Get Lost - In A Book

Jackie Gingrich Cushman
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Posted: Jul 27, 2008 12:01 AM
Get Lost - In A Book

“She’s lost in a book, just like her mother,” noted my mother.  She was referring to my daughter and to me.  Growing up, I spent hours curled up with books.  Reading provided me with escape, and the ability to travel to different worlds without leaving my home in rural Georgia.  Little did I know that, in addition to entertaining me, reading fiction sharpened my social skills without even requiring that I be social by placing me in simulated social situations

In “Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds,” (Raymond Mar et al, University of Toronto, Journal of Research in Personality, Volume 40, Issue 5, October 2006), the researchers tested and compared the social skills of fiction and non-fiction readers. 

The study included 94 participants who were separated into fiction and non-fiction readers based on their recognition of authors’ names and what they told the investigators about their reading preferences.  The participants were then tested to determine their interpersonal skills.  Three tests were used: Interpersonal Reactivity Index (measuring empathy), the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test (determing a person’s mental states based on his or her eyes), and the Interpersonal Perception Task-15 (in which videos are shown, questions are asked and interpersonal sensitivity and social skills are determined).  Finally, the interpersonal skills of fiction and non-fiction readers were compared.

The major finding of the study was “...a positive association between exposure to narrative fiction and social abilities, and the opposite pattern for expository non-fiction.”  The conclusion was that fiction readers tend to have greater social skills than do non-fiction readers and mentioned “the possibility that social skills may be improved as a result of exposure to social narratives (i.e. reading stories).”

During junior high and high school, I often sat at the back of the class and propped a novel inside my textbook.  Possibly my reading was a sign of my impatience.   Good stories move faster than real life.

In Robert McKee’s book “Story,” ( Reganbooks, New York, 1997), he notes, “In story, we concentrate on that moment, and only that moment, in which a character takes an action expecting a useful reaction from his world, but instead the effect of his action is to provoke forces of antagonism.  The world of character reacts differently than expected, more powerfully than expected, or both.”   

Stories allow us to experience emotions based on the expectations and outcomes of the characters, at a more rapid pace than occurs in real life, without putting ourselves at risk.  Stories also provide us with a different perspective than normal and allow us to see inside worlds that we might otherwise never view.  “Engagement with fictional narratives can result in changes of belief and attitude, much like those produced by unmediated experiences in the real-world,” according to Mar.  It can provide readers who can identify with characters in stories with greater empathy and understanding for people in the real world who are different from them. 

According to McKee, we “create stories as metaphors for meaningful life - and to live meaningfully is to be at perpetual risk.”  Possibly the purpose of reading a good story is to determine how best to turn the risk in our lives into a meaningful life.  Stories allow us to confront risk in a safe manner, providing our minds with the ability to think through several scenarios before reaching a potential action/reaction.

“Bookworms, by reading a great deal of narrative fiction, may buffer themselves from the effects of reduced direct interpersonal contact by simulating the social experiences depicted in stories,” according to Mar. “Nerds, in contrast, by consuming predominantly non-narrative non-fiction, fail to simulate such experiences and may accrue a deficit in social skills as a result of removing themselves from the actual social world.”  So the fact that I have been reading research reports more often recently than stories just put me in the nerd category.

Based on these facts I am putting down the research reports, picking up a story book, and getting lost – in a book.