I have a good friend, Mark, who is perhaps the most prolific reader I have ever known. I estimate he goes through 3-4 books a week. I’m not exaggerating, and I envy his speed. And, he will let me know quickly if he reads more than that.

Not only is Mark a consummate reader, but the diversity of books that he reads is enormous. Mark reads a lot of suspense/thriller books, but he also reads a lot of literary fiction — those books by authors that don’t fit  “popular” fiction tag — Don DeLillo, Anton Checkov, Louise Erdrich, Alice Munro among others. For me, literary fiction, and nonfiction, too, requires “effort,” and the books are not easy to read. I don’t mean to imply that anyone who reads popular fiction is lazy, it’s just that I am lazy with them. My patience wears really thin. I tried reading a Thomas Pynchon novel once and had to give up before the third chapter. Whoa!

Stephen E. Ambrose

Stephen E. Ambrose (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As for nonfiction, a month ago, I tried to read Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose about explorers Lewis and Clark. Like I said, I’m usually a fiction guy, but I tried. As I started reading, all that kept running through my mind was the following: “We walked a little down the river and we saw this … Or, we crossed over this mountain and saw that… Or, we noticed some teepees were up ahead and we approached cautiously …” It was a struggle for me to pull Lewis and Clark together. No spies, no loose nuclear bombs, no car chases, no unbridled sex, no D.C. madness (oh, wait, that was supposed to imply fiction not reality).

Well, you get the picture. I’m a lazy reader, or maybe unchallenged would be a more satisfying term. I tend to gravitate toward the Grishams, Cobens, Connellys, DeMilles, North Pattersons, Burkes — popular fiction. And I know I am not alone. Today, I read an interview with Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Turning Point, and the interviewer asked him what kinds of books filled his shelves. “Lots of books with the word ‘spy’ in the titles,” he said.

The closest I can come to literary fiction is Pat Conroy and Dennis Lehane. Both of these authors are not only great writers, but when I read their writing , I feel like I am exercising all my senses in unison.

So, I was a bit taken aback yesterday when I saw an article in the NYTimes about a recent study. The main point of the study is that people who read literary fiction are better enabled through their reading to understand what others are feeling. I read the article and, once complete, had some strong feelings. Sure, I want to be more empathetic, have more social perception and be more emotionally intelligent. The other implication is that you are more “hip” if you read literary fiction over popular fiction. But, hell, the fact that I even read at all is somewhat of an anomaly these days.

Let’s put it this way, I wouldn’t want to be Jay Leno and head out on one of his Jaywalks in Santa Monica and ask anyone whom he meets for the title of the latest book the individual has read. He my not have a Jaywalk segment that evening.

Below is the link to the NYTimes story about the study. Check it out; it is very interesting.

As for me, I might try again with the literary fiction, but for now I’m in the middle of Dan Brown‘s Inferno and Brad Meltzer’s The Fifth Assassin. I’ll work on my empathy skills later …

The New York Times (@nytimes)
A study finds that reading literary fiction makes you better at decoding what other people are feeling nyti.ms/17xRPiG