The reason a Canadian named Carol Finlay started up book clubs in prisons was not just to give prisoners a welcome distraction and goal (to read the books), but to broaden and stimulate their minds through discussion about the book, and see if it could also expand their empathy.

Documented in The Prison Book Club by Ann Walmsley, these book clubs have been both popular and successful.

Having just completed Walmsley’s book, I want to share what it says on the link between reading fiction and building empathy:

“Although she has never claimed that the book clubs are designed to rehabilitate inmates, research continues to point to interesting links between reading literary fiction and the growth of empathy. One study at the New School for Social Research in New York City published in Science in 2013 found that study participants who read literary fiction, as opposed to non-fiction, genre fiction or nothing, performed better on tests that measured empathy and social perception. One hypothesis is that characters in literary fiction are less fully sketched and less stereotypical, requiring the reader to imagine some of their thoughts and thereby empathize.

“A report on the UK project Prison Reading Groups sets out anecdotal evidence that fiction has played a role in nurturing empathy among their incarcerated readers and found that book discussions contributed to informal learning and pro-social behaviour.”

It occurs to me that this passage also touches on the reason we should read books instead of, or in addition to, watching the movies that spring from books. As opposed to watching just movies, or saying, “Well, I saw the movie so I don’t think I’ll bother reading the book.” Clearly, characters in books are less fully sketched than they are when they become movie characters, “requiring the reader to imagine… and thereby empathize.” Which means we should also ensure our kids read, not just watch movies. (The more empathetic they are, the more success they’ll have in life and work, and the better they’ll care for us when we’re old, right? 🙂

I think many of us have always known this intuitively, but I hadn’t heard it said so explicitly before. Words for thought, definitely.