Sunday, January 05, 2014

Stories Make Better People

Every now and then I run into a person who says, “Oh, I never read fiction!” They seem to think that is something to be proud of. Okay, I confess, I went through a period like that myself. I got over it.

Recently a number of studies have presented some interesting conclusions for fiction readers. A recent article in Psychology Today, Reading Fiction Improves Game Chemistry, presents evidence that reading a novel improves brain function and regular reading of fiction strengthens and improves one's brain. This rang true for me because, of the elders I have known who retained sharp minds into their 80s and 90s, most were avid readers. Similarly and article in Scientific American, Novel Findng: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy, concluded that people who read novels have the opportunity to experience situations, emotions, and responses that their daily lives would never provide them. They become more empathetic people. Columnist Rachel Cooke, in a recent article about Ruth Rendell asks, How Can We Make Sense of the World Without Reading Stories?

All of this makes perfect sense to me. We live in a busy world and many of us never have the opportunity to meet people whose lives are tremendously different from our own. We can travel, we can participate in activities that are different than out daily norm, but, while these certainly have advantages, they don't offer us the opportunity to slip inside another's world—not the way good fiction does. These days there are more ways than ever to read—ebooks and audio books make it possible to read wherever we go. Yet people who read are harder and harder to find. Perhaps that is why those of us who love reading tend to gather on places like Goodreads, Amazon Discussion Groups, and Facebook reading groups just to have the opportunity to share out favorite books and get recommendations for more. I am friends with a couple, Joe and Jeannine, both of whom are avid readers. Every time I go out to dinner with them I come home with a list of books I can't wait to read. Friends like them are such a gift.

There is an interesting paradox going on. A lot of people seem to gobble up a lot of books but they tend to read within their preferred genre. This is especially true of those drawn to fantasy/science fiction, erotica, and the emo-laden New Adult genre. I wonder how these readers compare to readers whose tastes are more diverse. Does reading within one genre limit a readers experience of the world. Does it limit their empathy?

I tend to read either literary fiction or the sort of mystery/thrillers written by authors like James Lee Burke, Dennis Lehane, and Craig Johnson. Those authors, though they write in a specific genre, tend to do a lot of character development with a broad range of characters so I tell myself that reading them satisfies both my needs—a heck of a good story plus an emotional experience of entering other lives and other worlds.

Recently I read The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin, a first novel by a talented writer. It is one of those books that, after I finished it, I walked around in a “book hangover” for several days. The story, set in the Pacific northwest at the turn of the 20th century, is about a man named William Talmudge who was left alone in the world when his parents died young and then his sister disappeared never to be seen again. Talmudge, despite the pain of loss, lives a reclusive life but builds a fabulous orchard in a canyon where he grows apples, plums, and apricots. Then one day two young teenage girls, sisters, both of them pregnant, wander into his orchard. They have escaped from a sociopath who used them in his brothel and Talmudge, though he has no obligation to, cares for them as well as for the daughter one of them bears. It is an amazing story about a man who had no reason to do something profoundly good--and yet did it anyway. Even writing about it here, I find myself tearing up. That story changed me. That story lingers in me and makes me wonder where a man like Talmudge found the strength to be the good man he was. That is the hallmark of a great story.

I'm sure I'll be writing more about this later but, for now, it is enough to know that reading fiction can be profoundly life-altering. Something for me to remember both as a reader and a writer.

Thanks for reading.

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