My life is pretty paper free these days.  All my work is done on a laptop, my diary and even shopping lists are on my phone.  But I just can’t let go of the physical real world book.  I’ve always loved books, the size, shape and even smell of them.  To me the knowledge, creativity and wisdom needs a physical form, a weight, to match it’s inherent value.  A book’s batteries never run out, they don’t crash and they don’t interfere with an aircraft’s navigation.  Wallace (another avid reader) and I talked about the therapeutic value of reading this week on his Sunday morning show.

(Click here for audio of the interview)

Perhaps not surprisingly reading has always seemed therapeutic to me, a chance to escape into my own mind, along with the thoughts of a storyteller, and revel in anothers life.  It doesn’t seem much of a leap that reading is good for the mind. and good for our relationships.   Recent psychological research seems to show this.

A recent study separates the effect of reading more “literary” works, where the stories are more focused on the human condition and allow for imaginative identification with the characters; as opposed to more popular fiction, where things are more spelt out and the writer dictates the experience of the reader more…

“The [researchers] then used a variety of Theory of Mind techniques to measure how accurately the participants could identify emotions in others. Scores were consistently higher for those who had read literary fiction than for those with popular fiction or non-fiction texts.

“What great writers do is to turn you into the writer. In literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the minds of others,” said Kidd.”  (Click here for the rest of the article)

What psychologists describe as the “theory of mind” is an ability key to understanding others, their motivations, their emotions and in doing so better empathise with them.  The minds of others are not directly observable, but as human beings we have the ability to imagine and infer what others internal mental states are, and use this information to navigate our social worlds.

Reading fiction in particular, tends to allow us to see the world through others eyes and to not just infer, but read about the internal world of other (albeit fictional) people.  This research has had it’s critics, but it is useful in the sense that it explains the necessity and utility of reading fiction, not just an idle pass time but an exercise in learning about relationships and improving our social skills.

“Instead of proclaiming the superiority of fiction to the practical skills allegedly conferred by reading non-fiction, the studies implied that practical effects are an indispensable standard by which to judge the virtues of fiction. Reading fiction is good, according to the studies, because it makes you a more effective social agent.” (Click here for the whole article)

More broadly of course, storytelling has been with us as long as spoken language.  Human beings have used, and seemingly relied upon stories to transmit knowledge, social norms and promote social cohesion, for many thousands of years.

“In The Power of Myth, the late scholar and famous mythologist Joseph Campbell explains that stories help give us relevance and meaning to our lives and that “… in popular novels, the main character is a hero or heroine who has found or done something beyond the normal range of achievement and experience.” (Click here for the whole article)

It seems a great shame to me that from time to time educational debates swing to question the utility of training in humanities.  With such a focus in our culture on ‘output’, I can’t help but wonder if we lose something of our humanity when we under value the liberal arts.  It used to be the case, for example, that the best pre-training for doctors was seen to be a liberal arts degree.

I value science, and most of these columns look to explain how empirical science can explain and help us improve our day to day existence.  But I don’t believe science can capture the essence of humanity in the same way a great novel can.

English philosopher Alain De Botton would agree I’m sure.  In fact he has written extensively on psychoanalysis and psychology, and set up, as part of his “School for life” programme, a network of therapists in the UK, and elsewhere, that offer “bibliotherapy” (or what some wags have called “shelf help“.)

“Customers seeking bibliotherapy trade £80 ($130) for an hour of chat with an insightful and dauntingly well-read “therapist”, who then crafts a bespoke reading list designed to meet someone’s special needs—perhaps some New York-based classics with a touch of romance? Or a few futuristic escapist fantasies, with a dash of hubris? There is something for everyone.”  (Click here for the whole article)

There are lots of reasons to read more.  But to add a few more to the list, it may very well make you a better friend, and a better person.  It may also help you feel happier and less anxious.  And in the words of Joseph Campbell…

“Sit in a room and read–and read and read. And read the right books by the right people. Your mind is brought onto that level, and you have a nice, mild, slow-burning rapture all the time.”

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