literature.

However, when specifically discussing the topic of developing empathy through reading literature, we are able to develop this more when reading something that isn’t formulaic and spends more time on character development. Formulaic stories or flat characters are predictable, which tends to reinforce the reader’s expectations of others. Conversely, a book that depicts a fully realized character helps the reader get into the character’s mind and their inner world, otherwise unreachable from the outside.

We are able to understand an individual’s thoughts in a way we can’t with the other people around us in real life. The only access we have to another person’s inner world in real life is if they are able to express themselves, and sometimes people aren’t able to do that in the moment with the people around them. We don’t always know how to articulate what we are thinking or feeling. The experience of getting into someone else’s mind, even a fictitious person, can help teach us about social behavior, understanding the ways we are different from or similar to others.  

When we read a book or watch a movie, we relate to the characters. We experience their emotional journey and bring a part of ourselves into the story. Sometimes we are also able to relate to people we have nothing in common with, but if we find the character likable, we find ourselves rooting for them. We celebrate their accomplishments and lament their misfortunes. This is one huge benefit to reading a wide variety of viewpoints.  

Through literature, we can practice dealing with our emotional reactions in a safe, controlled space. Since we are not the ones directly experiencing the consequences of the action, but do still feel an emotional reaction to it, we are able to explore feeling empathetic towards a character. It’s almost like a kind of simulation game we can play to practice and hone our emotional coping skills. A simulation that runs through the most powerful computer of all, the human mind.

This simulation process engages what psychologists call our “theory-of-mind” faculties. We can see potential scenarios play out, see alternate timelines and imagine the many directions our own lives might have gone in had we made different choices or been born another person in different circumstances.  

Another positive attribute we can learn from reading fiction is resilience. Running these simulations of possible outcomes from various scenarios helps us imagine that there are solutions to problems we encounter in our real lives. It keeps our brains flexible and creative, inspires us to feel hopeful that there can be a way out of a difficult situation.

Therefore, when we are faced with another new challenge, we don’t shut down and become stuck; we are able to navigate and be flexible when needed. Reading fiction can help us cope with the stress and anxiety of pandemics, unrest, wildfires, financial instability and the many other stressors we are all facing.  

I also mentioned earlier that reading fiction helps us build critical thinking skills. Fiction, speculative fiction and sci-fi/fantasy in particular, can help us make sense of the world. They look at the possibilities and wonder “what if” this or that happened. What would the world be like if we had lost the war, or that vital thing had never been discovered, or all the other endless possibilities we can run through our simulation machines. We conceptualize, analyze, synthesize and evaluate the information gathered from our observations and experiences in the real world with the imagined scenarios in the book.  

These stories can play with literary devices such as metaphors and extend them out to their fullest, or see what happens when you make abstract concepts concrete or literal. In addition, a story that takes place in a slightly different setting can give the reader enough distance from it to objectively analyze concepts and ideas. This makes sci-fi/fantasy a great avenue for exploring social challenges.    

The library offers many great opportunities to try out lots of different fiction books. We have a rich and vast collection of fiction for all ages, backgrounds and preferences. Whether you prefer romance, mystery, sci-fi & fantasy, general fiction, historical fiction or graphic novels, we have something for you. You can search for anything you like using our catalog, or if you’re looking for some reading suggestions, head over to our Books Collection page for curated book lists, staff picks and information on how to receive personalized picks or book lists sent regularly via email.  You can also explore our eBook and eAudiobook collections by visiting our Downloadables page. 

If you have any questions or need any assistance, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us via email, phone or even text.    

Happy Reading!

(Julia Engel is a reference librarian at Philomath Community Library. She can be reached via email at Julia.Engel@corvallisoregon.gov or by phone at 541-929-3016.)