Last time I discussed how readers live longer. Now we’ll explore how reading helps us think better. This isn’t scientific; it’s how I feel, supported by a few friendly references. It may not work for you.
Reading fiction explores situations which normal people may never or haven’t yet encountered. It projects the reader into cultures, times, events, conditions which the reader hasn’t yet or can’t possible experience. Not just adventure, science fiction or fantasy, but social and ethical situations.
More than absorbing factual information, readers learn to discern. They develop their powers of insight and discrimination. Reading books where a main character such as themselves tries to fit into society or determine the intentions of others form skills for actually living life. Admittedly, some novels will lead the reader astray. But an intelligent reader quickly learns to sort the stories themselves. And, if the novel features an unreliable narrator or a well-intended-but-misleading friends not to mention lovable fools and attractive knaves, the reader learns even more. Folks don’t read Jane Austen today because they like stories about silly Regency girls, but because they identify with the realistic struggles or realistic people.
As Dr. Rick Bereit wrote, “It is possible to expose readers to the fictional lives of others with the result that the reader sees and digests good, bad, seduction, deception, kindness (long list) and contemplates how they might navigate similar waters in their own lives.” He also notes the effect is not limited to sheltered regency women. Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim” asks the question of young leaders, “What would it take for me to recover my honor or reputation if I made a mistake in my career?”
Novels of manners taught people how to behave in “polite society.” For example, reading novels about young women, other young women learned to conduct themselves in eighteenth-century England, when few young women received formal educations. More than that they, and modern readers, learn how to discern Dr. Bereit’s list from reading fiction.
Fiction forms and reflects reality around us in a way that help us discern not just truth from falseness, but also explore various mode of action and their consequences. It distills the challenge and the struggle into a digestible form, even when it masks politics as history or opinion as science. When the author has an agenda, the reader learns to detect it.
Critics accuse fiction readers (and writers) of seeking to escape from reality. Yes, there’s escapism in fiction, but escaping is not all bad. J. R. R. Tolkien said, “In what misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic.”
We’ll explore the superiority of reading over watching fiction next essay, but for now ask yourself, what could be more fake than so-called reality television? Being unscripted does not make it real. Readers learn to distinguish the artifact from the artificial.
Dr. Bereit summarizes, “Many 19th century texts pose these same kinds of ‘life issues’ that can be employed to engage readers in personal sifting and analysis, providing some measure of ‘think ahead’ prophylaxis as that reader moves forward in their own life.”
Those same texts and later ones provide twenty-first century readers with “think ahead” training for modern living. Reading improves your mind.