I always knew that reading was good for people. As a child, I escaped into fiction and found comfort, and sometimes guidance, in the stories that took me away from the real world for a while. A real world that wasn’t always pleasant.
But I didn’t always realize I was learning so much about life while I read. I just loved the stories and couldn’t get enough of them.
From reading The Old Man and The Sea, I learned about dedication and commitment. The compelling story in the novel, Of Mice and Men, taught me about loyalty and devotion to those we love. While reading The Great Gatsby, I learned about the danger of too much power and prestige.
Then there were all the westerns I read by Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour where I learned about good and evil through the characters portrayed in those stories. The good guys were clearly defined by their adherence to a strict moral code, while the outlaws operated on a different moral plane entirely.
Some time ago I read an interesting article by Jonathan Gottschall, who teaches English at Washington & Jefferson College and is the author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make us Human. That article, and subsequent publications, validated my belief that fiction helped shape me when he shared results from research “that shows that reading fiction does mold us. The more deeply we are cast under a story’s spell, the more potent it’s influence.”
“Most successful stories are moral – they teach us how to live, whether explicitly or implicitly, and bind us together around common values.” That’s part of the description of The Storytelling Animal.
I find it interesting that Gottschall points out that fiction shapes us for the better, not for the worse, although there is a dark side to all of us and certainly a dark side to fiction. When I was doing research for my nonfiction book, Coping With Weapons and Violence in School and on Your Streets, I found studies that indicated that extreme violence in fiction promotes violence in young people, and the jury is still out on the effects of the violent video games.
However, this new research by Gottschall and others indicates that reading fiction, ass he believes, “enhances our ability to understand other people; it promotes a deep morality that cuts across religious and political creeds. More peculiarly, fiction’s happy endings seem to warp our sense of reality. They make is believe in a lie: that the world is more just than it actually is.”
Giving people that belief may explain “why humans tell stories in the first place.”
While I don’t consciously have that thought in mind as I write my stories, most of my fiction does offer the hope that good will prevail over evil. My books, especially the Seasons Mystery Series, encourage people to embrace new ideas and attitudes toward people and cultures that are different from what they are comfortable with. My novels also look at life situations and brings about that happy ending that doesn’t always happen in real life.
So, what have you read that influenced you significantly? Have you read anything recently that broadened your world view? I just ordered The Hate U Give, a novel by Angie Thomas that was recommended by a friend who also mentioned reading Beloved by Toni Morrison. I’ve read that book, and look forward to reading Ms. Thomas’s story. Reviews are split between those who loved the book and those who disliked it. It will be interesting to see why.