The Garden Gnome

Want to improve your empathy? Go read a novel.

Once upon a time, there was a simple garden gnome named Bill. Bill was the kindly looking type of gnome, with half-glasses he used for reading. It wasn’t so much that he was looking down his nose at you, as he was looking over his cheeks. You know the type. Of course he wore a red cap and a green vest, except on Tuesdays when he wore his plaid one. Bill the Gnome knew all the woodland creatures by name. Hubert the Turtle, Wally the Rabbit… Bill even had tea with Guinevere the Red Fox on occasion. One sunny morning, as he walked along, he came across an old copy of The Wind in the Willows, upside down in a patch of ferns. “I know,” said Bill, “I’ll take this over to Nancy the Field-mouse. She’ll love this story.” So off he waddled, to find Mrs. Nancy, without even stopping to wonder who might have lost this beautiful book. And so his adventure began.

I have for some time this year had a theory that reading fiction would make one a better listener. But now I’ve found some exciting research that proves it, so don’t take it from me. When it comes to social sciences, I’m no academic. I’m just a simple practitioner of empathy and fiction. But some folks discovered that fiction does indeed increase empathy – and even more importantly, reading non-fiction is a negative indicator!

Of course the volume was something Old Gravel-Pit the Snow Owl had dropped one night. He’d been reading by the light of the moon when he saw something far below his treetop perch that caught his attention. It glistened as though it were a very large rodent with one eye open and the other eye closed. Was some cheeky woodchuck winking at him? How dare he? And so, forgetting his book, Old Gravel-Pit (we have long forgotten how he came by this name, I suppose that somewhere along the line they added the “Old” part, though perhaps he was born with it, being an Owl and all) and … Where was I? Oh – and forgetting his book he swooped down to take what was rightfully his; that is, anything he sees, as far as he is concerned, be it a woodchuck or a pocket-watch.

Here is the Abstract from an October, 2006 paper by Raymond A. Mar, et al, in the Journal of Research in Personality:

While frequent readers are often stereotyped as socially awkward, this may only be true of non-fiction readers and not readers of fiction. Comprehending characters in a narrative fiction appears to parallel the comprehension of peers in the actual world, while the comprehension of expository non-fiction shares no such parallels. Frequent fiction readers may thus bolster or maintain their social abilities unlike frequent readers of non-fiction. Lifetime exposure to fiction and non-fiction texts was examined along with performance on empathy/social-acumen measures. In general, fiction print-exposure positively predicted measures of social ability, while non-fiction print-exposure was a negative predictor. The tendency to become absorbed in a story also predicted empathy scores. Participant age, experience with English, and intelligence (g) were statistically controlled.

Of course it turned out to be a pocket-watch some careless gnome had dropped; it would go nicely with a plaid vest. Gravel-Pit the Snow Owl was disgusted to find that it was both inedible and also useless at telling any sort of story. He went in search of his book again the next evening as the sun went down, and it was just as Bill the Gnome turned out of the woods and into the field, that Gravel-Pit finally saw his book waddling along. Without thinking how the book might be moving on its own, he snagged it in one talon. Poor, surprised Bill forgot to let go of The Wind in the Willows as it lifted off, and soon he realized that he didn’t want to let go of it anymore, now, being so high off the ground, and up he went, higher and higher, sailing towards the Great Wheat Field where one could get lost, and beyond!

Do you feel for Bill? What would you rather do, read more about Bill, or go find this Study online and read it all? Did you really read the abstract, or just skim it? Did you just jump ahead, absorbed in the story, to read more about the silly gnome? (If so it’s a good sign for you as an empathetic person and for me as a writer!) Now I’m not saying that this little story I slapped out in a few minutes about a gnome and an owl contains any sort of literary brilliance, but the truth is, we hunger for story (which gives us something to think about), more than we do for non-fiction (which is where we get told what to think). Chances are you aren’t reading this article while on a date. No, you go to a movie!

Today I was working with a new coach, who was trying to get a visual picture for himself of what he wants to become in this next phase of life as a coach. I asked him to think of characters in movies or books that he admired, and he came up with Gandalf the wizard, (for how he’d like to be) and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (for the types of clients he wants). The key is becoming deeply involved in reading a story, not in movies.  Movies don’t count for developing empathy (at least not as far as the research shows.) Still, asking people about movie characters is an excellent way to help them visualize. Fewer people are reading fiction all the time. And we wonder why we’re lacking soft skills? You could go read the report, or you could take my word for it and go grab a novel.

Adam G. Fleming is a leadership coach specializing in creativity and the author of one novel, White Buffalo Gold, 2012, available on Amazon.


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The author lives in Goshen, Indiana with his wife and four children. He is self-employed as a leadership coach working with business executives, writers and other artists, and spiritual leaders. His clients enjoy business growth, increased vision and purpose, work/family lifestyle balance, and freedom from writer’s block.

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