How reading literature boosts empathy and emotional intelligence

Would you believe that reading can actually make you better at perceiving the emotional states of those around you? A study out of the New School for Social Research in New York City last year supports this notion, but interestingly, it’s not just reading any old thing that brings about these results. Specifically, those who read “literary fiction” versus popular fiction or serious nonfiction scored much better on tests designed to measure their ability to pick up on subtle emotional cues.

What do you get from Huck Finn that you just don’t get from Harry Potter? The two researchers who conducted the study believe that the nature of literary fiction causes the reader to have to draw conclusions and make connections that aren’t obvious. There are more things left unsaid. Simply put, literary fiction makes you work — sometimes a lot. While that undoubtedly slows down your reading (no speed reading of the classics as if they were beach books), it’s also building your ability to empathize with those around you. What better argument for diving into the great literary classics of our time?

As Mississippians (note: this originally was published in the Mississippi Business Journal), we’re lucky to call many authors of those great classics our own. So if you’re looking for a reason to read or reread literary giants from the Magnolia State like William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Tennessee Williams, Barry Hannah, or Larry Brown (just to name a few of my favorites), now’s the time.

Faulkner, in particular, makes you work hard for it, but the insights he provides into the human condition make every instance of furrowed brow worth it. I’m sure many of us have read As I Lay Dying and struggled through The Sound and the Fury, both exceptional. (My favorite remains Absalom, Absalom!, though.) By reading and rereading his work, we’re expanding our capacity for empathizing with our fellow man, a thought I think would delight Faulkner.

After all, in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he said:

“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

(Originally published here:

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