What happens to you when you read?
What happens to you when you read?

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2 The benefits of being a bookworm

Some researchers believe that reading fiction allows us to experience a ‘simulated social world’ (e.g. Mar, Oatley, Hirsh, dela Paz & Peterson, 2006). That is to say that when we are introduced to a character in a book, it is similar to and potentially also practise for, meeting and understanding people in the real social world. Reading stories, therefore, allows us to practise understanding one another, but in a completely safe and simulated environment.

Not only does reading potentially help us simulate real social interactions, but when we read books, we have an additional advantage that we don’t have in the real social world. In fiction we often get access to the characters’ inner thoughts and motivations, helpfully written out by the author, in a way that we cannot so easily achieve in real life, unless we know a person very well. This additional information given to us by the author may also help us to imagine what it is like to be in another person’s shoes. Perhaps, then, when we are less able to spend time with other people in real life (such as in the recent Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns, or when we are older and less physically mobile) we can still, to an extent, practise our social skills, and our understanding of others by reading fiction.

Activity 3 How writers bring readers up close

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes for this activity.

Writers tell us what we should be thinking about ‘others’ (i.e., their characters) in very different ways, but it’s always a vital part of their technique. Sometimes it’s as though writers are sitting at our shoulders, whispering in our ears with clear and detailed information about their characters – their feelings, for example, or their motivations. At other times, authors lodge that information in their descriptions of the scene or setting and the objects, for example, that the scene may contain.

Read the two examples below. After you have finished the reading, we will ask you some further questions about the way these extracts tell us about the characters they are portraying, developing our understanding of them.

In the first extract, the narrator of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1848), a dramatic tale of love, haunting and violent feeling, is musing on the novel’s two main characters, Cathy Earnshaw and Heathcliff. Mr Lockwood tells us that

It was one of their chief amusements to run away to the moors in the morning and remain there all day, and the after punishment grew a mere thing to laugh at. The curate might set as many chapters as he pleased for Catherine to get by heart, and Joseph might thrash Heathcliff till his arm ached; they forgot everything the minute they were together again, at least the minute they had contrived some naughty plan […] (p. 87)

This second extract, written by Charles Dickens, is from his famous ghost story, A Christmas Carol (1843).

In this passage, below, the reader meets Scrooge at home.

It was a very low fire indeed; nothing on such a bitter night. He was obliged to sit close to it, and brood over it, before he could extract the least sensation of warmth from such a handful of fuel. The fireplace was an old one, built by some Dutch merchant long ago, and paved all round with quaint Dutch tiles, designed to illustrate the Scriptures. There were Cains and Abels, Pharaoh’s daughters, Queens of Sheba, Angelic messengers descending through the air on clouds like feather-beds, Abrahams, Belshazzars, Apostles putting off to sea in butter-boats, hundreds of figures to attract his thoughts; and yet that face of Marley, seven years dead, came like the ancient Prophet’s rod, and swallowed up the whole. If each smooth tile had been a blank at first, with power to shape some picture on its surface from the disjointed fragments of his thoughts, there would have been a copy of old Marley’s head on every one.

‘Humbug!’ said Scrooge; and walked across the room.

(p. 18)

Which extract is devoted to telling us directly about feelings and motivations, and which works more subtly to imply feelings and motivation?

Answer

Brontë’s narrator, Mr Lockwood, is full of important knowledge. He gives the reader the benefit of information about these characters we could not work out for ourselves even if we were also in this scene. He tells us about their motivations and their feelings: the fact that nothing matters more than each other, even brutal punishment. We might feel ‘brought in’ to their world, and keenly aware of the strength of feeling between them, after reading this part of the novel.

In the Dickens example, rather than clear signals from a narrator like Lockwood, images and description of objects are used to imply Scrooge’s character traits, and to tell us how he might be feeling.

When we meet him, hunched over the tiny fire, Dickens manages to imply that it is this character’s very meanness that caused his own misery. Next, we get two versions of the fireplace tiles. One is what is actually there and the other is what is being imagined by Scrooge. But look at what happens for the reader. Dickens leads us to also imagine the tiles ‘blank at first’ and then with the head of his dead business partner Marley, on every one, implying Scrooge’s increasing dread, and also allowing the reader to empathise with that dread, almost experiencing it for ourselves. Dickens finishes this mini-scene by having Scrooge react to the emotion as he gets up in exasperation and walks across the room.

The important thing to take away from this activity into the rest of the course is that authors use different techniques to demonstrate social interactions in their stories, and to reveal their characters’ inner worlds. Bringing us ‘up close’ as they do means we are more likely to understand their characters, and what those characters feel and experience in their stories. As we shall see, this can have an impact on our understanding and experience of our real social worlds.

Research evidence supports the arguments that there are benefits to being a bookworm, including that people who read more fiction actually perform better on tests of social ability than those who consume more factual books (Mar, Oatley, Hirsh, dela Paz Peterson, 2006). The research suggests that ‘bookworms’ are likely to be socially very capable individuals!

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