When I was a child, I remember hearing my mother tell someone about a recent tragedy. A woman's pet dog had accidentally killed her baby. The city took the dog and put it down. The woman had protested, "I can have another baby, but I can't replace my dog." My mother was horrified. But I didn't get it. Dogs were cool. It was sad that the baby died, but I didn't see the reason for the poor woman to lose both things that she cared so much about. I'd had both a pet dog and a little brother/sister, so I had some experience in this matter, and my opinion was based solidly on personal experience. It was cruel to kill the poor dog over a mistake.
It wasn't for a few years that I was able to look back on that and realize I'd been wrong. Baby doesn't equal Dog. Baby equals a great deal more than Dog. Dog that (accidentally) kills a human once is dangerous. And later, it wasn't until I had a child of my own that I was able to fully recoil from my initial reaction.
Patton Oswalt recently wrote a (long but) fascinating post, in part about the folly of believing too much in our own personal experiences. [EDIT: warning, Oswalt's post has some strong language] It seems to make so much sense! I mean--we lived something first hand, we know what we're talking about. But of course, logically, we can't possibly experience everything. Every experience is subjective. Trusting too much in our own experience alone can lead to huge errors.
This is an essential benefit of Story. Film, theater, conversation, books--there are many ways we get stories, and stories about experiences different from our own. Through stories, our understanding is greatly broadened. We live hundreds of lives instead of just one.
When I was young, I also remember hearing about the tragedy of a woman who was pregnant losing her baby. I didn't get that tragedy either. I mean, she hadn't even met the baby when he died, so she couldn't really be too upset, right? But I listened to the stories, I understood (on faith really) that it was indeed a serious tragedy. Even though I couldn't understand this completely on a visceral level until my first pregnancy, I still had some knowledge based not on experience but story.
Of all the ways we get stories, none is more profound than reading. No other medium immerses us so completely. When engaged in deep reading, studies show that our brain reacts the same way we would if we were actually living through it. There are many studies about how reading literature affects us. One of the most important benefits of deep reading is in developing empathy.
Sympathy - feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune. Sympathy is unable to fully comprehend what others experience. It can try to be sincere, though it often misses the mark. No matter how hard it tries, it's superficial.
Empathy - the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. There is a unity in empathy, an equality, a genuineness. The only way empathy can accomplish this is through shared experience.
Studies (as well as personal experience!) have shown that the ability to empathise with others is an essential ingredient in forming genuine relationships, and healthy, genuine relationships are the basis of lifelong happiness. We cannot live through everything, we cannot experience everything. But we can live our lives, listen to others, and read. Reading literature, reading deeply, fills in the gaps of personal experience. Reading makes us better, kinder, smarter, happier people. We knew it all along, didn't we? It's always nice when science confirms our personal experiences.
[note: we'll begin the Squeetus Summer Book Club reading of The Goose Girl weekdays in July. The Goose Girl is currently under $5 wherever ebooks are sold.]