D.G. Myers positions reading not as an escape but as a challenge to ourselves:
To read an author is to read someone different from ourselves. Reading is not a means of self-affirmation, but of self-denial. Any book that is any good challenges its readers: This is so, isn’t it? Did you know this? Have you considered that? [ … ]
Hence reading is self-mastery, because the self (and its affirmations) are held in check while the author (and his structures of thought) are fully attended to. True diversity in literature would be to read authors in circumstances as different from our own as possible, because we might then imagine ourselves as different than we are — not the creature of circumstances, but their master. Reading is fundamental, all right: to a person’s ethical development.
You can say the same about most great art, and it certainly need not be limited to fiction, though I grant that a fictional narrative will likely place the reader closer to the thoughts of the subject at hand. But consider great theatre and film, even music or dance in the more abstract sense, in how they can shake us from our comfort zones, force us to empathize with characters to whom we would normally never relate, those of different times, situations, and motivations.
I’ve cited it before, but it bears repeating here. I am once again reminded of the panhandler interviewed in Al Pacino’s documentary, Looking for Richard.
We should introduce Shakespeare into the academics. You know why? Because then the kids would have feelings. We have no feelings. That’s why it’s easy for us to shoot each other. We don’t feel for each other, but if we were taught to feel, we wouldn’t be so violent. Does Shakespeare help us? He did more than help us. He instructed us… . If we think words are things and have no feelings in words then we say things to each other that mean nothing. But if we felt what we said, we’d say less and mean more!