“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” (Dr. Seuss)
While much of the country suffered through the bitterest winter ever, we in the Seattle area watched wide-eyed, sympathetic, and thankful for our own temperate winter. By our household’s unscientific analysis—the frequency of having to thaw the water in the birdbath or replace frozen hummingbird water—it was a mild winter, indeed.
But early February brought us both humility and snow—lots of snow. More snow than most of us have ever seen in these parts. For an area as hilly as this, even an inch or two of snow can wreak havoc. And when it’s 18-24 inches, with brief thaws that then refreeze to create sheer ice slides, all but the most essential services come to a standstill. Kids have missed a week or more of school. To compound the problem, the fact that snow is such a rarity means we have limited snow removal equipment and it concentrates on the main roads and arterials, leaving the side streets and remoter areas to fend for themselves.
Stories of kindness abound in these conditions. Neighbor helping neighbor . . . strangers offering assistance . . . shelters for people and their pets . . . sharing, caring, and patience—lots of patience. It’s a gift to be reminded that we’re here for one another and that when there’s a need, most of us respond without asking who did you vote for or what side are you on?
Another gift of this weather-enforced house arrest has been extended time to read, reminding me that I really don’t need two feet of snow to grant me permission to spend a whole afternoon reading. Reading is part of my job as a writer, plus, it’s the reward I’ve earned for decades of high-intensity work.
And if I require any additional approval to spend hours with my nose buried in a book (I don’t), I need only look at some recent research showing the benefits of reading—one of them being increased empathy and kindness.
A meta-analysis, led by University of Rochester psychologist David Dodell-Feder, PhD, looked at 14 previous studies on the effect of reading fiction on a person’s empathy. It concluded that there is a “small, statistically significant improvement in social-cognitive performance” among those who read fiction, compared to people who read mainly non-fiction or who don’t read at all.
Reporting on the study in Psychology Today, Dr. Art Markman, of the University of Texas, concurs that the benefits of reading include “being able to experience things within a work of fiction that you might not have a chance to experience in real life. In addition, by showing you the world through the eyes of other people, literature can give you a window into others’ thoughts or feelings.”
Further, he contends that people who read a lot of fiction are likely over time to develop habits of empathy and consideration. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it’s encouraging to see it validated.
Are there books that you knew when you read them had somehow changed your life and taught you to view the world through new eyes? I think of Charlotte’s Web, Black Beauty, The Velveteen Rabbit, Jane Eyre, Les Misérables, Crime and Punishment, Cancer Ward, The Age of Innocence . . . and countless others. They’re all books that prompted me to ask—numerous times—how would I feel in this character’s position, how would I act, what would I say? And when I reread them, I ask the same questions, often with different answers.
Other recent studies have demonstrated the value of parents reading aloud to children—even beyond the age when the children can read themselves.
When parents read aloud to their child every day:
- The child hears a broader variety of words and expands his or her vocabulary, thus enabling them to understand more when they start school.
- The child’s brain grows—literally—it expands and more neurons connect.
- The child is more likely to become a lifelong reader—one of the keys to eventual success.
- It increases the child’s ability to pay attention and concentrate—skills that will help them throughout life. It even improves behavior and reduces aggressive tendencies.
- It creates a physical and emotional bond between parent and child.
- It increases the child’s capacity for empathy and compassion. They learn to put themselves in another’s shoes and think about what other people may be feeling.
I don’t actually remember my parents reading to me, but I seem to have few early childhood memories. I assume they must have. Both were voracious readers and our home was filled with books. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read, and books were always my favorite gifts for any occasion.
As the snow melts and this fierce winter turns to mild spring, I plan to hold on ever more tightly to the gift of reading. Call it relaxation or escape, call it kindness therapy, call it a path to greater happiness. Whatever . . . answer the call.
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” (James Baldwin)