Say you are getting ready for a blind date or a job interview. What should you do? Besides shower and shave, of course, it turns out you should read — but not just anything. Something by Chekhov or Alice Munro will help you navigate new social territory better than a potboiler by Danielle Steel.
That is the conclusion of a study published Thursday in the journal Science. It found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking.
I’m not sure how well this finding has held up over time, and it occurs to me that, in addition to comparing Alice Munro to Danielle Steel, we should also compare Alice Munro to, say, Susan Orlean. Maybe some serious nonfiction fails to foster empathy, but, given its wide range of sub-genres and literary characteristics, do we really know that none of it does?
(Curiously, the authors of the Science article don’t tell us which nonfiction works they selected.)