A recent study conducted at the New School for Social Research claims that reading literary fiction can help develop empathy. Other studies have had similar results, finding that while literary novels enhance readers’ ability to connect with others, popular fiction and nonfiction don’t have the same effect. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal last week (“Empathy by the Book: How Fiction Affects Behavior”):

We’ve long known about the collateral benefits of habitual reading—a richer vocabulary, for example. But that’s only part of the picture. Mounting evidence over the past decade suggests that the mental calisthenics required to live inside a fictional character’s skin foster empathy for the people you meet day-to-day . . .

Nonfiction—along with horror, sci-fi or romance novels—had little effect on the capacity to detect others’ feelings and thoughts. Only literary fiction, which requires readers to work at guessing characters’ motivations from subtle cues, fostered empathy.

In these studies, the reading of nonfiction not only failed to spur empathy but also predicted loneliness and social isolation, specially among men. Of course, nonfiction reading has its virtues. Other research suggests that various kinds of nonfiction can prompt empathetic feelings—as long as the narrative is moving and transformative.

The “other research” the article refers to makes a lot more sense to me. Some of the most “moving and transformative” books I’ve read are nonfiction: The Boys in the Boat, Unbroken, Angela’s Ashes, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,When Breath Becomes Air . . . perhaps the psychologists who found that nonfiction doesn’t spur empathy didn’t include powerful books like these in their studies. I also wonder which comes first, the chicken or the egg; perhaps people who are naturally empathetic are drawn to literary fiction because they are interested in the feelings of other people?

E.L. Doctorow said, “There is really no fiction or nonfiction; there is only narrative. One mode of perception has no greater claim on the truth than the other.” Here are five pairs of books, nonfiction and fiction, that offer terrific narratives and characters (real and imagined) with whom you can empathize:

Want to go behind the scenes at a restaurant?

9781583335802Nonfiction: Generation Chef: Risking It All for a New American Dream by Karen Stabiner
Stabiner, a journalist and cookbook author, follows ambitious young chef Jonah Miller as he opens his own restaurant in New York. The risks and stress are overwhelming, and readers will find themselves emotionally invested in Jonah’s venture.

Fiction: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
While Generation Chef focuses on the pressures facing the chef/owner of a trendy restaurant, Danler’s roman à clef takes us into the heart of restaurant culture from the viewpoint of an employee. It’s a fictionalized version of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential.

In love with Paris?

Nonfiction: Pancakes in Paris by Craig Carlson
Francophile Carlson had the crazy idea of opening an American-style diner in Paris. After many years of trials and tribulations, his restaurant (Breakfast in America) succeeded — in 9781910477304-228x360spite of the  challenges presented by the legal and economic system in France.

Fiction: French Rhapsody by Antoine Laurain
French Rhapsody, like Laurain’s earlier novels, is clever and charming without being lightweight. It’s the perfect book to tuck into your bag for a flight — not only is it delightful, but it’s short, with an attractive cover. A middle-aged Parisian doctor receives a letter, lost in the French postal system for 33 years, that has the potential to change his life.

Interested in understanding the 2008 financial crisis?

Nonfiction: The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
Published in 2010, this book remains the most readable and entertaining book about the United States housing bubble. The 2015 movie version was very good as well.

9780812998481Michael Lewis has a new book coming out in December, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, about two Israeli psychologists who did groundbreaking research on decision-making and judgment.

Fiction: Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
Just before the collapse of 2008, Jende Jonga, an immigrant from Cameroon who hopes for a better life for his family in the United States, begins working for a top Lehman Brothers executive, Clark Edwards. One of my favorites of 2016, this is an insightful story about immigration and the American Dream, and also about marriage.

Want to read an uplifting book about hospice and end-of-life decisions?

9781594634819-1Nonfiction: On Living by Kerry Egan
Hospice chaplain Egan has written a beautiful and inspiring book about her experiences working with dying patients. According to Publishers Weekly, “As the title suggests, this is not just a book about dying. It’s one that will inspire readers to make the most of every day.”

Fiction: The Hummingbird by Stephen P. Kiernan
One of my favorite novels of 2015, The Hummingbird deserves to be widely read. The story of a hospice nurse, her terminally ill patient (a history professor specializing in World War II history), and her war veteran husband, this novel is beautiful, suspenseful, and inspiring. I loved the multiple story lines (including a book within a book) and it’s a real joy to read a novel about people whose lives are rooted in integrity.

