Reading good literature will make you better in dealing with people, according to a new study published in  Science . The study

found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence . . . .

The researchers say the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.


The writers the  Times quoted in its report agreed. (Surprise!) I’ve long thought this, and what the study shows certainly seems intuitively obvious. But I wonder how long the effect lasts, a point the article itself raises.

The ego is always strong, if not ravenous, and our habits of relating to people strong if not overwhelming (which is why they’re habits). It’s hard to think that feelings of empathy for others will last long and that if we gain in social perception and emotional intelligence we won’t turn that gain to our own advantage.

Conman undoubtedly rank  very highly in social perception and emotional intelligence. The successful ones, anyway. They need to know exactly what you want in order to give you the illusion they’re giving it to you.

When I think about the empathy one gains from reading, I think of the feeling of sympathy for human weakness and frailty one can feel at the end of a great tragedy, whether play or movie, and how quickly that disappears when you get out of the theatre and get behind a weak, frail, but really annoying tourist who won’t get his polyester-covered Iowa backside out of the way as he gawps at the buildings when all you want to do is get home, or an aggressive panhandler who tries to make you feel guilty, or almost anyone who’s weak and frail in the ways with which you were just so grandly empathizing.*

I don’t doubt the accuracy of the study, as far as it goes, but it also seems to me another of man’s ongoing attempts to make goodness easier by finding a technique that will make us better without challenging our wills or changing our lives, other than by the small sacrifice of employing this technique. That attempt is doomed to fail, at least for those of us who are not yet saints.

* To avoid enraged messages from Iowans: the description was a rhetorical technique meant to illustrate the feeling I am describing. No slight upon Iowans is intended. Also, no animals were harmed in the making of this weblog item.

Articles by David Mills

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