Why on earth would you think I need to say this? Because, recently, a parent told me that non-fiction had been removed from (or banned – I’m not quite sure) her son’s school. Even though I’ve heard of this on another occasion, I find this hard to believe so let’s say that at least there was a teacher who wished to prevent boys from reading non-fiction or who thought they would be better not reading it.
Why? Apparently, because non-fiction doesn’t boost empathy.
I know where this comes from. It comes from some research – many small studies – which does suggest that fiction has an important role to play in developing empathy. (Read Such Stuff as Dreams for some detail.) Although there’s lots of interesting and thought-provoking content to that book and this research, and although I believe that yes, fiction does have a role to play in empathy-building, I urge caution before you wrap yourself in the blanket of some of the conclusions.
For example, it’s not surprising that when a beautifully-written piece of fiction (a Chekov short story is a specific example) is turned into a dull piece of non-fiction (a courtroom transcript, in this case), the people reading the short story tend to increase in empathy (on certain measures) more than the others.
This doesn’t prove anything other than, perhaps, that people reading beautiful writing by a master writer can engage on a more personal level than people reading a piece of dud dullness. It fails to acknowledge the potential of the best words in the best order.
It fails to acknowledge (because it wasn’t looking at that) whether other things promote empathy, such as having a loving parent or carer to both show empathy and give insights into how other people feel.
However, imagine for a moment that it had been proven that fiction boosts empathy and non-fiction (any of it, from a dictionary to the most elegant narrative non-fiction) doesn’t.
Even in that case, telling a group of people that they shouldn’t read any non-fiction because it doesn’t increase empathy is like telling people they shouldn’t eat fruit because it doesn’t contain protein and therefore won’t help their cells regenerate. Or not to eat asparagus because it doesn’t contain iron or not to drink milk because milk doesn’t contain vitamin C.
I hope you get my point.
My other point is that by telling half the school population (boys) that their first choice (often) of reading material is not worth their time both undermines them quite horribly and risks turning them off reading forever. It is misguided and counter-productive. It doesn’t make sense.
Parents, please don’t listen to anyone who tells your sons or your daughters not to read non-fiction. What you want is your sons and daughters first to read and then to read more.
Isn’t it hard enough to get young people (often especially boys) to read, without making it a load load less attractive? Reading for pleasure, anyone? The clue is in the word “pleasure”.