The power of literature to make us more human

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The power of literature to make us more human

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Before you find yourself scrolling through your social media feeds or starting the newest Netflix series, consider picking up a book. No, I’m not your English teacher, and no, I’m not receiving compensation from a publishing company. But, I do believe millennials would benefit from reading more literature and fiction in general.

Students often criticize literature because of the deeper meaning teachers insist lies behind simple details. In a popular meme where a teacher claims that a writer’s sentence, “the curtains were blue,” implies feelings of depression in a character, our youth express their frustration.

Despite this sentiment, I do believe symbolism pervades our stories and understanding literature helps us better understand our world. But, there are other means of demonstrating the benefits of reading novels rich with meaning. What if I told you reading fiction makes us more human?

According to studies conducted in 2006 and 2009 by Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, and Keith Oatley, a professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, people who frequently read fiction better empathize with others, understanding the world from different perspectives. In 2010 Mar conducted another study, but this time he focused on the effects of reading fiction on children. Mar concluded that reading fiction may influence a child’s development of “theory of mind,” which is the ability to perceive that others have their own beliefs and motives. The abstract of the 2010 study describes how “engagement with fictional narratives provides one with information about the social world.” Thus, reading introduces people to different views of the world and widens one’s perspective.

In our fast-paced world, it’s easy to only concentrate on your own perspective. But the kind of reading we do while scanning our Twitter or Facebook feeds does not commit the necessary attention to detail that reading literature demands. “Deep reading” requires the reader to slow down and concentrate on the text.

Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, has studied how “deep reading” pertains to the science of the brain.

“It takes time,” she said, “both in milliseconds and years, and effort to learn to read with deep, expanding comprehension and to execute all these processes as an adult expert reader.”

Reading a book that requires a little more thinking involved may take more time, but it’s for your benefit. When people grow older, mental functions slow, but reading has been linked to maintaining a capable mind. In a 2013 study by Dr. Robert S. Wilson et al., researchers found that a lifetime of reading is associated with slower late-life cognitive decline.

But of all of the benefits of reading, I think the wisdom imparted by literature prevails. The books exalted for their masterful prose and captivating stories tell about people and events worth knowing about. These experiences, from the perspective of a character living the event, reveal the rich history of human interaction and stand as testaments to the victims of social injustice.

Books like Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”, Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five”, and Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” serve as commentaries on race, war, and masculinity, respectively. They offer voices to large groups of people who would remain unheard otherwise. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, which portrayed the evils of slavery, aroused so much tension prior to the American Civil War that Abraham Lincoln claimed it put the conflict into motion. J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” influenced an entire generation of American youth.

So before you decide that it’s time to look at pictures of cute dogs for thirty minutes or play a game on your phone for ten, consider reading a good piece of literature instead.