Tech mogul Bill Gates is a big advocate for reading. Over the past eight years, he has recommended over 100 books.
It’s great, especially since he made his fortune in technology and not in publishing. However, the playlists recommended by Gates leave something to be desired: they are light on literary fiction, despite the fact that this form has enormous benefits for readers.
Gates seems to read a lot. But he’s only listed 12 novels in the past eight years. Not bad. However, in contrast, it recommended 17 non-fiction books from a single author, Vaclav Smil, in the same time frame. And its lists from this period offer dozens of book recommendations on wealth and inequality and development and foreign aid, topics that are also informed by the literature.
There are surely practical reasons for this. Gates is a philanthropist who wants to invest wisely in programs that will have the best effect. But by delving into literary fiction, he could learn a lot about inequality, politics, the plight of rich and poor, and the struggles people have because of policies and aid programs. And her sense of connecting with people would be deepened by this reading, as novels are scientifically proven to foster empathy, giving readers a sense of the character’s experience, not just factual knowledge.
A 2013 study in Science has found that children who read non-fiction, genre novels, or nothing at all are less able to relate to others than those who consume literary fiction. Exposure to literary fiction made children more empathetic than their study counterparts. They performed better on tests designed to measure “theory of mind,” which is related to social insight.
Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and to others. It seems like a fairly straightforward skill, but not everyone really understands that other people see, feel, and perceive the world in depth. It is this distance that allows us to reject the positions of those with whom we do not agree or, in the worst case, to dehumanize them completely. When we cannot see that the “other” is like us in the sense that he feels pain and joy, suffers and loves, despite his different appearance or his distinct way of life or his beliefs, we can justify harsh policies, a policy of division and even atrocities.
Literary fiction, which tends to focus on the psychology of individuals, offers a window into the inner lives of strangers in other times and places. It is this preoccupation with sensation and thought that makes form a powerful tool for developing empathy. The stories that transport us also transform us, according to the study. Reading literary fiction, although a solitary pursuit, increases social understanding.
When you read a classic like that of Fyodor Dostoyevsky Crime and Punishment, the wealth disparity and the struggle to survive that could lead to crime become real. We feel feverish when the protagonist does it, we feel hopeless with him. Likewise, the reading of George Orwell 1984 does more than explain the political dangers of state propaganda and totalitarianism. It puts us in the mind of a person who lives in such a regime, someone who is trying to love another person when caring about them is against the law. that of Elie Wiesel Night compels the reader to consider whether the persecution and punishment might lead them, too, to wish for the disappearance of their own families for their survival, turning the Holocaust from a mere abstraction – the past – into a personal challenge.
The most recent novels also shed light on the political events that continue to influence world affairs. But unlike non-fiction books or political documents, they allow us to look within. For example, the novel Disoriental by Negar Djavadi, just nominated for the Pen translation price, talks about the Islamic revolution in Iran and the experience of a progressive intellectual family that ultimately fled to Paris. It transports readers while illuminating Persian politics, religion and culture (food, stories, clothing, games and language). It reveals the pain of exile – what it’s like to never come home again, and the toll that weighs on the soul – and is a fascinating exploration of a phenomenon that social scientists have also documented. Displacement, even to a safe nation after an armed conflict in the country, is a stressor that seriously affects the mental health of refugees.
Why do we need to know all this? Because by personalizing the psychology of fictional characters, literary fiction cultivates our ability to relate to people around us and people far away. And the more we can actually see the humanity of others, the more likely it is that we to be human.
A 2006 study in the Personality Research Journal, titled “Bookworms Versus Nerds”, also tested the link between literary fiction and social sense. Prior to the experiment, each participating student took an author recognition test, a common measure of exposure to literature over their lifetime. The researchers found that a high score on this test “consistently predicted” the results of the high empathy test. The best read students were the most empathetic. Thus, it was not enough that the participants simply read a passage, a chapter or a literary book. Those who used to engage in literature on a regular basis were in the best position to build relationships with other people and acknowledge their feelings. Researchers have concluded that there is a definite link between reading literary fiction and a strong theory of mind.
The best technology
Notably, reading fiction creates a simulation in the mind that functions like consciousness itself, according to University of Toronto psychologist Keith Oatley. The mind doesn’t distinguish between story and reality, which is why humans have always told stories and why we can get down to watching a series on Netflix. In a 2016 review on the cognitive effects of fiction in Trends in cognitive science, Oatley explains:
Fiction is the simulation of the self in interaction. People who read it improve their understanding of others. This effect is particularly marked with literary fiction, which also allows people to change themselves. These effects are due in part to the process of engaging in the stories, which includes making inferences and becoming emotionally involved, and in part to the content of the fiction, which includes complex characters and circumstances that we might not come across in. daily life. Fiction can be viewed as a form of awareness of self and others that can be transmitted from author to reader or viewer, and can be internalized to increase everyday cognition.
In other words, literary fiction was the first virtual reality technology. With the written word and a compelling story, humans have long been able to simulate the experience of traveling to other worlds and lives.
Literature remains a formidable tool, even today, because it plunges us directly into the heads of the characters so that we feel with them. And this feeling helps us become better people, more caring, kind and cooperative. Certainly Bill Gates – a tech giant who is clearly empathetic due to his philanthropy – would agree that such a simulation machine is amazing.