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Fiction Is Good For You ... Oh Wait, Maybe It Isn't

I came across yet another study showing that reading fiction is good for developing empathy, and I love it.

First of all, I find it really humorous that the study they talk about was based on readers of Harry Potter and Twilight identifying themselves as wizards and vampires. Maybe not the best way to make your case to the people who need to hear it made, but I can see how you can easily extrapolate the results. If readers can identify with supernatural creatures just by reading a story about them, then it should be easy to identify with all sorts of real social outcasts and minorities by reading fiction.

Mostly I love it because I can feel how true this conclusion is in my own life. I've been a voracious fiction reader for as long as I've been able to read. While I occasionally enjoy narrative non-fiction and have found other non-fiction useful to me at various times throughout my life, I'm primarily a fiction reader. And the experiences I've read about in those books have made an impression on me greater than any non-fiction I've ever read. When it comes down to it, people are emotional creatures, and we can have as many facts as we want, but generally we end up making decisions based on how we feel about something.

I grew up in a pretty rural homogenous area, so you can imagine that whenever somebody "different" came into town, the reaction wasn't always positive. Mostly because we were all polite midwesterners, we showed considerate interest to visitors from the outside world, but after they left we would talk about how people who lived in the city or the West or the East or the South or the North just didn't live as well as we did. Thanks to my reading, even though I still held on to my proud Midwestern ways, I started to recognize that people from outside my little community didn't necessarily live better or worse lives, just different ones.

Reading about Francie Nolan growing up in the tenements of the early 20th century in A Tree Grows In Brooklyn helped me see that farm kids aren't the only hard working ones. Bel Canto is probably the poster child for teaching empathy through fiction. That book taught me so much about the lives of so many kinds of people I'll probably never meet in real life - Latin American revolutionaries, Japanese diplomats, translators, opera singers, and more. By the end I felt for them all as their delicately balanced world came crashing down.

But then there's this study that talks about how fiction can encourage violence. So apparently it's great that fiction allows readers to identify with stories and characters, but when those situations turn violent, then it's not. But that's a little like all kinds of media: if you read/watch/listen to junk, you'll think/speak/act like junk.

Being the big intellectual freedom buff I am, I'm not going to say it's actually as cut and dried as that, but I guess even I have to admit that if fiction does get readers emotionally involved that can be both good and bad. I mean look at how many people want to get bitten by vampires after reading Twilight?
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