Books make us better, more empathic people

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I just finished Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic Canadian coming-of-age novel, Anne of Green Gables, which I missed as I sailed by in childhood. While I’m glad I caught the novel now, I wish I’d caught it back then. Anne puts the challenges of being a child in an adult world in context. She gets in all sorts of scrapes through no fault of her own, which I like to think was my own experience. I also read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden for the first time, another story about growing up and feeling you don’t quite fit in. I think if you’d read these two books as a child, you’d be better prepared not only for your own experience but also for some of the idiots who get to run your days through those years when you’re neither a small child nor an adult.

The gifts Montgomery and Burnett give are the same as those other good books give – great characters, a story we want to follow, and thoughtful writing – but they also privilege the young person’s world view. At any age, books are like dental hygiene; they don’t just make us feel better for a day, they make us feel better for years, and they make us better people. Research shows that people who read quality fiction develop more empathy. Books give us other perspectives and solutions. When we’re growing up, we’re especially malleable so it’s possible that books matter even more.

Last year I went to the state final of the Readers’ Cup organised by the Children’s Book Council of Australia, where teams from all over Queensland vie for the trophy that recognises our champion readers. Leading up, district champion teams had to study six books and then answer detailed questions on the night. The Readers’ Cup treats reading as sport and I should probably think it’s a bad idea. But there they were, those teams, as prepped as any in a locker room before a game, with all the high excitement of a grand final. In the end, although South Burnett’s Tanduringie State School took out an early, courageous lead, the cup went down to the wire between Pacific Paradise State School on the Sunshine Coast and Moura State School in Central Queensland. I was rooting for Moura because they’d come so much further, but in a nail-biting finish, Pacific Paradise took the trophy, with Moura just behind and Brisbane Central’s Bardon State School just behind them.

Recent UK research shows that a third of children don’t own a book. Not one. And they’re not relying on libraries either. We went to the library every week when I was a child. There were always books where they were supposed to be on the shelves and when I couldn’t find something I might like to read, a librarian who knew my taste suggested something. But a couple of early expeditions to libraries with my son showed me that things have changed. Collections have withered, shelves are in disarray and librarians are few and far between. This isn’t the fault of librarians. Library budgets are easy for governments to cut, and if we keep telling ourselves the book is dead, it’s even easier. More than half of parents of 3 to 8 year olds in Queensland don’t read to their children. We are raising generations now who get their stories from other places, from games, movies, the internet, places that don’t do the job that reading does for us.

If developing empathy isn’t enough to encourage reading, reading is also one of the most powerful predictors of later life socioeconomic success. An analysis of data from the UK National Child Development study showed that maths and reading ability trump intelligence, motivation, length of education and parental socioeconomic status in predicting a child’s likelihood of getting a better job, housing and income as an adult. If you read one grade better at age 7, you increase your middle-aged income by $7750. And you’ll probably need a whole lot less psychotherapy.

I fell into Anne’s world a few weeks ago and I wanted more than anything the secret garden to come back to life. I ought to do more to help children develop a lifelong love of reading.