A couple weeks ago Cassie wrote an interesting blog post about the importance of the visual. In addition to raising some very valid points, she credited a point that I had made in our small group discussion. I felt that it was important to provide some context and credit to the original research.
Maybe it’s my constant need for validation or maybe just the fact that people are constantly making me justify my degree in literature, but I like to bring up the fact that reading literature actually makes you a more empathetic person at pretty much every possible opportunity. That’s right, fellow book nerds, reading actually makes you a better person. Well, at least if you define better as more empathetic, which I do because we could really use some more empathy in the world right now.
This probably happens because reading literature improves theory of mind skills. Theory of mind is the ability to conceptualize the thoughts, emotions, knowledge, and desires of others. It is the skill that lets us understand that others have different thoughts, feelings, and knowledge than ourselves. This skill is critical to the development of empathy. By requiring us to perceive the fictional world through the senses of fictional characters, reading fiction actually practices the same skills as social interaction.
Butler’s works push us to the very boundaries of these skills. Not only do Butler’s characters push the boundaries, so do her worlds. While the worlds she represents us with closely resemble our own, she changes the rules on us by introducing vampires or mind controlling microorganisms. Because of these rule shifts, Butler’s characters’ perspectives are uniquely different from our own. It is not enough to imagine how you would feel in a situation, instead you must think about how they feel in the situation.