Interested in learning more about rural and Rust Belt poverty?

162224Nonfiction: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
Hillbilly Elegy has been receiving a lot of praise and publicity since it was published in June. It’s two books in one — a very personal story of growing up poor in southern Ohio (reminiscent of Rick Bragg’s All Over But the Shoutin’) and an exploration of the economic and social problems facing “hillbilly culture” .The New Yorker calls it “one of this campaign season’s saddest and most fascinating books” and the New York Times says that “Vance doesn’t have all the answers. But he’s advancing the conversation.”

Fiction: Sweetgirl by Travis Mulhauser
Although Sweetgirl is set in northern Michigan, it reminded me of Daniel Woodrell’s crime novels set in the Missouri Ozarks. Woodrell refers to his work as “country noir”, and that seems like a good term for Sweetgirl as well. (These kinds of novels are often called “gritty”.)  A teenage girl ventures into a blizzard to find her drug-addicted mother, and finds a neglected infant instead. I stayed up late to find out what would happen next.

I just finished reading The Wonder by Emma Donoghue, about a young girl in 19th century Ireland who claims not to have eaten for four months. Is she a saint, or a hoax? The author says that the book was inspired by almost fifty cases of “Fasting Girls” between the 16th and 20th centuries. I can’t find a good nonfiction book about these girls — so I guess, in spite of what my grandmother used to say, not every pot has a lid!


22 thoughts on “Literary Matchmaking: Nonfiction & Fiction

  1. This is such a fun set of pairings! I just picked up Hillbilly Elegy (I think a lot of people are turning to it in the wake of this election season…) but I’ve never heard of Sweetgirl! I will definitely look for a copy of this to complement my reading. I really loved the Daniel Woodrell book that I’ve read before – thank you for the reminder to look into more of his work. 🙂

  2. Wow those are good pairings! I haven’t read most of the books, although a lot of them are on my radar. But I will definitely take note of the NF pairings when I do!

  3. These are all great pairings! I wasn’t a fan of Sweetbitter, but would love to try Generation Chef. Just finished Hillbilly Elegy last week and Sweetgirl sounds like a promising follow-up.

  4. Whaaat? Nonfiction can’t be moving and transformative? That is ridiculous. I suppose the nonfiction books I have found most memorable have had an element of storytelling in them (like the ones you mention), but that only makes sense to me. Human stories resonate with us, they awaken our compassion and interest. I can see something like a math textbook or a computer manual not awakening any empathy, but that doesn’t extend to all nonfiction.

  5. What a fantastic list of pairings and I loved your intro! That’s fascinating that supposedly literary fiction, but not the others can increase empathy. Like you, I’m a bit of skeptical.
    I have to admit, I just finished drafting my review of Generation Chef and made the comparison to Sweetbitter (minus the drugs and sex). Also loved Hillybilly Elegy and am anxiously awaiting The Undoing Project.

  6. Loved Behold the Dreamers. I especially liked the angle that the American Dream does not always come true in America, but in one’s home country. This was a complex novel that had many life lessons and forced us native Americans to take a good hard look at ourselves. I was very impressed by the author. The empathy/literary fiction connection is fascinating, one I want to read more about. Thank you for bringing this to my attention!

  7. Ooh, you came up with some really interesting book pairs here. Also, I love your grandma’s saying about pots/lids… so true, haha!

  8. I love this idea! I really enjoy reading a variety of fiction and non-fiction but it can sometimes be difficult to find something that’s up your alley. This is very helpful. Will definitely be checking out Generation Chef. Great post!

    Would you by any chance be interested in sharing some of your content on Creators? We’re currently branching out and I for one would love to see more book/literature-related content on the platform. I saw your blog and couldn’t help but get in touch. Feel free to shoot me an e-mail so I can expand on that. My contact details are on my blog. Hope to hear from you.

  9. I get a bit annoyed when the media reports on those studies. I read quite widely, and some of the most moving books I read would be considered genre…but then I wonder if they are just thinking that literary qualities can exist in anything that isn’t in the “literary fiction genre”. Anyway, I think reading about different people in any form, helps empathy!

    On Living sounds like a heartbreaking job.

  10. Nice post. I still need to read The Hummingbird, and if you thought Behold the Dreamers is one of your favs for 2016 then I will put that on my list too. Weird from that study: how good nonfiction wouldn’t affect one’s empathy — does that make sense?

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