Psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, at the New School for Social Research in New York, have proved that reading literary fiction enhances the ability to detect and understand other people's emotions, a crucial skill in navigating complex social relationships.Now, I don't believe that we need science to save literature (or literary studies), or even to make the moral argument for us, but this is an intriguing bit of evidence. It shows that as we might expect, reading is reading: it exercises our perceptions and our sympathies, requires and enhances skill, and connects us with the world and the characters we read about.
I take issue with the distinction between literary and popular fiction, since of course, Dickens was once one of the most popular novelists of his era, but I wonder if what the study might suggest is that other genres could enhance additional sympathies than just our 'theory of mind'. Can science fiction make us more philosophical or analytical? Can fantasy make us more imaginative? And could mystery make us more observant, more cued to perception and environmental subtleties?