Is reading fiction good for you?



Reading fiction can shape our personalities (Image: Gavin Rodgers/Rex Features)

IF YOU’VE ever been in a book club or enjoy discussing books with friends, you will know that people often interpret stories in different ways, reflecting their own experiences, inclinations and views of the world. Take Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. While some readers may have little trouble forgiving Mr Darcy‘s conceit once he starts to show affection for Elizabeth, others might question whether he is really capable of change.

This is one of the ways fiction seduces us: no matter how tight the narrative structure, or how well-defined the characters, we can always follow our own imaginings. In the technological era, this idea is evident in the nonlinear plot sequences of video games that let players decide for themselves how a storyline progresses. A similar device was used in the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books, hugely popular with adolescents in the 1980s and 1990s.

The idea that fiction is not just the writer’s creation, but a co-conspiracy between writer and reader, is a central theme in Such Stuff As Dreams. Written by novelist and cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley, the book covers a lot of ground, from the evolution of language and the origins of creativity to the mechanics of empathy and theory of mind. Oatley goes to great lengths to build a psychological theory of fiction – delving into the effects of fiction on the minds of readers and authors, how we identify with characters, the way that stories move us, how they can change the way we see ourselves and how they might even improve our social skills


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