The stereotypical bookworm doesn’t talk much; he or she’s shy and awkward, with little to no social skills. It turns out that the traditional conception of a bookworm as the person least likely to be able to understand real people is utterly wrong. In fact, they’re probably the most socially attuned person in any room.
Studies published in 2006 and 2009 by Canadian psychologists Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley have uncovered a correlation between the amount of fiction a person reads and how socially adapted they are. The study proved that the greater number of authors of fiction a participant recognised, the higher they tended to score on measures of social awareness and empathy. For example, they were more able to correctly identify a person’s emotional state from a picture of only their eyes. Another study by Raymond Mar in 2010 demonstrated a similar result in children, who had a keener understanding of other people’s intentions when they were told or read more stories.
Further studies, however, have shown that reading any old book is not enough to produce these results. Emanuele Castano and David Kidd recently published a study, which proved that reading non-fiction or genre fiction had little effect on the empathetic abilities of the participants, who were given excerpts from books to read. The argument that the study makes is that reading literary fiction that focuses on the psychology of the characters and their relationships can be a valuable process of socialisation.
These kinds of books do not tell you exactly what their characters are thinking; if they did, there would be no thinking process required. Instead, the reader is left to interpret and imagine the characters’ internal monologues through their actions, enhancing our ability to pick up on emotional nuances. Reading fiction, therefore, gives us valuable insight into human psychology, often in a largely subliminal manner.
And there’s another victory for those who favour the old school – research has also proven that reading books electronically is not as effective as reading books in hard print. The best reading happens when we lose ourselves and enter the world that the author has created. At this point, we are engaged in an intellectual and emotional dialogue with the author and the characters. This has been called “deep reading” and it has been suggested that the combination of the fast decoding of individual words and letters combined with the slow progress of the reader across a page or in the plot line of a book allows them to analyse and contemplate their own opinions and experiences. This process shapes us, our hopes and aspirations and perceptions of the world.
At a time when schools seem eager to cut literature out of curriculums, these studies prove what we bookworms always knew but could never prove; reading somehow makes us better people. It is inherently good for you, and it should be treasured and preserved before it becomes a thing of the past.