Even though it's pretty easy for me to lose myself in a good book (the first one I remember this happening with was 4B Goes Wild, by Jamie Gilson), for much of my life I had the feeling that reading fiction was a waste of my time. I think this had to do with opportunity cost; I spent such a large chunk of my life as a pre-med, then a med student, then a post-grad trainee, so I just didn't feel like I had the time to read anything that I wouldn't eventually be tested on. I was so cynical, in fact, that I read The autobiography of Malcolm X just so I would have something to answer medical school interviewers' questions with. And sure enough, one of my interviewers asked me about the last book I read. I don't think the "mic drop" had been invented in the 1990s, but whatever the equivalent was, I performed it in that tiny room with my good-natured inquisitor. Even that level of cynicism was rewarded, though, as I came to appreciate Malcolm X and his movement in an empathic, layered way that would have been impossible without having read his book.
As my hard-core academic career transitioned into my current medical consulting gig, I found the time again to really dive into books. I even took an intro to writing class taught by the excellent Amy Parker. My new reading habit and my toe-dipping writing hobby aren't because of any delusion of grandeur. I don't expect to see myself on the best-seller list any time soon. They're my therapy. I guess that makes you, reader, my therapist.
Every time I enter my local public library, a sign tells me that reading fiction increases empathy. I don't know, because I haven't asked anyone with the Wichita Public Library, but I suspect they're basing the assertion on a series of studies by Emanuele Castano and David Kidd in which they randomly assigned readers one of several types of material: literary fiction (like Louise Erdrich), genre fiction (like sci-fi or romance novels), non-fiction, or nothing at all. Once the readers were finished with their assigned excerpts, they took a test that was meant to measure their ability to "comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires and that these may differ from one's own beliefs and desires," or what they call the Theory of Mind.
What they found was surprising. Reading non-fiction didn't do much for readers' ability to know and understand the emotions and thoughts of others; it was no better than not reading at all. (this bodes poorly for the Theory of Mind of the readers of this blog) But reading literary fiction markedly increased this ability in readers, moreso than even the genre fiction. The authors theorize that literary fiction, by focusing less on the whiz-bang of the story and more on the thoughts of and relationships between characters, forces the reader to "fill in the gaps" to understand their intentions and motivations. Then, they say, this "psychological awareness" may carry over into the readers' own real lives.
I think I have some experience with this. When I was in medical school, Dr. Gerard Brungardt assigned The Death of Ivan Ilyitch to all students rotating through the geriatrics clerkship at the University of Kansas. Given the results of Castano and Kidd's studies, it isn't hard to see why. If students are dealing with dying patients every day, surrounded by their families with their conflicts and hidden desires, it surely helps students to be exposed to literary fiction told from the perspective of a dying man.
The implications of this finding are potentially broad. Should politicians be encouraged to read literary fiction told from the perspective of someone who disagrees with them? Should burnt-out endocrinologists be encouraged to read literary fiction about people mad that their doctor won't increase their thyroid hormone dose? Maybe I'll never feel chronic fatigue syndrome, and maybe medicine won't ever come up with a way to treat it, but I could read, learn from, and relate to characters I meet in an appropriate work of fiction and then apply those lessons to patients, right?
So even though my interests are broad (some might say attention-deprived), I try to sprinkle some fiction in with my technical reading, long-form journalism, and self-help. I like to have two books going at a time, ideally one fiction and one non-fiction. I can't prove it with a Science magazine study, but I hope the fiction increases my Theory of Mind and the non-fiction gives me insight into some part of my life I might've otherwise left unexamined. Right now the fiction-life improvement diad consists of Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, a book I amazingly made it out of high school and college without having read, and Just write: the art of personal correspondence by Molly O'Shaughnessy, a meditation on letter-writing disguised as a how-to manual.
And I'd love to see what Castano and Kidd's research would show about books on tape. I just finished The Black Lights by Thom Jones, read by Rachel Kushner: