Can Reading Fiction Make You a Better Person?

June 30, 2015

I’m a huge fan of memoirs and tend to gravitate toward works of nonfiction versus literary novels. I’m not quite sure when this shift occurred. At least through high school I reveled in the world of fiction. I greedily devoured the entire Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series and every novel ever written by Barbara Kingsolver.

I loved my reading assignments: Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men, The Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Scarlet Letter (yes, I loved this book and I won’t apologize for it), Jane Eyre, and dozens of others.

For a short while I thought of studying literature in college until I realized that would mean over-analyzing each story until I’d squeezed every last drop of magic and mystery from its pages. Where’s the fun in that? So, I continued reading for the joy of it and majored in Environmental Studies.

I think that’s when the shift began. In both a thirst for knowledge about the world around me and what I felt was an intellectual obligation to learn all I could about climate change and the philosophy of naturalists like Thoreau and Leopold, I stopped reading fiction. Well, not entirely but damn close.

I felt guilty spending valuable time reading about fictional characters and made-up worlds. There’s so much happening right here in reality — how could I justify spending time outside of it?

Using Fiction to Navigate Reality

As it turns out, fiction can enlighten and empower us much like nonfiction can. Its strength rises not from fact and reason but from emotion. Fiction helps us better cope with the unjust, complex world around us and gives our minds respite from the harshness of reality.

It puts our lives in perspective and helps us feel more empathetic towards our neighbor. It gives us the tools to work through grief, tragedy, and pain. It has its own immeasurable value.

Reading fiction isn’t a guilty pastime, it’s a necessary form of processing and escaping from reality. Perhaps you don’t need reminding of this. I did. I needed someone to again give me permission, or even better to assign me, to read fiction — just like my English teachers did in high school.

Photo courtesy of Matt Seppings via flickr.

Photo courtesy of Matt Seppings via flickr.

Bibliotherapy: Therapy in Fiction

Which is why I’m considering bibliotherapy. I recently read a great article in the New Yorker that described the many benefits of hiring your own bibliotherapist. Through several in-person, over the phone, or online sessions, this omniscient guide of literature determines and prescribes books to help you work through your problems, ease your worries, and gently guide you down the path to self-discovery.

This sounds like a wonderful form of therapy to me. I’m not especially scarred or emotionally traumatized but I want someone to help me filter through all the noise.

Wouldn’t it be great to have an ultra-personal librarian to help you find the books that resonate with you, deeply impact you, and make you a better person? We all need to view the world through a different lens in order to put our lives in perspective. Fiction can be that lens.

The question is: How much does a bibliotherapist cost? My educated guess is too much for me to splurge on this first-world luxury just yet. Perhaps I’ll just ask my friends what they're reading — book recommendations, anyone?

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