I have recently enjoyed delving into Johann Hari’s ‘Stolen Focus’, a book which explores the many ways in which contemporary society works against our ability to pay attention. I’m not as far through it as I would like to be. There’s an appropriate irony in my own lack of focus, and I could sorely do with a couple of months in a cabin by the sea to sift through my whirring brain! What I’ve read so far though has resonated deeply. I’m finding myself mulling in particular what he has to say about the collapse of reading: the way we consume stories in a world saturated by social media and all its associated technologies.
Bringing people together
Now I shouldn’t need to be told stories are important. I adore reading, devoured novels as a child, and for many years built a career on sharing that love with young people as an English teacher. It’s always useful to remember why they are so powerful though, particularly against the multimedia backdrop of our society – not to mention an education system which values the dissection of grammar way above the simple pleasure of getting lost in a book…
Aside from their hunger for an easily assessable curriculum I think there’s a more insidious reason why our government is reducing the opportunities for our children to immerse themselves in stories. It’s all tied up with their desire to divide us and make us afraid of each other. The more that remains the case the easier we are to control, and the more swiftly we will fall for the stories they tell us to fill the void.
Stories, though, have the power to bring us together. To increase our tolerance and understanding, to imagine something bigger than ourselves and the different ways of being in the world which could lead to a kinder, more sustainable future. And a big part of how they do that is by building empathy.
Empathy and complex narratives
As Hari says, “fiction is a kind of empathy gym, boosting your ability to empathise with other people – which is one of the most rich and precious forms of focus we have.” This sentiment underpinned a study at the University of Toronto which found – perhaps unsurprisingly – that the more novels you read the better you were at reading people’s emotions. The effect was significant, and not replicated by those who read non-fiction extensively.
Many other studies have since replicated these findings. Even if (especially if?) we find these conclusions intuitive, we should be asking why, if such a powerful positive effect is to be found from reading fiction, we are blindly accepting its demise? In America less than half the population now read literature for pleasure, a trend replicated in the UK and elsewhere.
More reassuring perhaps is the finding that the impact of stories on our psyche is not restricted to the printed page. It has more to do with, as Hari explains, “being immersed in a complex narrative that simulates the social world”. So movies and long TV series have a similar effect, but not shorter shows. And presumably listening to stories is just as powerful as reading them ourselves.
A life rich in stories
I found myself thinking about all this as I drove to Exeter with my eldest yesterday, the countryside passing by the car windows as we listened to our latest audiobook. I never got into audiobooks before having kids, but both of my boys adore them. They are the soundtracks to our various missions around Devon on the way to our next home ed adventure as well as quieter moments at home, often accompanying drawing or lego building or some other gentle creative pursuit.
We have found some fantastic authors writing long and engaging stories for children, and have been taken on incredible journeys to real and imagined realms. We have laughed and cried with the characters, marvelled at the use of language, and enjoyed deep discussions about the important themes which are woven through these tales.
I’m putting together a list of our faves to share in my newsletter, so if you’re interested in what we’ve loved make sure I’ve got your email so I can sign you up!
As well as our love of audiobooks, we’ve also instinctively drifted to movies rather than the addictive high-octane TV shows made for kids. And of course we read together too – picture books and chapter books. Although we have never rushed towards the benchmark skill of learning to read ‘independently’, our life as a home educating family is rich in stories. There are times when it feels frivolous, as if we should be focused on more obviously academic pursuits. This reminder of how deeply important fiction is to our humanity, though, goes a long way to soothing my fears.
And these boys of mine are steeped in empathy. My eldest especially can read what someone is feeling even before they are fully aware of it themselves, and knows exactly the right thing to say or do to lift someone’s mood. He can astutely analyse the inner world that might lie behind outward behaviours, and shies away from judging anyone too harshly.
It’s not a scientific study, but I find it interesting to consider his emerging personality in the context of the web of stories that have helped shape it.
And as with all these moments of insight motherhood has gifted me I can’t help but reflect on what I can learn from it myself. In recent years my reading hierarchy has been upended: where once I would always have chosen to pick up a novel I now find myself always reaching for one of the many non-fiction books on my shelves when I have a rare moment to read. That’s proved true with my writing life, too. When I first began to write, that empathetic 9 year old a dozing baby in the sling, it was fiction that poured out of me. The three novels and numerous short stories I wrote in his earliest years are still sitting on my hard drive, and my energies have shifted instead to writing non-fiction.
I know that has grown out of a desire to attempt to create something constructive as our world hurtles towards social and environmental apocalypse, and I still believe this direct expression of ideas and opinion has its place. But I am feeling drawn to get back to telling my stories, too. They might be born of imaginative and fantastical realms but have just as much potential to impact the realities of our troubled society.
Perhaps even more.