Literary scholar Olivia Da Costa Fialho claims to have empirical evidence that reading fiction can change your life in a real way. Fialho is a postdoctoral fellow in empirical literary studies at the University of Oslo, Norway, and recommends “transformative reading” to both business executives and school children.
The power of reading fiction has been scientifically proven. Art can change your perception of yourself and others.
Have you ever experienced that reading a book can change your perception of someone you know? Or that it leads you to see your own experiences in a different light?
Whether this sounds familiar or not, the potential is there.
“We have empirical evidence to support the claim that reading fiction can really change your life”, says Olivia Da Costa Fialho.
Fialho is a postdoctoral fellow in empirical literary studies at the University of Oslo. Even though she is a literature scholar, she is seeking hard facts about what literature does to the reader.
Change in perception of self and others
Since the early philosophers Aristotle and Plato, many have argued that art affects emotions.
“In Plato’s Republic, poets were to be banned from the ideal city. They were feared for their assumed power to satisfy and delight audiences’ emotions, and changing their perceptions,” says Fialho.
In Poetics, Aristotle describes how a tragedy can evoke fear and compassion, followed by a cleansing – catharsis.
“So the power of literature to change perceptions of the self has been discussed for thousands of years.”
Now, Fialho and her colleagues within the new and vital field of empirical literature studies have gathered evidence that Plato’s fear was justified.
“Today, I can say that literature can change lives, and especially change your sense of self. We are supporting Aristotle’s catharsis model, but it is only one among many models, as literature can bring about different forms of change in your life.”
Studying emotions like biologists study turtles
Instead of focusing on aspects of the text, Fialho’s interest lies with the reader’s encounter with a text.
To understand the experience of transformative reading, she has developed a research methodology called LEX-NAP. It is a mixed methods procedure, in which she uses insights from linguistics, qualitative phenomenological methods and quantitative methods.
She asks informants to read specific short stories or texts of fiction, and conducts interviews about their experiences. She then codes and categorizes the different experiences.
“It is similar to a biologist’s work. If you are investigating turtles, you are categorizing the different types of turtles to define species. In my research, I identify different types of transformative experiences.”
Fialho also asks her informants to bring novels that have had a transformative impact on their lives. After years of doing this, she has compiled a list of transformative fiction, featuring both classics and new fiction