One of the first things I do to start a new year is create a new file on my computer to keep notes on my reading. It’s partly due to OCD tendencies and partly due to old grad school habits of keeping notes on everything. (I used to have a color-coding system, but I’ve mellowed out in recent years.)
Anyway, looking back over this year’s list, I can say 2016 was a year of great reading. I enjoyed H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald and Patti Smith’s M Train; Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World by James Boyce; Terry Tempest Williams’ The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks and The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer. The public library was really good to me this year.
According to the list, my 2016 reading was almost entirely nonfiction, except for three novels (one of which I read just to stay in the good graces of my book club friends). I much prefer nonfiction—especially memoir—because I’m nosy. I like to know how other people see the world around and inside them.
And so I was surprised by an article by Susan Pinker about the relationship between reading fiction and empathy, citing research studies from 2006 and 2009 that showed reading fiction predicted higher levels of empathy, and a 2013 study that gives the gold star for promoting empathy to literary fiction.
But here’s the sentence that really got my attention: “In these studies, the reading of nonfiction not only failed to spur empathy but also predicted loneliness and social isolation . . .” Now I’m wondering if my taste in reading is a red flag that there’s something wrong with me. Oh dear.
So here’s an experiment I performed unwittingly before I came across Pinker’s article: I read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1997) and Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2013) by Jeanette Winterson, both knockout books by a masterful writer telling the same coming-of-age story. The main difference is categorical: Oranges is fictionalized and Why Be Happy is a memoir. (There are other differences, such as the stretch of time between the writings—a young, first-time novelist compared to a seasoned, well-regarded writer.) For me, the reading experience was mostly the same: profound empathy for the main character, or for the author’s younger self, whichever the case may be.
Bottom line, I have no plans to read more fiction in 2017. Empathy is a readerly mindset, I believe. And if you seek understanding, you will surely find it.
PS: Right now I’m in the middle of Richard Rohr’s The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation and it’s kind of blowing my mind.