Every day more than 1.8 million books are sold in the US. Despite all the other easy distractions available to us today, there’s no doubt that many people still love reading. Books can teach us plenty about the world, of course, as well as improving our vocabularies and writing skills. But can fiction also make us better people?
The claims for fiction are great. It’s been credited with everything from an increase in volunteering and charitable giving to the tendency to vote – and even with the gradual decrease in violence over the centuries.
Characters hook us into stories. Aristotle said that when we watch a tragedy two emotions predominate: pity (for the character) and fear (for yourself). Without necessarily even noticing, we imagine what it’s like to be them and compare their reactions to situations with how we responded in the past, or imagine we might in the future. Be an epic reader!
If You Don’t Use it You Lose it
This exercise in perspective-taking is like a training course in understanding others. The Canadian cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley calls fiction “the mind’s flight simulator”. Just as pilots can practice flying without leaving the ground, people who read fiction may improve their social skills each time they open a novel. In his research, he has found that as we begin to identify with the characters, we start to consider their goals and desires instead of our own. When they are in danger, our hearts start to race. We might even gasp. But we read with luxury of knowing that none of this is happening to us. We don’t wet ourselves with terror or jump out of windows to escape.
Having said that, some of the neural mechanisms the brain uses to make sense of narratives in stories do share similarities with those used in real-life situations. Reading the word “kick”, for example, areas of the brain related to physically kicking are activated. If we read that a character pulled a light cord, activity increases in the region of the brain associated with grasping. Even if it’s an eReader versus a paperback book!
If you are enjoying this article, we have more great literary content on The Ritual Blog here.
The Plot Thickens
To follow a plot, we need to know who knows what, how they feel about it and what each character believes others might be thinking. This requires the skill known as “theory of mind”. When people read about a character’s thoughts, areas of the brain associated with theory of mind are activated.
With all this practice in empathizing with other people through reading, you think it would be possible to demonstrate that those who read fiction have better social skills than those who read mostly non-fiction or don’t read at all.
The difficulty with conducting this kind of research is that many of us have a tendency to exaggerate the number of books we’ve read. To get around this, Oatley and colleagues gave students a list of fiction and non-fiction writers and asked them to indicate which writers they had heard of. They warned them that a few fake names had been thrown in to check they weren’t lying. The number of writers people have heard of turns out to be a good proxy for how much they actually read.
We have some fiction horror as well as non-fiction being available as an eBook on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Google Play and Kobo.
The Neuroscience Behind Reading
Next, Oatley’s team gives people the “Mind in the Eyes” test, where you are given a series of photographs of pairs of eyes. From the eyes and surrounding skin alone, your task is to divine which emotion a person is feeling. You are given a short list of options like shy, guilty, daydreaming or worried. The expressions are subtle and at first glance might appear neutral, so it’s harder than it sounds. But those deemed to have read more fiction than non-fiction scored higher on this test – as well as on a scale measuring interpersonal sensitivity.
At the Princeton Social Neuroscience Lab, psychologist Diana Tamir has demonstrated that people who often read fiction have better social cognition. In other words, they’re more skilled at working out what other people are thinking and feeling. Using brain scans, she has found that while reading fiction, there is more activity in parts of the default mode network of the brain that are involved in simulating what other people are thinking.
If you are enjoying this article, we have more great literary content on The Ritual Blog here.
So the research shows that perhaps reading fiction does make people behave better. Certainly some institutions consider the effects of reading to be so significant that they now include modules on literature. At the University of California Irvine, for example, Johanna Shapiro from the Department of Family Medicine firmly believes that reading fiction results in better doctors and has led the establishment of a humanities programme to train medical students.
It sounds as though it’s time to lose the stereotype of the shy bookworm whose nose is always in a book because they find it difficult to deal with real people. In fact, these bookworms might be better than everyone else at understanding human beings.
Happy Birthday to me and my shared famous birthdays with Robert Penn Warren and Anthony Trollop – Two Monster writers!. I first read Robert Penn Warren in a community college class and fell in love with his drama, charm, and lively Southern characters. Anthony Trollop is simply a wordsmith. He used to wake up and write for two hours each morning before working at the post office. Maybe that’s the ritual that I need to develop to be able to punch out more dark fiction. He’s not for everyone (me included) but we share a birthday so he’s cool with me 🙌.
Happy Birthday to all you lovely Taurus people born on this day!
Celebrate National Bookmobile Day! Every day, bookmobiles help transform the communities they serve, providing everything from access to books, magazines and videos to job search assistance and much more.
