Why bother writing novels in the first place? Our Year of the Novel Blogger, Caro, comes up with some answers in her latest post.

Sometimes when I tell people I’m writing a novel, I can see a question forming in their minds. The honest/brutal ones ask it aloud, but even the polite ones are thinking it: Really? You’re writing a book? Isn’t that a bit crazy, you know, given the state of the industry?

It’s no secret that the way we engage with books has changed over time. The hard-core among us still flock to second-hand book stores to get a whiff of the scent of aging paper, but just has many people are snuggling up with their Kindles and e-Readers to get their literary fix. I’m more of a paper-and-ink advocate myself, but I also understand the attraction of a portable electronic library. What I struggle to understand is the people who don’t read at all – and let’s face it, there are enough of them to fuel plenty of talk about the death of publishing.

People are always telling me they don’t have time to read – and I can certainly identify with that. But between our work schedules, families, relationships, exercise regimes, household chores and social engagements, I still think there’s a valuable place for books.

Research coming out of the United States and Canada (including studies from the University of Buffalo and the University of Toronto) suggests that although we read alone, the process facilitates social connection. Reading fiction is also linked to empathy – because novels deal with characters, their situations and how they react to them. Television and cinema may tell similar stories – but only the written word lets us really journey inside a character’s head. It shows us the interior of a person – not just the view from outside.

The Toronto study on empathy (by researcher Keith Oatley) is said to be the first to identify a clear and empirical psychological effect of reading and I think that’s exciting. Maybe that’s a lot of pressure to put on writers, but it’s also the most spectacular opportunity. And in an age when everyone seems to be rushing around trying to pare down their to-do lists, it’s worth considering what the return is on the time a reader invests in your work.

And, it’s also a great excuse to give yourself a little break every now and again to imagine life through someone else’s words.

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