Why getting stuck into a good book can be odd for your health
Researchers at Ohio State University have uncovered a vital bit of truth that was already known to anyone who has ever enjoyed a good book.
A recently published study claims that people who read a fictional story often find themselves feeling the same emotions and motives of the characters in the book. This can even lead readers to alter their behaviour, and act like or in empathy with the characters. In a deft semantic move of encoding the bleeding obvious, the researchers have called this, ahem, phenomenon “experience taking”.
In one experiment, the crack team discovered that people who strongly identified with a fictional character who overcame obstacles to vote were much more likely to vote in a real election several days later. In another experiment, others who read about a character who was of a different race or sexual orientation showed more favourable attitudes towards this group and were less likely to stereotype them.
The findings will be printed in full in a future print edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. I can barely contain my excitement.
This is hardly groundbreaking stuff. If a book doesn’t alter your mood, emotions or behaviour, surely the writer has failed in his or her job – or perhaps the reader just hasn’t been paying enough attention? Recently, I reread Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, and while the writing is not as astonishing as I remember it from 10 years ago – which is to be expected – the world and characters he creates are infectious. While reading the book, it’s hard not to imagine that the dishevelled man propping up the bar is actually a member of the Nordic pantheon, or perhaps the chap making coffee in the local café is actually a minor Indian deity who likes nothing more than a blood sacrifice with his latte of a morning. Similarly, I defy you not to read a good John le Carré and find yourself looking over your shoulder for tails on your way to work.
Admittedly not everyone will go this far, as you have better things to be doing with your time than daydreaming nonsense. But I’ve noticed plenty of writers whose books tend to subtly affect mood or speech patterns. James Ellroy is perhaps the finest American crime writer alive, and I’d happily cue up to buy a new book by him or David Simon. But I find them almost too bleak and tough to take in sustained sessions. Every time I get stuck into one, I find my own cynicism with the world at large ramping up as the pages keep turning. (A little Gaiman or Márquez is usually a good antidote though.)
It’s not just books, of course. Here’s a little social experiment that perhaps the University of Ohio can fund me for – lend a Sopranos boxset to, oh your father say, and watch how his language suddenly goes rapidly down hill, Jersey style. (Though if he starts leaning on the neighbours for a little something something to stop accidents happening, it’s best take back your DVDs.)
Maybe the majority of people appreciate the merits of books, film or music, but remain largely unmoved and I’m the madman here. At least I can console myself with the fact that my behaviour is more manageable than Yelena Shilovskaya, the third wife of the Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov. Shilovskaya was the inspiration for the main character in Bulgakov’s greatest work, The Master and Margarita, and she was instrumental in getting the book published. She seems to have been irrevocably affected by the novel, though. Perhaps it was a subtle, brilliant marketing ploy, or perhaps she surrendered completely to the novel, as in real life she reportedly began to act as if she was indeed Margarita. Apparently, she would tell people she was a witch, and would arrive at friends’ houses unannounced, saying she had flown there on her broomstick, much like how Margarita would tear around Moscow in the book’s magical scenes. Now what would the University of Ohio say to that?