I agree with all of the above discussions; but I am especially gratified to read what spearfam has written: that literature enhances our capacity to empathize.
People talk about the intellectual values of literature: critical thinking, citing evidence and so on. But, I value literature most of all for its emotional and esthetic appeal.
Empathy is emotional; sympathy, intellectual. Literature evokes such human emotions as pity and terror (Aristotle), love and compassion (A. C. Bradley) and many other epistemic virtues (i.e., virtues that help us to know the world and make it better) like honor, bravery, honesty and integrity (Ramirez). But recently, Susan Zunshine has a written a book demonstrating how the human emotion of empathy is critical in our understanding and appreciation of the novel.
Think of any great novel: Pride and Prejudice, David Copperfield, Jude the Obscure, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Passage to India, Lincoln, The Namesake—all of these excellent novels need empathy to fully appreciate them.
But where do we get empathy from? Consider the odds against empathy. Even in real life we empathize with others without actually experiencing what they experience, a hard thing to do. How much more difficult would it be for readers to empathize with a character who is not actually going through anything!It is all fiction!
Yet we do. Prof. Zunshine says we do this because as we read our intellectual act of reading, i.e., making meaning from the text, triggers our neuro-cells "in some form of mirror effect," same as we would do in real life. However, because the novelist employs one more thing that is usually not present in real life events—esthetics—the emotional impact of novel events (pun intended) enhance our empathy. Thus, because of our empathy we are able to not only realize the characters' emotions, we even anticipate them, Examples of what I am saying are legion, I need not give any more here.
Zunshine's book, and spearfam's reference to literature teaching us empathy, triggered this response from me.
I am grateful for your indulgence.