“I haven’t picked up a book since college. I don’t have time to read anymore. If I read anything it’s going to be something useful…”
How many times have you heard (or said) one of these things?
A lot of women are very busy. Full-time outside jobs, taking care of children, running a household, whatever it is; when every second counts, reading a book will likely seem like a waste of time. But is it?
Studies show that far from being a waste of time, reading, and particularly reading fiction, actually has many benefits, some of which you might not expect.
Okay, yes, you probably would expect that reading literature improves your language skills, but wouldn’t any reading do the same? One study about reading and vocabulary levels indicates “that while increasing your reading matters, increasing your reading of fiction, specifically, matters equally as much.”
Having a larger vocabulary is beneficial in many ways. It makes it possible to understand a greater number of conversations more easily, and it also makes it easier to learn other languages, like French, Latin and Spanish.Also, knowing more words will help you at least sound smarter, and may even allow you to think more clearly. Being able to express your ideas in different words can make your thoughts more distinct, and will allow your ideas to be less limited by your ability to express them.
Theory of Mind
Even more important than language skills, though related to them, is the ability to think. Theory of Mind is the ability to understand that others know different things and think differently from you. Imagine that you assumed that all people knew your likes and dislikes, past experiences, etc. This is what lacking a theory of mind means. With this attitude, you would be perpetually offended, because whenever someone else did something that you found irritating, you would believe that it was a deliberate act to annoy you. This attitude would make good relationships impossible.
Fiction is particularly helpful in developing theory of mind, because the author opens a door into the minds of the characters. In literature with a first-person narrator, you continually drink in the thoughts and outlook of one character and see how that character responds to the surrounding people and events. The narrator may respond in ways completely alien to you, and may have a totally different set of beliefs and experiences—which helps you understand that there are other ways of viewing the world. Books with an omniscient narrator are even better, as they show how different characters view the same event differently, or act based on different information.
If you were able to meet dozens of people, and not only meet them, but come to know them deeply and comprehend their motivations and thought-processes, you would become a very mature and understanding person. But this is unlikely. Most people know only a few others very well, and the people that they do know tend to be similar to them. Through fiction, however, we come to know not only the minds of fictional characters, we also find a window into the mind of the authors. This knowledge can be especially useful in maintaining relationships. For instance, if men and women think differently, reading books written by men or about men may help you better understand your brother, your boyfriend, or your husband.
Sense of Community
Reading fiction, especially the great books like Homer and Shakespeare, can help you feel connected to a larger community of humans, both living and dead. Reading classic literature puts you in contact, not only with others in today’s world who have read those books, but also to the millenia of others who have written and read them. You will begin to share the ideas and ideals of generations of men and women—ideals of goodness, truth, beauty, and honor. This sense of connectedness can bring a joy unlike any other.
It is encouraging, too, to know that there were people who shared these ideals, who valued these things and expected them of their fellow humans. The courage of Antigone, willing to defy the whole world in order to show her brother’s body the honor it deserved; the constancy and resourcefulness of Penelope, who waits for her husband and is not afraid to impose standards on the many suitors who seek her hand, thinking her husband dead; the humor and daring of Portia, willing to argue a case in the court of law to assure that both justice and mercy are served—all these and thousands of others can be members of your circle of friends. And who wouldn’t want friends like that? Knowing that others have valued and honored these actions, and thought that it was possible that humans would act in these ways, may make you more willing to apply standards in your own life, and expect more of the people you choose as friends.
The greatest literature of any culture will embody certain ideals which humans naturally desire—loyalty in love and friendship, courage in defending the innocent, the desire for greatness and honor—ideas which are all but eradicated from public life today. If you wish more from your life and from your relationships than what is depicted in the media today, if you wish to rise above the material condition of life, read good books. The more of these books you read, the more you will realize that there is a community of minds, a culture of which you can be a part.
Stress Relief and Enjoyment
Sitting down to read a book is also enjoyable. And incidentally, one of the finest methods of relieving stress. Reading demands your attention and dispels the patterns of stressful thought that were clouding your mind. So, even if reading a book takes time away from whatever important things you were doing, it’s possible that it will actually increase your productivity, as well as improving your life.