Be stronger. More empathic. More Altruistic.
I got hooked on biographies in 4th grade.
Remember those? Cute, compact little books, all exactly the same size lined up on the shelf. Dozens of stories begging to be told. Each book cradling the life of an amazing person between its colorful covers.
I knew nothing about writing and publishing at the age of ten, but I did feel the pull of a good story. And those biographies lured me in with brilliant headlines and seductive subtitles that must have gone something like this:
Fearless Amelia Earhart and Her Amazing Flying Machine.
How One Smart Girl Saved the World: The Story of Marie Curie
France’s Savior: Joan of Arc and Her Fight For God
Brave Harriet Tubman and Her Battle Against Slavery
I was in awe of each biography book, gingerly touching each cover, almost believing that the person inside would whisper her story to me in a voice magically whooshing from the pages.
The magic voice of Harriet Tubman spoke to me fifty years ago when I read that simple kid’s biography. I felt her struggle. I was with her in the woods as she ran toward freedom. I perceived her emotions, and they lingered with me all these decades.
My childhood reading created a knowledge base and an interest that compelled me to go see the movie, Harriet, just released by Focus. Historically accurate, the movie reminded me of the story that I had learned long ago.
I remembered that Harriet Tubman had visions. That her numerous treks through the woods and waterways were dangerous. And that she valued freedom more than she valued her life. I was impressed and began to understand the meaning of the word “heroine.”
But it wasn’t just reading about Harriet. My emotional connections spanned the centuries as I connected with the lives of other women. I read books about Florence Nightingale, Helen Keller, Ann Frank, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Clara Barton.
Strong women who had brains and determination. Women who DID something with their lives. Women who weren’t wimpy and weak and subservient.
Did my childhood reading affect my personality?
Is it because that I read books about strong women as a kid that I developed a feminist, “I-Will-Survive,” “I-Am-Woman-Hear-Me-Roar” mentality as an adult?
I can’t prove it.
But I believe that what I’ve read over the years — at any age — has filtered into my very being and blood. That ideas imbibed through books have affected my behavior, my mind, my heart.
Warfare. Prejudice. Inequality. Survival. Intellect. Betrayal. Suspicion. Mortality. Danger. Bliss. Adventure.
Those true stories of real women I started reading as a child enriched my psyche and made me the strong woman I am.
From historical fiction to romance to chick-lit to mainstream, reading fiction makes us more empathic.
If you’re a reader, you’re probably not surprised.
Because books put us in other people’s shoes. By walking a mile with them, we see their perspectives. We understand their behaviors. We perceive what they feel.
Reading enhances self-awareness and builds relationship skills.
Yes, reading makes us aware of other people’s feelings. It also helps us understand our own. A great narrative story also makes us more open to our own experiences and memories, increasing our understanding of self.
But turning pages in your favorite book does more than just improving your people skills.
Reading fiction also improves our relationship skills. In drawing inferences about characters based on their conversations, behaviors, and histories, we refine what we do in our real-life relationships. We get ideas on how to deal with those we love.
And here’s something you may not have heard. A wonderful, exciting fact.
Readers of fiction become more empathic in interpreting other people’s emotions, but they also act in more altruistic ways.
Selfless concern for others? Wow. What an awesome finding.
Reading fiction is not only good for us. It’s good for the world.
Let’s celebrate by starting another book.
Melissa Gouty is a freelance writer and life-long reader who loves the idea of making the world a better place with books. Join me at LiteratureLust.com.