What are some must read fiction stories

Fictional literature makes us better people

Even at school there was always that one boy who preferred to sit in the corner to read when the others were playing football. Or the girl who hid behind her favorite book instead of trying the first cigarette with the cool cliques. It is these apparent outsiders who will have a lot ahead of the others.

Because diving into strange fantasy worlds has proven to have many advantages. In psychology, for example, the so-called theory of mind describes the ability to understand the wishes and views of other people - and to understand that these can differ from your own. It is the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes and take on their emotions. A 2013 study in Science Magazine showed that reading fictional literature would improve this skill.

Not only that: a well-read mind can also lead to the dismantling of prejudices or prevent them from arising in the first place. Stefan Stürmer, professor of social psychology at the University of Hagen and spokesman for the German Society for Psychology, knows why.

“The cognitive process that is addressed by reading and portraying other people's characters is what is known as perspective adoption. It in turn promotes emotional processes that allow us to empathize with the person portrayed. We feel more or less in parallel, ”says Stürmer.

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Once we have slipped into this person's perspective and invested emotionally, we also perceive character similarities to this person more often - or at least start looking for them. We have a positive attitude towards it and negative attitudes recede. According to Stürmer, this also works if the reader is strange about the person in the book - for example, because they belong to a different ethnic group or have a different sexual orientation. “Through the process of perceiving similarity, we lose our fear of the other. Simply because we perceive them as we are. "

From the fictional world into real life

It is certainly nice when we learn to learn a strange, fictional character in a book. Much more important, however, is the extent to which this actually affects concrete attitudes in everyday life. Do we eventually learn to like people in the same group as in the book in real life? To put it another way: Can we apply what we have learned to reality and generalize it to other groups?

The social psychological research literature answers this question indirectly - in the truest sense of the word. While prejudices can very well be broken down through direct contact with people from other cultures, fictional literature requires an intermediate step. Because reading is a special form of contact. In technical language it is called parasocial contact, as it only takes place indirectly via another medium (the book).

“Contact research shows that generalization to real contact situations can occur. However, these effects are usually weaker than with direct contact, ”says Stefan Stürmer. That means: If, for example, we get to know a Muslim woman in real life and find her sympathetic, then, according to Stürmer, it is more likely that we find Muslims generally sympathetic. It works the same when reading, just a little more fleetingly. The same concept is also used in behavior therapy, for example in the desensitization of phobias.

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In order for authors to be able to do this with their stories, however, they have to solve a small dilemma while writing their book. On the one hand, the person whose perspective we readers are supposed to adopt must have enough points of contact. There has to be a certain base of similarities. Traits that are so universally human that despite a seemingly alien affiliation, we recognize something we share with that person.

On the other hand, this person must also be perceived by us in a sufficiently (stereo) typical way, at least initially. The author has to describe it for us in such a way that we can clearly assign it to a strange group. Only then can prejudices against the respective group be resolved as a whole.

Trick the readership

Many authors solve this dilemma by not making the group affiliation of the character known at the beginning of their story. They first give us time to develop enough sympathy for them. At some point later, when we already identify with the person, we learn that they belong to a group. That may be strange to us at first, but we are already attached to her. We are emotionally connected to her. "However, if we don't perceive a character as typical for a certain group of people, there is usually no generalization," says Stürmer. Then we would treat them as an exception to the rules rather than an atypical individual case.

In William Faulkner's novel “Licht im August” (1932), among other things, the story of Joe Christmas is told. An orphan in the southern United States, whose origins remain unclear for long stretches in the book. Christmas himself believes he has black ancestors, but doesn't really feel that he belongs to any community. Before readers find out where he really comes from, they learn to love him. It is only late in the book that it becomes clear that Christmas actually has dark-skinned ancestors. “A pre-identification is created,” says the social psychologist. That would be common with books dealing with social class and racial segregation.

As with Faulkner's book, the change in group membership often works through the fact that we first get to know the person as a child. "The child is a category with which every person can usually build a relationship," explains Stürmer. “In the literature this is used psychologically skillfully so that the reader can identify with the person first. Later you learn that this child belongs to a certain group of people that is alien to the reader. The group membership changes. "

Good writers know this. They are observers of human nature and in this sense are similar to psychologists. You know about the potential to appeal to people. Accordingly, tactically, they create their figures. "Uncle Tom's Hut" by Harriet Beecher Stowe and "Who disturbs the nightingale" by Harper Lee are examples of this category.

Why fictional?

In non-fiction books, reality dictates how and whether we can identify with the person in the book. In contrast to fictional literature, it allows only small room for maneuver. If Faulkner's novel had a picture of the character Christmas as a black southern American right at the beginning, he would have already lost part of the readership. Namely those for whom it is absolutely out of the question to put themselves in such a person.

If authors specifically plan to break down prejudices with their books, then they must also try to address as many people as possible - and especially those who have prejudices - and include them in the story. Such readers need a subtle introduction, you have to trick them, so to speak.

That works better with a fictional story. Because the authors have more opportunities to actively shape the processes mentioned above (taking perspectives, empathizing, recognizing similarities) psychologically. Non-fictional stories, such as documentaries, may or may not reach the readership. After all, the author has to stick to reality.

Can you recommend good books that have broadened your horizons in some way? If so, please send me an email and tell me why.