A debate has erupted over whether reading fiction makes human beings more moral. But what if its real value consists in something even more fundamental?
By Karen Swallow Prior
Originally posted on June 21, 2013
A battle over books has erupted recently on the pages of The New York Times and Time. The opening salvo was Gregory Currie's essay, "Does Great Literature Make Us Better?" which asserts that the widely held belief that reading makes us more moral has little support. In response, Annie Murphy Paul weighed in with "Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer." Her argument is that "deep reading," the kind of reading great literature requires, is a distinctive cognitive activity that contributes to our ability to empathize with others; it therefore can, in fact, makes us "smarter and nicer," among other things. Yet these essays aren't so much coming to different conclusions as considering different questions.
To advance her thesis, Paul cites studies by Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, and Keith Oatley, a professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto. Taken together, their findings suggest that those "who often read fiction appear to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and view the world from their perspective." It's the kind of thing writer Joyce Carol Oates is talking about when she says, "Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another's skin, another's voice, another's soul."
Oatley and Mar's conclusions are supported, Paul argues, by recent studies in neuroscience, psychology, and cognitive science. This research shows that "deep reading -- slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity -- is a distinctive experience," a kind of reading that differs in kind and quality from "the mere decoding of words" that constitutes a good deal of what passes for reading today, particularly for too many of our students in too many of our schools (as I have previously written about here).
Paul concludes her essay with a reference to the literary critic Frank Kermode, who famously distinguishes between "carnal reading" -- characterized by the hurried, utilitarian information processing that constitutes the bulk of our daily reading diet -- and "spiritual reading," reading done with focused attention for pleasure, reflection, analysis, and growth. It is in this distinction that we find the real difference between the warring factions in what might be a chicken-or-egg scenario: Does great literature make people better, or are good people drawn to reading great literature?
The entire article is here.