Oh, the irony! At a cultural moment where the hard sciences are ascendant and everyone likes to kick the humanities as an (expensive) route to a job at Starbucks, of course it would take a scientific study to convince us of the power of literature.
For some the benefits of literary fiction and timeless classics are pretty obvious. If you’re not one of those people, then a new study out of the New School for Social Research is for you. The research looked into the effects of reading quality fiction and found that sitting down with a great book improved participants’ ability to correctly ‘read’ others. In short, literature improves your social skills. The British Psychological Society Research Digest explains:
Across five experiments, involving hundreds of volunteers online, the researchers showed that reading a few pages of literary fiction (including works by Don DeLillo, Lydia Davis, Louise Erdrich, Alice Munro and Dagoberto Gilb) boosted participants' immediate ability to discern people's emotions from pictures of their eyes or faces. In some cases, the benefit extended to superior performance on a Theory of Mind picture test that involved using visual or verbal cues to identify what a person was thinking or desiring.
And nope, sorry, your average potboiler won’t produce the same benefits. “No such effects were found after reading non-fiction or pop fiction, including passages from Danielle Steele, Rosamunde Pilcher and Gillian Flynn,” reports the post.
As the ability to correctly read and respond to others is as key in business as it is in other areas of interpersonal interaction, the new study makes an obvious case for entrepreneurs to mix a dose of literary goodness into their reading diets. But of course empathy isn’t the only skill you need as an entrepreneur, and so fiction, no matter how great, is unlikely to make up your entire reading list. What else should be on there?
The internet is brimming with suggestions from people whose advice you’d trust. Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos, for example, recently told an interviewer what books he gives to his top executives to read. What were they?
The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker
The Innovator’s Solution by Clayton Christensen
The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt
Still got space on your Kindle or in your bookstore shopping cart? Then head over to the Unreasonable Institute’s blog where Dr. Paul Polak, a social entrepreneur who founded Windhorse International and has helped lift millions out of poverty but bringing better products to market for the very poor, lists “the ten books that have been most helpful in increasing my understanding of the world.” Among them:
Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948, by Madeleine Albright
Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, by Arthur Herman
What books helped you become a better entrepreneur?