If Black Friday is the busiest shopping day of the year, Father’s Day is surely the hardest. What do you get for the member of the family—at least if your dad is anything like mine—who claims to never want anything? Peruse the mall in early June and the choices appear to fall into three categories: 1. yawningly boring shirt-and-tie combos, 2. assorted World’s Greatest Dad paraphernalia, and 3. gadgets. So many gadgets. Bluetooth-enabled titanium-alloy grilling spatulas. Bottle openers made from machine-gun rounds. Star Wars waffle makers.
There are, of course, messages encoded in each category. A shirt and tie says, Keep working, Pops. Anything labeled World’s Greatest Dad is an overcompensation, either on your part or his. And the gadgets, no matter how futuristic or flashy, tell Dad he’s basically a child in want of a toy. For the last several years, my own father and I have sent each other cards with a one-dollar bill inside (basically a handshake by mail) and called it even.
But the best Father’s Day gifts might be the most novel. I’m not talking about the Apple Watch or robot vacuum cleaners. I’m talking about actual novels. Books.
Several widely publicized scientific studies have shown that reading literary fiction (as opposed to romance or adventure stories) promotes both empathy and “pro-social” behavior [i] [ii]. In other words, a good novel helps us to imagine the world from someone else’s point of view. Later studies have expanded on these results to show that literature can even contribute to a more just and inclusive world. Researchers at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, for example, found that reading literary fiction reduced prejudice toward Arab Muslims [iii]. Although the studies specifically cite fiction, the elements of storytelling they describe—“replete with complicated individuals” and using “descriptions of sensations, analogies, and figurative language”—are also hallmarks of literary memoirs and literary journalism. (John McPhee’s Coming into the Country and Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken both come to mind.) It’s not necessarily the make-believe aspects of the story that matter but rather its ability to disrupt stereotypes and challenge conventions.
Ironically, there’s nothing revolutionary about the findings. They only confirm what writers and literature professors have been proclaiming for centuries. The Victorian novelist George Eliot writes in 1859, “The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling, erring human creatures.” Good books, in short, make us better people.
Sadly, however, Americans are reading fewer literary works than ever. A 2015 survey by the National Endowment for the Arts reported that only 43.1 percent of adults read at least one work of literature in a given year [iv]. That’s a steep decline from 1982, when the reading rate was 57 percent. Separate the data by gender, and numbers get worse. Fewer than 36 percent of American men, barely one in three, bothered to pick up a novel, a book of poems, or a play. The reasons for the drop-off are likely multifaceted, but the NEA notes that “literature now competes with an enormous array of electronic media” that have “increasingly drawn Americans away from reading.” And lest we forget, nothing has fueled the 24-7 accessibility of electronic media more than the smartphone, the epitome of latest-and-greatest, gotta-have-it gadgets.
In the year and a half since President Trump took office, a great deal of attention has been paid to the problems of toxic masculinity—which is to say a manhood that reinforces gender stereotypes and views women as sexual objects while at the same time denying the prevalence of sexism in American culture. Toxic masculinity runs the gamut from the irritating (e.g., manspreading on crowded busses and subways) to the truly horrific, with a vast country of boorishness, aggression, and weak-sauce “boys will be boys” dismissals in between. At its core, toxic masculinity isn’t a failure of genetics; it’s a failure of empathy. A failure to consider not simply one’s own power but also the humanity and vulnerabilities of others. To treat others the way we’d like to be treated. The very values literature aims to impart.
According to a poll released last Inauguration Day, two-thirds of men who identified as Republican weren’t bothered by the president’s comments or behavior in the Access Hollywood tape [v]. A year later, more than three-quarters of Republican men—and nearly half of all men—continue to support the Trump presidency [vi]. That means supporting the administration’s most draconian proposals, including the travel ban, the wall along the U.S–Mexico border, and the shrinking of the programs and agencies intended to aid the less fortunate and protect the environment. The president himself has boasted about his distaste for books. If reading literature is known to promote empathy, it’s not much of a stretch to assume that not reading would have the opposite effect.
So this Father’s Day, skip the Brookstone and head to the bookstore. Spend a while picking out a book for Dad—a good story, with juicy descriptions about struggling, erring human creatures. Looking for a way to connect with Dad on a deeper level? Buy two copies and propose reading it together. The book will give you something to talk about the next time you call. And in more ways than one, it’ll be the most thoughtful gift he receives all year.
David McGlynn is the author of One Day You’ll Thank Me: Lessons From an Unexpected Fatherhood, from Counterpoint Press.
[i] Kidd, David Comer and Castano, Emanuele, “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind.” Science, 18 Oct 2013: Vol. 342, Issue 6156, pp. 377–380.
[ii] Johnson, D. R., **Cushman, G., **Borden, L., & **McCune, M. (2013). “Potentiating empathic growth: Generating imagery while reading fiction increases empathy and prosocial behavior.” The Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 7, 306–312.
[iii] Johnson, D. R., **Jasper, D. M., **Griffin, S., & **Huffman, B. (2013). “Reading narrative fiction reduces Arab-Muslim prejudice and offers a safe haven from intergroup anxiety.” Social Cognition, 31, 578–598.
[v] The State of the Union on Gender Equality, Sexism, and Women’s Rights. Results from a National Survery Conducted by PerryUndem. January 17, 2017. https://www.scribd.com/document/336804316/PerryUndem-Gender-Equality-Report?content=10079&ad_group=Online+Tracking+Link&campaign=Skimbit,+Ltd.&keyword=ft500noi&source=impactradius&medium=affiliate&irgwc=1
[vi] Morning Consult National Tracking Poll #171117 December 1–3, 2017. https://morningconsult.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/171117_crosstabs_POLITICO_v1_AP-1.pdf