Reviews | Does literary fiction teach empathy?


For the editor:

“For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Bit of Chekhov” (front page, October 4), based on research by psychologists Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd, matches my experience of over 45 years of teaching.

I have noticed – and often pointed out to my colleagues – that by far the best predictor of future success in sociology is whether a student reads good literature for pleasure, usually Flaubert, Dickens and of course Jane Austen to begin with .

But then I teach at a former women’s university, and most of our students are women.

Norton, Mass., October 4, 2013

The author is a professor of sociology at Wheaton College.

For the editor:

I once had a student who proudly told me that she never read fiction. I thought, how sad. But if I had known the results of the literary fiction study, I could have given him a scientific rationale for changing his behavior.

Newark, October 4, 2013

The author is a professor at Rutgers College of Nursing.

For the editor:

Long live literary fiction, the subject of your article on its role in enriching social skills. But hopefully the baby won’t be thrown out with the bathwater in the latest educational movement, the embrace of non-fiction.

Common core standards should be inclusive. Depriving students of the opportunity to cry or cheer on a character they can relate to is a great loss, especially when those characters are brought to life by master writers.

Nonfiction won’t open the doors of Ivy League schools any wider if it tries to slip through the portals without inventive, well-written fiction by its side.

Mamaroneck, NY, October 4, 2013

The writer is a former English teacher.

For the editor:

As a high school English teacher and librarian, I found the study linking reading, especially literary fiction, and empathy fascinating if unsurprising. I was appalled, however, by the suggestion that educators should think twice before adopting the Common Core standards, since they recommend a substantial amount of non-fiction.

The implication that non-fiction doesn’t expand the imagination as fully as literary fiction, or allow us to identify with others, couldn’t be further from my classroom experience. In fact, it’s just plain weird.

I don’t know where to start except with a suggested reading list: Primo Levi’s “Survival in Auschwitz”, The Orwell Essays, Helen Keller’s “World I Live In”, “Meatless Days” by Sara Suleri, “Bad Blood” by Lorna Sage and “Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin.

All of these books (and many more like them) encourage us to enter imaginatively into the lives of others.

Los Angeles, October 4, 2013

For the editor:

If such a study were to be carried out with subjects listening to different musical genres, I am sure that it would give corresponding results.

Who could listen to the pathos of a Beethoven symphony, for example, and not feel empathy and compassion? There’s a reason classics are classics, and some works last for centuries while others seem to disappear in a flash.

New York, October 4, 2013


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