Weather Updates

Read this editorial for a literary and social boost

Updated: November 7, 2013 6:41AM

Having just spent a few minutes reading a few pages of a literary classic, Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” we’re feeling exceptionally sensitive and empathetic and believe we can safely say you’re going to love this little editorial.

Especially if you, too, really go for literary fiction — Chekhov, not Patterson.

A new study, published Thursday in the journal Science, is one to bring a tear of joy to highbrow novelists, English professors and anybody who ever read along with Oprah’s Book Club. Turns out that reading serious fiction, even for a few minutes, makes people more empathetic, socially perceptive and emotionally intelligent.

We don’t entirely buy this. Can just a few minutes with, say, Melville, really make it easier to decode the squint in a stranger’s eye? But the study’s design is solid, and we’re not about to argue too hard with anybody who says the liberal arts in any form are good for us. If only every school board understood.

In one experiment, the researchers, social psychologists at the New School for Social Research in New York City, paid people to read award-winning literary fiction, such as Don DeLillo, or pop culture stuff, such as romance novels. Then they had everybody take computerized tests designed to measure their levels of sensitivity and empathy. The people who read the good stuff were more likely to correctly read subtle facial expressions.

Most of us already know that reading good books makes people more empathetic and understanding. The surprise, said the researchers, is that the payoff is so immediate and direct.

The study, like a good book, raises endless new questions. What qualifies as literary fiction? How long does the heightened empathy last? And what’s this all say about the possible debilitating effects of consuming total junk?

But enough. We feel our heightened empathy fading. So back to our novel, where Paul Baumer is returning to the front.

© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit To order a reprint of this article, click here.