Reading has many advantages as we’ve blogged about over the years – more recently, how reading helps us connect with others. Building on this I’ve been considering the impact reading may have on the type of person you are. Can it affect the way you behave, feel, and think? What impact can reading have on us as we grow up?
To begin with I started to explore the effect reading could have on personality and if it can shape our character in our formative years.
When do our personalities form?
Personality refers to “individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving”, according to the American Psychological Association. These patterns evolve from biological and environmental factors.
Environmental factors include your background and the environment in which you were brought up. Your family and the people you are surrounded by day-by-day. School and work. These things all affect your personality.
Can reading also affect your personality, during your formative years and beyond? As you grow up you have your own personal experiences. You will also be affected by the experiences of the people around you. Your friends, teachers and family will all have an influence on you. And it could be that you share common experiences.
However, when you read, you can learn about the experiences of someone with a totally different life experience to yours. These experiences enrich your knowledge of the world outside of your own particular bubble. You can learn how life is on the other side of the world, or in a different era, or within a different social class; experience another ethnicity, gender, sexuality. All of this helps you to empathise with others.
Impact on empathy skills
“People who read fiction may improve their social skills each time they open a novel.” - Does reading fiction make us better people? - BBC Future
Research states you might be more empathetic after reading fiction. Simply put, reading fiction can help us to perceive things from another person’s point of view; we can literally read their thoughts and understand their thinking processes. We also benefit from having an outsider's view of their situation and understand the context in which things are happening. For these reasons, having a book on the go can make it easier for the reader to understand other people.
So, we could agree that reading does have an impact on personality. To quote a BBC article: “people who often read fiction have better social cognition. That’s to say they find it easier to work out what someone else is thinking and feeling.”
Impact on trajectory
But it’s not just the social skills reading can help us with. It can also have a huge influence on us in terms of what we want to do with our lives, and what opportunities may lie ahead for us.
I read an article about a group of American designers and the children’s books that influenced them when they were younger. “The books we’re exposed to as children—whether they’re about a snowy day, a great green room, or an island of Wild Things—shape who we are and how we see the world.” - Architectural Digest.
The variety of books the designers read as children helped shape their idea of home, influenced their view on aesthetics and of colour, amongst other things. It’s possible these books helped set them on a certain path, affecting their choices and decisions.
I also read this quote from an interview with Sir David Attenborough:“One of my favourite books, which I read when I was about twelve or fourteen, was Alfred Russel Wallace’s travels in the Far East in search of the birds of paradise. I thought he was a marvellous man and full of insight and compassion for the people he met. He was entirely by himself, getting on for eight years wandering around the islands of East Melanesia, western New Guinea and Borneo.” - interview with The Folio Society.
For anyone familiar with Attenborough’s work, it’s impossible to imagine that this book didn’t have a huge impact on him; on the way in which he sees the world and on his career.
Not only can books inspire us in terms of capturing our imagination and our view of the world, but they can also affect us emotionally. Very simply, emotional experiences have three components. First, subjective experiences; whatever the experience, the emotions felt by a person will be particular to them, and may be different from what another person might feel. One person might feel anger over a particular event, whilst another might fear sadness. Second, physiological responses; for example our heart beating faster out of fear. Third, behavioural responses; the expression of the emotion, for example smiling or grimacing or sighing.
“Emotions are how individuals deal with matters or situations they find personally significant.” - The Science Of Emotion: Exploring The Basics Of Emotional Psychology
We’ve all experienced books that have a personal resonance for us. Books that have made our heart beat faster, that have made us laugh or cry, or gasp in shock. Reading affects how we feel, how we feel about the world around us and how we want to be in it. It can shape how we want to carry ourselves and behave. Reading can lead to great things.
Back to one of my original questions, can reading make us better people long-term? Perhaps. The emotions we feel through reading might inspire us to take action, to make a difference, to change the world. A book might inspire us to be brave like a character. To stand up for what we believe in or direct our career path.
I asked my Dad his thoughts on how reading might affect personality. He was a precocious reader as a child growing up in Ghana, reading the works of Black American writers and activists such as James Baldwin, Frederick Douglass and Angela Davis, alongside Hemingway, Steinbeck and Graham Greene. He was a bit of a loner (in his own words), lost in his own world. His friends weren’t like him, they didn’t really get him. He found solace in reading.
My Dad is convinced that reading shaped him, formed part of his education and culture. Many of the writers he loved wrote about oppression, injustice, the harm one person can inflict upon another. Reading influenced how he sees the world, these writers wanting to help others and to do good. It led to his career as an equal opportunity advisor in race relations. It developed his empathy. It shaped him.
‘Reading by example’
I’ve been working with the Community team to produce numerous Vocabulary word lists at schools’ requests, to support vocabulary used in the classroom. We have several word lists covering different subject matter but more so lists from a growing number of novels, with one added to our Vocab programme every Wednesday.
Here are some examples. The story Wonder by R. J. Palacio is about a boy with distorted facial features and covers the themes of bullying and friendship. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne is about the Holocaust and teaches us about friendship and guilt. The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson explores themes of life and death, based on Eastern European folklore. These books can help readers to discover more about people’s different life experiences, explore their feelings, and develop empathy.
What books do you think might have impacted on your personality?