“The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries“
Why is it that stories imbue so much meaning to your life? What are some of the scenarios that you’ve lived vicariously through literature that have had an outsized impact on you? How does your ability to inhabit the mind of a storyteller affect your emotional intelligence?
With the arrival of the wet winter weather, (at least here in California), comes the urge to curl up on a cozy couch and watch the weather with the warm comfort of a good book, (and a trusty hound). Letting your mind drift along the stream of consciousness provided by a favorite author is one of the simple pleasures of life.
More than just a simple pleasure, did you know that scientists have actually correlated healthier levels of emotional intelligence with the habit of reading good quality narrative fiction? Surprising as it may seem, the rather ordinary act of getting lost in the pages of a gripping novel actually strengthens the emotional muscles of empathy, understanding, and kind communication.
The capacity to invent, share, and remember stories is one of the key things that separates we humans from other members of the animal kingdom. The methods have evolved throughout history as technology has advanced, but the basic instinct for transmitting a good tale remains as strong as ever.
Starting with the oral tradition of tribal elders on to the ancient bards and poets who sang of the past to point to the future, stories are a living link in our lives. Once the written word came into being a story could outlive its originator and come to life in the mind of the person who could translate the symbols later on. Everything changed once words became physical artifacts capable of transcending the temporal nature of time.
From stone tablets to Gutenberg’s printing press on to the modern Kindle and beyond, the written word is a carrier wave of the human experience that functions like a glue for our culture. The advent of filmmaking changed the game once again, but there’s a fundamental difference between movies and books that is important to understand.
Film is literal while text is interpretive. A talented filmmaker does all the heavy lifting for our imagination, leaving no doubt in our minds about visual details or auditory ambiance. Watching a film is a concrete experience because not only the story, but the images and the sounds, are provided for you.
Once you see Stranger than Fiction , the character of Harold Crick will always appear in your mind’s eye in the body of Will Farrell. A book, however, is intensely personal. Millions of people may read The Bonfire of the Vanities, yet no two will imagine the palatial apartments or gritty street scenes quite the same way. It’s within this activation of the imagination that the true benefits of reading are revealed.
It’s interesting to note that the study mentioned above differentiates between generic genre fiction and quality narrative literature. I’ve noticed a distinct difference in both adult and youth reading material. Some books are dense and nourishing, inviting pause for processing along the way. Others are like a bag of chips, you just keep turning the pages but you never really feel quite full.
The psychologist David Comer Kidd of the New School for Social Research explains: “Some writing is what you call ‘writerly’, you fill in the gaps and participate, and some is ‘readerly’, and you’re entertained. We tend to see ‘readerly’ more in genre fiction like adventure, romance and thrillers, where the author dictates your experience as a reader. Literary [writerly] fiction lets you go into a new environment and you have to find your own way.”
For me, one of the marks of a worthwhile read is the ability the story has to stay up to date in my mind during the day. I do most, if not all, of my fiction reading at night before sleeping, and a good book has me referencing my exact place in the story anytime I happen to think about it. Authors like Tom Wolfe , T.C. Boyle or Robertson Davies all have the talent to keep one part of my brain on point with the story whenever it crosses my mind.
Occasionally I’ll find myself wading through something less engaging, and when I pick it up to read again I’ll have to scan back over the previous chapter to remember what was going on. Once in a while, I’ll abandon a book some number of pages in when I realize that the tradeoff for my time just isn’t going to be worth it. Time and place matters as well. For me, non-fiction, motivational, or educational reading is by day, I save my narrative fiction for evenings.
For my Mom it was soap operas. She read “bag-of-chips” style paperbacks as well, but her daily ritual back in the 70s was to spend the middle of each day in the company of what she called “my stories” on daytime TV. Days of Our Lives, All My Children, and her big favorite As The World Turns were constant companions and if she happened to miss a day she would call a friend on the phone to catch up. For her, I think it was a welcome distraction as well as a thread of continuity that she valued.
Another hidden power of narrative fiction is its capacity for inviting us to inhabit unfamiliar levels of consciousness. Empathy and understanding are built by ‘walking a mile’ in someone else’s shoes and a good book lets you try on an entirely different life on for size. You may never see the inside of a jail cell or struggle to compose a symphony, but the talented author who takes you there is expanding your metaphysical horizons. Sometimes to warn you and help you steer clear, and sometimes to light the fire of ambition and inspiration in your heart.
Last but not least in my musing about the secret sauce of stories is the power of your own voice. Reading aloud isn’t just for parents with young kids! Try inviting a partner or loved one into one of your narrative worlds by letting them listen as you share a chapter or two with them. To be on the receiving end of your soothing words and voice is an experience they are sure to treasure, even if they don’t know the whole story. And you’ll connect with the characters more deeply by giving them your voice.
If you haven’t found yourself lost in a good book lately, and don’t know where to turn, fear not. Small independent bookstores are thriving, your local library is well stocked, and the folks behind the counters at those places are more than happy to help. You can also post IIL-WEWIL (If I Like ___, What Else Will I Like?) queries in online forums or let the recommendation algorithms of online booksellers give you tips.
Stories are part and parcel to our shared dance of life, so staying nimble with your narratives is a part of your birthright worth celebrating. Pay attention to the texture of your thoughts and feelings when you spend part of your time away from the screens and scramble of daily life and let a well-loved author in to light up your heart!
Much love and pleasant reading until next week!