reading can make you a better person. here's evidence.

Celebrate #EmpathyDay with a good book.
Last year, a prosecutor in the US state of Virginia asked a judge to hand down an unusual sentence. Five teens had defaced a historic structure -- a Jim Crow-era schoolhouse for African-American children -- with swastikas and other racist graffiti.

The judge agreed with the prosecutor -- and she sentenced the teens to reading. The teens were to choose books from a list of books that illuminate bigotry and hatred, among them Elie Wiesel's Night, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Arthur Miller's The Crucible.

Sentenced to read

With at least one of those teens, it worked. This person (not identified), who is 16 or 17 years old, agreed to share his reading list and his thoughts with a reporter for The New York Times. The list included The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle, and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.

The books he found most affecting were 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup and Night. The Times article includes excerpts from his court-ordered essay.
He describes not fully knowing what a swastika meant, and that he thought it "didn't really mean much."

"Not anymore," he wrote. "I was wrong, it means a lot to people who were affected by them. It reminds them of the worst things, losing family members and friends. Of the pain of torture, psychological and physical. Among that it reminds them how hateful people can be and how the world can be cruel and unfair."

Now, he wrote, he sees the swastika as a symbol of "oppression" and "white power, that their race is above all else, which is not the case."

He also wrote that while he had studied this period in history class, the lesson lasted only a few days.

"I had no idea about how in depth the darkest parts of human history go," he wrote.

He wrote that he feels "especially awful" that he made anyone feel bad.

"Everybody should be treated with equality, no matter the race, religion, sex or orientation," he wrote in his essay. "I will do my best to see to it that I never am this ignorant again."
Alejandra Rueda, the creative Virginia prosecutor, has used the idea on at least one other occasion. That time, she worked with librarians to create a reading list, which included a book of poetry called "A Wreath for Emmett Till."

The sentence was certainly controversial. Marilyn Nelson, the poet, was less than pleased to see her work -- or any poetry -- used as a punishment. Many librarians and teachers expressed similar concerns about associating reading with punishment. Other people felt the sentence was too light.

I thought Rueda said it best: "Is it going to change their perspective on swastikas if you put them in the juvenile center and lock them up?"

A larger sample size

I don't know if Rueda had researched this idea or thought of it independently, but there's evidence to back her up.

A Washington Post science reporter asked, "Does reading make you a better person?". It appears the answer is yes.
In 2000, Jemeljan Hakemulder at Utrecht University in Germany published "The Moral Laboratory," a book outlining the results of almost two dozen experiments that linked reading to better social skills.

A 2013 study in the American Psychological Association's journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts found that the process of imagining scenes while reading led to an increase in empathy and prosocial behavior.

Raymond Mar, a psychologist who co-authored the 2006 study with Oatley, has found that the parts of the brain used for inferring thoughts and feelings of others — a phenomenon called "mentalizing" — light up in an MRI machine when people are processing stories.
In 2013, a study published in the journal Science suggested that what young people read is a significant factor in socialization. Literary fiction, it seems, builds empathy in a way that genre fiction does not. Scientific American magazine reported:
The results are consistent with what literary criticism has to say about the two genres — and indeed, this may be the first empirical evidence linking literary and psychological theories of fiction.

Popular fiction tends to portray situations that are otherworldly and follow a formula to take readers on a roller-coaster ride of emotions and exciting experiences. Although the settings and situations are grand, the characters are internally consistent and predictable, which tends to affirm the reader's expectations of others. It stands to reason that popular fiction does not expand the capacity to empathize.

Literary fiction, by contrast, focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships. "Often those characters' minds are depicted vaguely, without many details, and we're forced to fill in the gaps to understand their intentions and motivations," Kidd says. This genre prompts the reader to imagine the characters' introspective dialogues. This psychological awareness carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom. Although literary fiction tends to be more realistic than popular fiction, the characters disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes. They support and teach us values about social behavior, such as the importance of understanding those who are different from ourselves.
The Guardian put it this way:
Have you ever felt that reading a good book makes you better able to connect with your fellow human beings? If so, the results of a new scientific study back you up, but only if your reading material is literary fiction – pulp fiction or non-fiction will not do.

Psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, at the New School for Social Research in New York, have proved that reading literary fiction enhances the ability to detect and understand other people's emotions, a crucial skill in navigating complex social relationships.
The Guardian story also explains a bit about how the researchers distinguished genre fiction from literary fiction, and offers a dissenting opinion -- interestingly, from someone involved in prison librarianship.

You can find more studies and factoids about reading and empathy using the hashtag #ReadForEmpathy.


things i heard at the library: an occasional series: #28

With apologies to my man C. Dickens, it was the worst of customers, it was the best of customers.

Our Children's Department is short-staffed right now, and although that is stressful in many ways, there is a silver lining for me: I am needed more on the information desk, and that's my favourite place to be in the library. One day this week, I experienced a real study in contrasts.

From the desk, I looked over at the "activity centre" -- an educational-play area for parents and children -- and saw something sail through the air! It was a plastic play-thing of some sort and its arc was unmistakably thrown. As I started walking over, a parent intercepted me. He was holding the base of a small puzzle -- a square piece of wood -- and said, "This child is throwing things. He hit my child with this. I spoke to the father, and he said, 'They are children. That's what children do!'". I thanked him for letting me know and said I would take care of it.

