Books are a handy tool for avoiding other people, as anyone who's ever had a chatty seatmate on a cross-country flight well knows. But it turns out books can also improve your social skills — not merely your ability to avoid using them. According to the New York Times, a study published in the journal Science has revealed that after reading excerpts from literary fiction (like Anton Chekhov and Lydia Davis), subjects performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence.
Interestingly, the effects don’t extend to popular fiction or serious nonfiction. Participants who were given nonfiction selections to read — like “How the Potato Changed the World,” a decidedly non-literary work from Smithsonian Magazine — did not perform as well on the tests as those who read the literary excerpts. Those who were given best sellers, like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, did no better on the tests than those who read nothing immediately prior. Researchers believe that literary-fiction readers fared best because novels often depict emotional subtleties and nuances, prompting readers to make inferences about the characters.
If you’re curious to see where you fall on the empathy spectrum yourself, the Times has put together a fun little test. We wonder how the world's literary curmudgeons (looking at you, Franzen) will fare.