“Why the emphasis on literature? By playing with language, plot structure, and images, it challenges us cognitively even as it entertains. It invites us to see the world in a different way, demands that we interpret unusual descriptions, and pushes our memories to recall characters and plot details. In fact, […] neuroscientists have found plenty of proof that reading fiction stimulates all sorts of cognitive areas—not just language regions but also those responsible for coordinating movement and interpreting smells.
Because literary books “are” so mentally invigorating, and require such engagement, they make us smarter than other kinds of reading material, as a 2009 University of Santa Barbara indicated. Researchers found that subjects who read Kafka’s “The Country Doctor”—which includes feverish hallucinations from the narrator and surreal elements—performed better on a subsequent learning task than a control group that read a straightforward summary of the story.
Literature doesn’t just make us smarter, however; it makes us “us”, shaping our consciences and our identities. Strong narratives […] help us develop empathy. […] individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them, and see the world from their perspective […]
With empathy comes self-awareness, of course. By discovering affinities between ourselves and characters we never imagined we’d be able to comprehend (like the accused murderer Dimitri Karamazov), we better understand who we are personally and politically; what we want to change; what we care about defending.”
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