I could easily spot the problem -- one stressed father and two children going wild. The boys -- ages roughly 5 and 3 -- took off out of the play area, running in different directions, both shrieking loudly, knocking things over, randomly grabbing books or whatever they could get their hands on and throwing them. The father took off after them, yelling. (He wasn't speaking English but I assume it was some version of "Get back here!".)

The older boy started running up the stairs -- i.e. out of the department to the rest of the library. At that point it got scary. The kids seemed completely out of control. The father was in pursuit of the younger boy, yelling at the older one.

I stood to the side and assessed the situation, trying to decide when it was time to call security, or alert staff upstairs that the child was on his way. After a lot of running and a lot of yelling, the man secured the younger child, and holding him sideways under his arm, like a football, and was able to run down the older child and get him them both into a large stroller.

I expected them to leave the library, so I was surprised when the father -- with both boys locked down -- headed in my direction. He was furious, sputtering. "This is a place for children! Children need to play! They need to run! What kind of a place is this where you do not let children be children!"

I tried to say that children can be children in the library, but it is not a place for running or for rough play. They cannot throw things, and they cannot strike other children.

"You exaggerate! I saw you talking to the man there! He is exaggerating!"

I tried a few times to interject, but he was too upset to listen. He ranted for a while about what a horrible library we have, and then left.

I think these were the wildest children I've ever seen in our library. I felt sorry for them and for their dad.

* * * *

About an hour later, another father and son approached the desk. The boy was holding a library card in his outstretched arm, our universal symbol for either a puzzle or a train to take in the activity area. I like to try to get the shy kids to talk to me, or at least smile, so I said, "You are giving me this card? What it is for?"

The boy seemed to say tr. So I said, "Trrr...?" thinking he was trying to say train.

The father said, "He is saying ahtr. It means train in Arabic." I completed the card-for-train transaction* with the boy, and said, "Ah yes, that is one of the Arabic words I know," and managed to say what I remembered for train station. "I was in Egypt last year, and before I went, I tried to learn a little Arabic."

The man's eyes lit up. "We are from Egypt! Where did you go? What did you see?" He wanted to know everywhere we went, and what we thought, and what we experienced. He loved that I learned some Arabic -- although he was a bit disappointed that I wasn't actually learning to read Arabic script.

We talked about the pyramids, and the tombs, and in general raved about the ancient civilization. He told me we must go to Sharm El Sheikh, and how uniquely beautiful the Red Sea is, and how wonderful his hometown of Alexandria is.

In response to my questions, he said his family has been in Mississauga since last July. They were previously in the US -- in New York City, doing a residency at Mt. Sinai Hospital -- but are doing much better here. "Here, there is everyone," he said. "Everyone is accepting. No one looks at you funny if a woman is wearing a hijab. People are accepting, are open, people want to live peacefully with their neighbours from all over the world."

My mind immediately flashed to some of the horror stories I've heard, the Islamophobic attacks that have made the news. I said, "I'm glad you're finding that. We love our diverse Mississauga."

He said, "I have seen a woman wearing a hijab, at a front desk, at a reception. My heart was so joyous. Not because I want women to wear hijabs, but because it means, it is OK here, you do not need to hide, no one will hurt you. It means, you can be yourself."

I said something about all of us being from somewhere else, if not us, our parents or grandparents. He immediately said, "Unless you are an indigenous person, we are all immigrants." I thought, did he get that from nine months in Canada? Impressive! (His English, by the way, was perfect.)

Another thing he loves about Mississauga is the large Arabic-speaking community. That has made it very easy for their family to settle in. The only thing they don't like is the "Middle Eastern food", which he said with quotes. He said they have tried all kinds of food -- Thai, Indian, Italian, Polish -- but the food that is supposed to be their own is always disappointing. "The tiniest little shop in Cairo has food so many times better!"

And this brings me to the punchline.

I told him we loved the food in Egypt, especially the dishes that are supposed to be fast-food. I couldn't remember the names of the two foods, but a quick google was all it took: koshary and hawashi. The conversation goes on and on, and then I need to help another customer.

A short time later, a woman comes to the desk, and says, "Hello, my name is Noor. You were speaking with my husband Tarek." We shake hands and greet each other warmly. "My husband said that you and your husband were in Egypt, and that you enjoyed the koshary. I will make some for you."

She will make some for me.

This woman, a stranger, my neighbour. She wants to cook something for me.

Naturally, I said, "Oh no, no, no, that is so kind of you, but no, I could not accept it. You are very nice to offer."

Again: she offered. She assured me. She wanted to. I must let her.

I thanked her profusely and steadfastly refused.

This went on for a bit.

Finally, she said, "I must insist. I will make it and I will be sad if you do not accept it. Right now, give me your number so I can call you when I have it. I will bring it in a container to you." She got out her phone to enter my number.

I gave in, and gave her my name and my cell number.

I'll let you know what happens.

* We used to keep trains out on the train table. They were a constant source of intense conflict, and they constantly disappeared. The card-for-train method works beautifully.

We do the same with puzzles and "book and play kits". This is common practice in all our libraries -- although the train table is unique in the system, because we have so much more space.