But researchers at Ohio State University suggest that reading actually changes who we are. In a recent article in The Atlantic Mobile, “How Good Books Can Change You,” Neil Wagner summarizes the study and the idea of “experience-taking.”
According to the researchers, when we read a book, especially if it’s in first person, we identify with the main character and allow the character’s experiences to influence our own.
If the main character is different from us, reading helps us build a virtual relationship across difference, which strengthens our empathy in real life. One of the Ohio State studies, in fact, demonstrated that white people became less racist when reading about an African American character. Similarly, reading about a gay character led people to have less homophobic views toward gay people.
Yes, it’s just one study (of 82 college undergraduates), but it’s a great start in documenting how reading impacts us. This idea of experience taking makes sense to me. After all, when my students talk about characters in a Socratic seminar, it’s as if they’re real. And sometimes, my students are transformed. That’s what reading a good book does.