In school, the many benefits of reading were often preached, and the one that always stuck out to me the most was the argument that reading fiction increases empathy. It makes complete sense: reading fiction exposes you to the narrative, thoughts, feelings and experiences of someone else, real or not.
One story puts you in a battlefield, another puts you in the royal family, another puts you in a dystopian reality, or the Victorian slums, or in a hospital with five days to live, and so on. Reading lets you learn from the experiences of being a different gender, race, sexuality, age, nationality, class, everything. You explore the never-ending ways in which humans are capable of thinking and navigating the world, and fundamentally, you learn that your beliefs and feelings are not the only existing ones within it.
To step outside of your reality and into another’s through fiction deepens a tendency that can be used in real life. The tendency to see that your viewpoint is not the truth, but one of many individual truths, is the basis of empathy and the result of practices like reading fiction. There have been many studies throughout the years exploring the relationship between reading fiction and having a greater capacity for empathy, and generally there seems to be agreement over an association between the two.
I find it especially interesting when literature makes you empathise with controversial personalities. When reading Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, for example, I couldn’t help but begin to understand and empathise with Alex, the incredibly disturbed protagonist. I think this was partly intentional from Burgess, but is nonetheless interesting. It’s expected that you’ll feel for literary characters who are ill, or lonely, or grieving – the good people’ going through something they don’t deserve. But for a writer to create a narrative that evokes empathy for their depraved characters is fascinating, and in my opinion, much more powerful.
Ultimately, literature and empathy are linked insofar as fiction expands your mind, your world, your understanding of other people in the world, and the ways in which you might then relate to them. Literature exposes the incredible differences between us, making it all the more beautiful when in spite of that we can still relate to and empathise with certain thoughts and feelings. Perhaps we are more connected as humans than we think.