Novels influence the thinking of ordinary people more than thousands of pages of thoughtful disquisitions, basically because ordinary people don’t usually read thoughtful disquisitions .
And when it comes to broadening our empathic horizons and accentuating our tolerance for others, especially those of us who know each other first-hand, novels allow us to do magic: get inside their heads, find out how they are, think and feel and, for Hence, to warn that they are not as different from us as we had believed .
Empathy in the history of literature
The crucial moment in which reading began to generate a greater degree of empathy in ordinary people, to the point that we could say that the world began to be saved thanks to literature, took place at the end of the 18th century. It was the moment in which the novel became a mass entertainment .
At the end of the 18th century there was a heyday of humanism that coincided with the heyday of the epistolary novel, a genre in which the story unfolds through a character’s own words. Far from the distancing of the omniscient narrator .
The generalization of the reading also expanded empathy towards situations or people that at first seemed excluded from general compassion. For example, abolitionist sentiment in the United States coincided with the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe . And child abuse in orphanages began to be fought right after the publication of novels such as Oliver Twist (1838) and The Legend of Nicholas Nickleby (1839), both by Charles Dickens. As the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker explains in Los Angeles that we carry :
When we know how another person thinks, we observe the world from that person’s vantage point. We not only catch sights and sounds that we could not experience directly, but we enter that alien mind and temporarily share their attitudes and reactions. (…) It is easy to suppose that the habit of reading the words of other people can habituate us to enter their mind, with all its pleasures and afflictions. Stepping into the perspective of someone turning black in a pillory, desperately pushing aside burning logs, or writhing under two hundred lashes could make the person ponder whether anyone should ever suffer such cruelties.
Psychologists Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley are clear that reading enhances empathy and humanitarian progress, as they extensively explain in their study published in the Journal of Research in Personality .
Research on the psychological impact of literature suggests that when we read stories in which the characters are well developed, we actually slip into those characters. By assuming these other personalities, we learn what it is like to be someone other than ourselves, improving our own social skills .
Another study showed that high school students became less racist after reading about Harry Potter’s efforts to defeat the "dark side" with his prejudices against those who lack the wizarding ancestry of both parents.
So reading is just a hobby, yes (especially if we read certain books), but it can also be much more. It can even make us better people .