Saturday, October 19, 2013

Breaking News: Reading Might Be Good for You!

ISBN-10: 0062065254 ISBN-13: 9780062065254 Published: Harper Perennial, 05/01/2013 Pages: 336 Language: English Ingram Discount Code: REG
Flyleaf customers clued me in to a recent study written up in The New York Times that found that "after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking." Now, it's human nature to try to justify one's hobbies-- hence my somewhat facetious title to this entry-- but, if true, these findings would have fascinating implications. 

The value of reading in intellectual development is both common sense and scientifically proven fact-- however, this study's focus on "emotional intelligence" sets it apart. As the New York Times put it, the findings "suggested a direct effect — quantifiable by measuring how many right and wrong answers people got on the tests — from reading literature for only a few minutes" and "experts said the results implied that people could be primed for social skills like empathy, just as watching a clip from a sad movie can make one feel more emotional." Furthermore, by comparing the effects of different genres of fiction and nonfiction separately, the study suggests that certain kinds of books might be more valuable in producing empathy than others, possibly having implications for school curriculums: "The study’s authors and other academic psychologists said such findings should be considered by educators designing curriculums, particularly the Common Core standards adopted by most states, which assign students more nonfiction."

I buy most of this--to an extent. In one of my favorite books, An Anatomy of Melancholy, frequent mention is made of harsh tyrants who could only be moved by a play or a poem (there's a particular example the author references, I think from Greek tragedy, which is escaping me at the moment). The idea that art is sometimes more effective at creating empathy than real life is one more sad irony we've come to accept. It doesn't seem like much of a stretch to suggest that one could take emotional lessons learned from a master such as Alice Munro--she won that Nobel Prize for a reason, people-- and apply them to real life.

Naturally, I have my doubts about the methodology of the study and blah blah blah-- for now, it's just nice to think about. Ultimately, I share Louis Erdrich's opinion, as expressed in a quote that concludes the article: Writers are often lonely obsessives, especially the literary ones. It’s nice to be told what we write is of social value,” she said. “However, I would still write even if novels were useless.”

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