For book lovers, bookmobiles are oddly romantic. They seem like dream-machines, very real automobiles rolling through our lives in an almost impossible fashion.
A Brief History of the Bookmobile
The bookmobile or mobile library is a vehicle designed for use as a library. They have been known by many names throughout history including traveling library, library wagon, book wagon, book truck, library-on-wheels, and book
auto service. Bookmobiles expand the reach of traditional libraries by transporting books to potential readers, providing library services to people in otherwise-underserved locations (such as remote areas) and/or circumstances (such as residents of retirement homes). Bookmobile services and materials (such as Internet access, large print books, and audiobooks), may be customized for the locations and populations served. Bookmobiles have been based on various means of conveyance, including bicycles, carts, motor vehicles, trains, watercraft, and wagons, as well as camels, donkeys, elephants, horses, and mules.
(If you are enjoying this article, perhaps you would like “How Reading Makes us Better People”)
The first American bookmobile was actually a wagon. Mary Titcomb, a Maryland librarian, recognized that having books was only one part of the library’s job: the other part was making the books accessible. The Washington County Library Wagon took books around the county, making scheduled stops in addition to impromptu dispersals.
The idea of bringing books to patrons caught on in the U.S., spurred by a widely distributed population and the desire for civic improvement. The Everett County Public Library has what is believed to be the oldest operating bookmobile, manufactured in 1924, and since fully restored.
As libraries have become the community’s digital gathering place, bookmobiles have also been transformed into movable internet hubs. El Paso County’s bookmobile was one of the early examples of this shift, with onboard workstations and satellite internet service.
Today our nation celebrates National Bookmobile Day. For more than 100 years, bookmobiles have delivered information, technology and resources for life-long learning to Americans of all walks of life. Each year, it is celebrated on the Wednesday of National Library Week. Which is your favorite?
Sweden and its Nordic neighbors have some of the highest literacy rates in the world. The Swedes view equal access to education and knowledge as a critical component to an individual’s future success. This is true regardless of economic background and, apparently, geographic location.
Sweden has a floating library — the bokbåten — that brings thousands of books to people on dozens of remote islands in the Stockholm archipelago twice a year. Every spring and fall since 1953, the Stockholm Library Service rents a boat for a week, loads it full of books, and charts a course for about 23 inhabited islands. (Norway has one, too, called the Epos.)
When the boat docks, residents climb aboard to return books they borrowed during the last visit and check out the library’s newest offerings. The boat carries about 3,000 books, and residents can put in requests ahead of time. The three or four volunteer librarians who take turns working on the ship say that, as you might expect, the latest best-sellers are in high demand.
In 2018, a woman named Maria Anderhagen took over managing the bokbaten — in part because she had the largest basement in town and could store all the books in between voyages.
Here’s what the inside of the boat looks like, courtesy of Literary Hub, which got a tour:
There are tall wooden shelves, large tables displaying sturdy hardcovers, book carts on wheels, a long checkout table, even event notices taped against the wall. There are picture books for children, popular thrillers, large-print books, texts about history and science and knitting, cookbooks, and audiobooks. Since island residents can order copies in advance, boxes of books are stacked around the boat waiting to be delivered.
Culture of learning with an uncertain future
In addition to a library boat, Sweden also has library buses that bring books to people in rural communities. They also develop impromptu libraries in places such as stores and social gathering spots. The boat started as a service for fisherman and island workers but expanded to serve residents who prefer to read hard copies of books over e-books or audio books.
According to this 2010 study published in the Journal Resource Sharing & Information Networks:
The book boat is of great positive value for children and adults because they can in this way take part in the modern public library. The book boat has an important function as extraordinarily good public relations for the library’s services and has the effect of promoting reading not only in the archipelago but elsewhere.
Even in a nation of book lovers, the future of the floating library remains uncertain. Anderhagen told Literary Hub that if the Regional Library cuts funding for the boat, the bokbaten will be no more. Such was the case recently in Finland. To mark its centennial, the nation gave itself a brand new library with a price tag of about $11 million. However, in the process, it cut funding for a library boat that had been in service for 30 years.
Hopefully, Sweden’s bokbaten will continue to operate as a wonderful nod to past traditions while educating people for the future.
Originally published at: https://www.mnn.com/lifestyle/arts-culture/stories/swedens-bokbaten-floating-library
Written by Angela Nelson: https://www.mnn.com/users/anelson
Acrophobia: an extreme or irrational fear of heights.
“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” – Dr. Seus