• 57°

Love your library

Several years ago I read “Cryptonomicon,” by Neal Stephenson. In the book, I met a character named Lawrence who served as a cryptographer in the U.S. military. Lawrence was really good with numbers and patterns. His social skills were not so good. I know real people like that. You probably do too. Through the miracle of fiction, I had an opportunity to see the world through Lawrence’s eyes, and by getting to know and appreciate Lawrence, I found myself better able to look past the foibles of people with a similar ilk and get a glimpse into the amazing workings of minds that see the world through a lens that differs from my own.

A similar thing happened when I read “Plainsong,” by Kent Haruf. The author presented one of the characters as a troubled teenager who leapt before she looked and was prone to making bad choices. Other characters interacted with her and made good and bad choices of their own. As I got to know these people through the novel’s pages, I came to understand the types of pain and disappointment each had experienced and I discovered how deep the need for emotional connection runs. Reading the book helped me realize that people all around me make decisions based on their own life experiences and expectations. Sometimes they fail and need forgiveness, but sometimes they simply see situations from a perspective that is different from mine. If I could understand the way each person views the elements of a situation, perhaps I could acquire the wisdom to withhold judgment.

My favorite version of the King Arthur legend also challenges common judgments. In the books “Taliesin,” “Merlin,” and “Arthur,” Stephen R. Lawhead roots the Arthurian tale in the demise of Atlantis and attributes the rise of magic to the expression of lost scientific knowledge and ancient mystical practices. As the Christian message spreads through Celtic lands, Merlin and Arthur prepare for a coming Kingdom of Summer. Invaders and treachery abound, but if you think you know all about the story of Guinevere and Lancelot, Lawhead will make you consider new questions. Did they really betray Arthur’s trust or were those reports mere rumors spread for political purposes?

Of course, we’ll never know. But good literature has a way of helping readers exercise their minds and ask good questions. Literature helps readers learn to be sympathetic toward people in situations that differ from their own.

Scientific studies support this notion. Over the past decade several studies have reported that reading fiction helps people develop empathy. One study concluded that reading literary fiction increased a person’s skill in understanding social relationships and that the practice improved the reader’s ability to realize that other people’s desires and beliefs may differ from his or her own desires and beliefs. Another study found a relationship between literature and the ability to relate to others emotionally, and yet another discovered a link between reading literary fiction and a reduction in prejudices. Others have looked beyond literary fiction and discovered benefits in genre fiction and even film.

If you’re curious about the role fiction can play in opening your eyes to the world and people around you, a visit to your local library can give you opportunities to experiment. And, the timing couldn’t be better. While February is probably best known for honoring lovers on St. Valentine’s Day, the entire month is also designated as National Library Lover’s Month.

There’s a lot to love at the library. Libraries offer books in many formats: print, electronic and audio. They also provide vast amounts of information, internet access and activities that connect people to each other and to their communities. To discover all that’s going on at the Central Virginia Regional Library, stop by the branch closest to you: the Buckingham Library at 1140 Main St. in Dillwyn or the Barbara Rose Johns Farmville-Prince Edward Library at 1303 W. Third St. in Farmville.

Visit the library in February and show your love — your love of the library, your community and your fellow human beings — by checking out a book and checking in with the passions that connect us all.

KAREN BELLENIR has been writing for The Farmville Herald since 2009. Her book, Happy to Be Here: A Transplant Takes Root in Farmville, Virginia features a compilation of her columns. It is available from PierPress.com. You can contact Karen at kbellenir@PierPress.com.