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Does Reading Popular Fiction Make You a Dunce?

October 5, 2013
Are Literary Bookworms Better People
Src: Flickr/Bookworm by Nathan O'Nions

I’ve had a love affair with books ever since that day more than 30 years ago when I first learned to read. Some of my most cherished early childhood memories are when my mother and I read some favorite book series together at bedtime—the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary, Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Dorrie The Little Witch series by Patricia Coombs. Two were made into a movie or television show well after the books were published—2010’s Ramona and Beezus, with actress and singer Selena Gomez co-starring, surprisingly winning my seal of approval.

Lost in My Literary Wonderland

Once I was in possession of my own library card, there was no stopping me from getting my hands on every book that piqued my curiosity, from mentally immersing myself into the lives and adventures of fictional heroes and heroines from Little Women to the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, from The Illustrated Man to Anna Karenina. I even read the World Book Encyclopedia for fun.

Not only did I develop a beautiful and complex imagination, soaking up the lives of and identifying with characters of different genders, nationalities, time periods and even dimensions fostered great empathy for others. It expanded my vocabulary, making the dictionary one of my best friends—and also sparking a love for crossword puzzles. Reading so copiously from such an early age also engendered a love for exploring my own creative avenues and thinking outside the box.

The Battle Between Literary and Popular Fiction

On Friday, a theory introduced by study by New York's New School for Social Research was discussed in Atlantic Wire, phrased thusly: “reading literary fiction makes you a better person.” The study specifically aimed to assess one’s ability to understand others’ emotions, a crucial skill enabling complex relationships that characterize human society—what is known as Theory of Mind (ToM). According to this study’s results, those who read literary fiction (think Dostoyevsky, James Joyce, or Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby) even for a few moments had better ToM results after taking empathy tests, compared to those who read popular fiction (say John Grisham or Gillian Flynn), reading non-fiction or not reading at all.

“Readers of literary fiction must draw on more flexible interpretive resources to infer the feelings and thoughts of characters. That is, they must engage ToM processes,” the researchers said, according to Atlantic Weekly. “Contrary to literary fiction, popular fiction, which is more readerly, tends to portray the world and characters as internally consistent and predictable.”

Does Reading Popular Fiction Make You a Dunce?

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t predict the plot twists that played out in Gillian Flynn’s dark thriller Gone Girl, nor did I fail to get immersed in the psychological dissection of a marriage and its individual parties. The fact that the novel is a bestseller does not make it any less challenging a read, at least emotionally. People identified with parts of the book so well that it is being adapted to film.

Src: 2013 © Trailer for "A Time to Kill" via

Likewise popular legal thriller author John Grisham has seen 10 of his books translated to film, including the emotionally-gripping, award-winning A Time to Kill with an all-star cast of Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey, Kiefer Sutherland, Sandra Bullock, Donald Sutherland, Matthew McConaughey and Ashley Judd. An adaptation of A Time to Kill hit Broadway this month. Exploring racism in the South and civil rights, it tackles a number of complex issues that forces the audience to reflect over and question for themselves.

Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations did not disappoint in immersing me completely mentally and emotionally. Reading about the March family’s trials and tribulations made me sob gut-wrenching tears every single time I read Little Women. Yet I also identified with Ramona Quimby so well that I sometimes mix up my own childhood memories with her fictional, unintentionally mischievous predicaments. I rejoiced when Elizabeth Bennett finally unites with Mr Darcy after wrestling with issues of class, morality and pride in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, but the emotional reward was admittedly not as intense as when sisters Rose and Maggie Feller finally reunite and reconcile in Jennifer Weiner’s bestseller In Her Shoes.

Does this make me a dunce? Emotionally stunted? I’d rather believe that emotional intelligence and empathy comes with more than 500 pages of dense and imagery-bloated storylines, abstruse plots and arcane vocabulary. I’d like to think that just because a book was very deliciously readable and sucked you right in doesn’t make you a less compassionate or less savvy to the contradictions and complications inherent of human interaction. What do you think?

Meanwhile, I have The Great Gatsby coming up next in my Netflix Queue. I’d love to see what researchers have to say when people prefer the movie to the novel—so exceptionally rare in my case, but it does sometimes happen. I’ll give you my verdict afterward.

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