In the midst of another bout of peripatetic online roaming, I came across an interesting, but intuitively true, write-up of a new study. It seems that scientists have found that reading the Harry Potter series “significantly improved young peoples’ perception of stigmatized groups like immigrants, homosexuals or refugees.”
It’s no surprise, really. “Mudbloods”, scorned by the more rigid and provincial wizards of more “pure” family lineage, serve as a fairly obvious analog to any group discriminated against based solely on their genetics. But here’s the interesting thing about the study: they took groups of students from similar background and the ones who read the Harry Potter books had their perceptions of real-life marginalized groups improved in relation to not only their previously held opinions about those groups, but also to those of their peers who did not read the Potter books.
Again, the reason is somewhat intuitive but fairly important: “…researchers credited the books with improving the readers’ ability to assume the perspective of marginalized groups.”
This suggests that reading fiction requires one to assume the perspective of the characters within. Doing so—ostensibly depending on the author’s relative facility in creating identifiable and compelling characters—can change the reader’s orientation to his or her world.
Even as the Harry Potter books moved from being a mere literary success to cultural phenomenon and blockbuster movie franchise, they were widely viewed—dismissively—as kids’ stuff. While about and primarily for children, kids’ stuff has the power to foster empathy. And empathy has no age limit.
This is in keeping with academic and cultural studies that suggest fairy tales and children’s scary stories (e.g., Hans Christian Andersen, Brothers Grimm, etc.) can be beneficial for kids, teaching them, within a fantastical context, safely removed from reality, how to process fear and uncertainty.
Another form regularly dismissed and derided, the comic book, can have hidden educational value. I can attest that history, myth and classic literature were regularly Trojan Horsed into the comics I read as a youth. Some comics, like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, are quite literate, reimagining historical events and classic works of art as actions and/or results of battles between eternal beings.
It’s important to note that the examples used here—Harry Potter, Grimm Bros. and Sandman—are wildly popular, time-tested and/or critically viewed as the apotheosis of their form. The Potter phenomenon spawned a billion sub par knockoffs and there are scores of ponderous, violent, even vile comic books. in any form there is junk. There is also art…art that educates, that moves, that changes how a reader can see her world.
As we escape within the pages of a book, we can do so knowing we may reemerge changed, even slightly, more able to understand and care for our fellow man. I should escape more often.