New research suggests that reading fine novels heightens social sensitivity – the capacity to understand the beliefs and desires of other people, and how they differ from your own, that’s the bedrock of nursing.

A paper titled “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” and published in the journal Science, seems to prove what English teachers have been claiming for ages: Literature makes us more human and humane.

In a series of five short experiments, volunteers who read literary works for a few minutes were able to understand others’ mental states better than readers of nonfiction, popular fiction, or nothing at all.

What qualifies as literary fiction?: A work that requires deep thinking and imagination from the reader; complicated characters and a view into their inner life; stylistic devices versus less emphasis on plot or the conventions of genre (romance, mystery, etc.).

In this study, researchers looked to National Book Award finalists or winners of the 2012 PEN/O. Henry Prize for short fiction for examples of literary fiction. They tapped Amazon best-sellers for popular fiction.

One of the most exciting aspects of recent honorees is the racial and cultural diversity of authors tapped. For example: Junot Díaz was a National Book Award Finalist in 2012 for This Is How You Lose Her and Jesmyn Ward was a National Book Award Winner in 2011 for Salvage the Bones.

Oprah Winfrey has run a book club on and off for years now and many of her picks qualify as literary fiction. Check out Oprah’s Book Club for a complete list of her selections. It’s fun to read books as part of a group, but if you don’t have one nearby, virtual book groups — like Oprah’s — are a good option.

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There may be other ways for you to get involved with books and book lovers. For instance, in my neck of the woods — Portland, Oregon — bibliophiles set up little community lending libraries in boxes on posts. The photo above is of the mini-library on my block. Neighbors drop off and pick up classics, literary novels, popular fiction, and anything else that strikes their fancy. It’s a way to chat with folks and get a glimps into their lives and interests.

Are you a bookworm? Do you believe that great novels help make you a great nurse? Let us know!

Jebra Turner is a health and business writer in Portland, Oregon. You can visit her online at

Jebra Turner
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