We’ve known for some time that reading about other people increases our ability to imagine ourselves in their shoes, which is the main idea behind empathy. This helps us understand others and enriches our own lives as we take in new perspectives. As Wolf states, “Perspective-taking not only connects our sense of empathy with what we have just read but also expands our internalized knowledge of the world.” She goes on to give examples of people who have done this and how it feels like having real friends in books we read.
She laments what will happen as people read less often. “What will happen to young readers who never meet and begin to understand the thoughts and feelings of someone totally different? What will happen to older readers who begin to lose touch with that feeling of empathy for people outside their ken or kin? It is a formula for unwitting ignorance, fear and misunderstanding, that can lead to the belligerent forms of intolerance that are the opposite of America’s original goals for its citizens of many cultures.”
In this way, reading novels helps our critical thinking and ability to live with each other. We can’t afford to lose this if we are to hang on to the qualities we cherish in our civilization. As Wolf puts it, “The quality of our thought depends on the background knowledge and feelings we each bring to bear.”