Based in Kansas City, Missouri, Grace Addict is a blog by Ryan J. Pelton. His writings explore the reality that life is "all grace."

Reading Fiction Creates Empathy... and My Three Book Reading System

A friend said before she chooses a doctor she asks one question:

Do you read fiction?

The litmus test for choosing a professional in the specialized industry of medicine is what kind of books they read? Interesting. Why?

Think about it. My friend cares about a surgeon knowing how to fix a gall bladder, hernia, or whatever the needs are. But she’s going deeper with the question about literature.

The question about books is a question about empathy. Doctors who only read science journals, magazines about the latest technology, and how to run a medical practice might be imbalanced.

She doesn’t want a surgeon that only sees the world in science and scalpels. She wants her doctor to see a human with a soul on the table.

The question about our reading habits is a question of whether we can empathize with other humans.

You think my friend is crazy? Well, her theory, is backed up by science.

In a study done by Scientific America with people who read fiction regularly proves to create empathy. Children who start reading literary works can get in the heads of the characters and experience the ups, downs, joys, and pain of the world. They are learning empathy through reading.

Good books always get after the emotions. Why do we spend time with a book for weeks if it doesn’t do something in our hearts and souls?

We know the stories aren’t real. But we know the human condition. We know our condition. Deep in our bones we want things to be right with us and our world. Fiction can take us to unexpected places.

If my doctor didn’t read fiction growing up and does not today… sorry, you aren’t getting my business. I want a competent doctor, but I also want an empathetic one.

I find people who love to debate theology and “be right” read little fiction. They spend their time watching, listening to, and reading people who argue about stuff- politics, religion, and whatever the hot topic of the day. Not always the case, but I think science, and personal experience teases this truth out.

The world is small when fiction is not part of your reading diet.

Okay, let me end with some practical reading advice. We can’t live on fiction alone, but we need a healthy dose in our reading diet. Here’s what I do:

Weekly (Read Three Books of Your Choice)

I read three books at a time. One work of fiction, one related to my work, and one for the soul and/or curiosity.

What this does is keep me balanced in my reading habits. One work of fiction keeps me tracking on the empathy road. One book keeps me sharp and up to date on the work I’m called to.

The third book can be a book to stretch me. Like mass incarceration in the black community. Not a black man, but an important subject today. It may be a biography on a person I’m intrigued by. Or, a book that teaches me a new skill like productivity, web design, or gardening. A book to grow in my relationship to God and others, you get the point.

My system is my system. But maybe, just maybe, keeping a balanced diet of reading which includes fiction may create more empathy in your life.

Give it a try. The science proves it.

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