Ever since I was a little girl I have loved novels. A ferocious reader, In grade school I committed myself to reading an entire fiction novel per day. I would come home from school and rush to my room brimming with excitement at the opportunity to escape into the world created for me by an author.
With each literary work I finished, I felt a sense of awe toward its author – the book I had just read, existed only because the author had written it.
I told myself I wanted to be one of them. That one day, I too, would write novels that change the world.
Today as a grown woman, I am only more certain in the power of a novel to change the world. Literature inspires people to see the world from a new perspective. Heroes and Heroines of great stories inspire us with their faith, their sacrifice, and their capacity to love. Living through their eyes and envisioning their greatness make us better people.
Novels grant us a look inside the most hideous of horrors within the human condition. We feel the pain inflicted by vice and cruelty. We experience the magnificence of man in his most virtuous form. Through literature, we live a life, experience a world, and are shown acts of love beyond what we thought was possible. Novels give us hope.
Yet, when I say novels have the power to change the world, I am not simply referring to the content of the stories themselves, nor am I referring only to those specific and rare “great works of literature.” – but to the very act itself of reading a novel.
Readers are Empathetic. As thoughtfully discussed in the linked article, science has shown reading activates the same part of the human mind associated with expanding our capacity for empathy. Readers of novels literally have consistent practice seeing the world through another person’s eyes. It is imagination that allows us to understand what life may be like for someone else. What it may feel like to be the victim of injustice, heartache, illness, unjust imprisonment, torture, genocide, and various forms of barbaric & totalitarian regimes. This capacity is what separates us from animals. We can think ourselves into another person’s shoes. Those who read do not just have an understanding about any particular story, but because of this consistent practice in empathy, they have a greater capacity for a greater understanding of the world around them.
This perspective given to us through reading is so unique, I believe there are some things a person can not possibly know any other way than by written word. While many believe fiction is unimportant or frivolous, it is through literary fiction we are able gain the wisdom and experience of 100 different lives. The books which have had the greatest impact on my life were not non-fiction. Being told information can certainly be useful to one’s life. But stories do not merely tell you something, they show it to you. You have the opportunity to live it. Even the bible itself, a believer’s “instruction manual” for life, does not consist of only a long list of rules. We are not only told, but also shown a life wasted in cowardice. We are shown a life lived righteously. We learn by example, through the mistakes and victories of others.
This is beautifully expressed in J.K. Rowling’s Harvard Commencement Speech on the importance of imagination and empathy in changing the world.
In a world marred by war, cruelty, and injustice. We have never needed the capacity for empathy more than we do right now.
Through literature, I have seen the world through the eyes of a hero, a monster, a murderer, a neurotic, a young boy, and an old woman. Through reading, we are given the unique intimate power to know the thoughts and feelings of another person, while simultaneously void of any power to influence or change who they are. This expands and strengthens our ability to entertain thoughts without accepting them. We can better see the world through another viewpoint without adopting that viewpoint as our own. We become less threatened by the opposing views of others.
It is the readers of this world who will change it. They are the ones who utilize one of man’s singular greatest tools for increasing our capacity to think – not only about the pain or joy within our own life, but that experienced by others. Novels increase our ability to care about the suffering endured by those drastically different from ourselves.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” is the golden rule. The act of reading a novel is in itself, an exercise in caring beyond oneself.
When our hero succeeds we feel what it is like to truly, genuinely, be as happy for another person as we would be for ourselves. We cry and feel pain when our hero suffers. We love them, we see their beauty, we wish we could comfort them. We love and see them in a way so many who are suffering in this world desperately need to be loved and seen.
This is why a novel changes the world. The ability to transform is not exclusive only to a few select great stories throughout history. The power of transformation is in every novel, picked up by a person who made the conscious decision to see the world through the eyes of someone else. Once we change our inner world – how we view ourselves, the people, and world around us. The world around us changes.