In Europe one in five people lacks adequate reading skills. Additionally, research shows that the amount of time spend reading is in decline and becoming more intermittent and fragmented. This is alarming, since recent empirical research shows that literary reading, by virtue of its appeal to first-person experience, yields unique cognitive and emotional benefits, such as enhancing the capacity for empathy, social inference, and emotional self-regulation. To arrive at a deeper understanding of how reading literature can lead to positive societal effects, more fundamental research is needed first. We need to clarify the (neuro)-cognitive processes that are crucial to literary reading in theoretical models. Model development should go hand in hand with the elaboration of novel empirical methods to test them. In addition, we need to investigate forms of narrative engagement and types of literary texts in which empathy plays an important role. Narrative engagement is an important contributor to reading enjoyment. Once these processes and literary experiences are mapped out, we can explore the effects of literary reading on mental well-being.
To answer these questions, we have set up an European Training Network (ETN) that aims to train a new generation of innovative and interdisciplinary researchers in the empirical study of literature: The Empirical Study of Literature Training Network (ELIT). As there are currently no interdisciplinary doctoral programs available across Europe, we developed a new program that revolves around comprehensive and integrative training that emphasizes the multidimensionality of reading. ELIT stimulates true interdisciplinary research: our doctoral candidates combine theory-driven approaches with various empirical methods. We are collaborating closely with a range of non-academic partners to draw in valuable insights about how reading can fulfil certain societal needs.