London - You may be struggling to get past the first couple of chapters of James Joyce’s notoriously difficult book Ulysses.
Plough on, however, because tackling high-brow novels makes it easier for us to relate to other people.
Scientists say we develop better empathy after reading a work of literary fiction.
The complicated characters, plots and writing style of demanding novels challenges the mind in a way that popular “chick-lit’ romances and crime mysteries cannot. Learning how to get under the skin of characters who act in unexpected ways makes us ‘better functioning people”, they claim.
Psychologists from the New School for Social Research in New York asked volunteers to describe the emotions being expressed in an actor’s eyes after reading passages taken from books classed as literary fiction, popular fiction and factual.
Literary works included The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2011, The Round House by Louise Erdrich, which took the National Book Award for fiction in the US last year, and a short story called A Chameleon by the Russian writer Anton Chekhov.
Popular fiction included books by Danielle Steel, Rosamunde Pilcher and Gillian Flynn, who wrote the bestselling thriller Gone Girl.
Popular and non-fiction texts were found to do little or nothing to improve the ability to correctly judge the actor’s mood.
However, the literary texts all produced more positive results, despite vast differences in their content and subject matter.
Writing in the journal Science, the researchers said: “Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely discerned but warrant explanation.
“Popular fiction, which is more reader-friendly, tends to portray the world and characters as internally consistent and predictable.”
However, lovers of literature needn’t be too smug. The study also found popular fiction to be a more enjoyable read. - Daily Mail