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.

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