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The Power of Literary Reading

This is a "guest blog" from my old friend Martha, my one-time Dean of Faculty who got me involved in a writing group, part of the inspiration for my current life. We also once went on a pilgrimage from Statesboro, Georgia, where she was then chairing the department of Writing and Linguistics, to New Orleans, post-Katrina, so I could visit Selma. She's recently written an academic book on why reading books still matters, but I think it is important enough to deserve a wider readership. - JT

I have recently published a book co-authored with Bob Waxler, a founder of the Changing Lives Through Literature program, that might be of interest to readers of the Neuromythology blog. It is titled Why Reading Books Still Matters: The Power of Literature in Digital Times In it we argue the power of reading literary works to exercise the mind, the imagination, and the emotions in ways that can literally (pun intended!) change people. A growing body of research in psychology has demonstrated that reading literary stories and novels h

elps people relate to others coming from different backgrounds and to imagine walking in their shoes, enhancing empathy and social connectedness, which are becoming degraded in a world where people increasingly exist in their own disconnected groups and bubbles. It seems far preferable to have young people addicted to fiction, as Michael Burke, writing in Literary Reading, Cognition and Emotion: An Exploration of the Oceanic Mind claims that readers of fictional literature are, than to the social media and video games they are more likely to be addicted to today.

In Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age, Sven Birkets reflects that after reading a book of literary fiction, “the details of plot fall away” and what is left is a sort of “residue…of personal resonance” (p. 149).

I had this experience in my junior year in college, when I took a course called “Religion and Modern Man,” which included both philosophical and fictional works as readings. Although I was a philosophy major, I found that I was much more affected by the fictional works we read than by the philosophical treatises. I was especially moved by Graham Greene’s fictional account of a man wrestling with difficult issues of faith in the modern world in The Heart of the Matter. Reading this book left me with a powerful feeling, a long-term residue of personal resonance, that is still with me today—though I hardly remember anything of the plot or the characters. A substantial amount of research carried out in the field of psychology has now demonstrated the powerful and lasting effects of reading fictional literature and other forms of literary text.

Reading Literary Fiction Increases Empathy and the Ability to Read Others.

A considerable body of empirical research as reviewed in Chapter 9 of Why Reading Books Still Matters shows that reading literary fiction increases empathy and the ability to read others. As compared to readers of nonfiction, readers of literary fiction score higher on measures of empathy and social ability, such as the ability to read people’s feelings in their eyes and the ability to read the meaning of people’s interactions in social situations. It appears that readers of literary fiction develop skill in reading not only not only linguistic signs—that is, in understanding the meaning of words and sentences—but also in reading other kinds of communicative signs—that is, visual signs of human feelings and motives. Reading literary fiction therefore seems to train people’s ability to perceive and relate to other people, to what they mean by what they say and do.

There are a number of studies in which an experimental group read a literary story and a control group read a nonliterary account which was otherwise parallel to the story. This group of studies has repeatedly demonstrated that readers’ responses to the people in the two versions are different: in the literary fictional version but not the nonliterary version readers felt empathy with the people whose stories were told. As psychology researcher and novelist Keith Oatley wrote in a Scientific American Mind article reviewing much of this literature, “Reading fiction trains people in [the social] domain, just as reading nonfiction books about, say, genetics or history builds expertise in those subject areas” (p. 66).

Reading Literary Fiction Opens One's Personality and Behavior to Change.

A body of research confirms that reading literary fiction promotes positive psychological change that can cause social change as well. A number of studies have demonstrated effects on personality traits as tested before and after reading literature, in particular an increase in the “Big Five” personality trait of Openness to new experiences. Other research on the effects of reading literary fiction on people’s attitudes and behaviors revealed that after reading a literary story, participants who showed great engagement with the story—those who read deeply and were more “transported into the story”—had greater empathy for the protagonist and were more likely to engage afterwards in “prosocial” helping behavior towards a stranger. In general, researchers have found that information framed as a literary story can change people’s attitudes and beliefs by increasing their sense of empathy, as they were able to imagine what it was like to be someone else.

The value of literary fiction to affect people’s racial biases was confirmed in a series of studies by Dan Johnson, such as one in which he reports that after reading, those who had been more transported into the story rated Arab-Muslims more positively than those who had been less transported, and they showed greater empathy for Arab-Muslims and also had higher intrinsic motivation to reduce prejudice than they had before reading the story. It therefore appears that highly engaged reading of appropriate literary fictional material has value in reducing prejudice. If so, it is a powerful tool for changing people’s minds and improving social relationships. As Johnson concludes, “Narrative fiction offers a safe and rich context in which exposure and understanding of an out-group can occur and can easily be incorporated in educational and applied settings” (Abstract). Using literature in this way recognizes the sociopolitical nature of education and exploits education for achieving important social goals, to influence human relations and the society to become more accepting of diversity and cultural difference, and so more open, tolerant, and egalitarian.

The potential of reading literary fiction for encouraging positive social attitudes and social change is indeed quite substantial, as shown in the Changing Lives through Literature (CLTL) program initiated by my co-author, Bob Waxler, and others in Massachusetts, as an alternative sentencing program for criminal offenders who were given probationary sentences on condition that they complete a seminar in Modern American Literature with him. Probationers discussed books such as James Dickey’s Deliverance as a way to get the men to

express their thoughts and feelings “in a democratic classroom where all ideas were valid. Instead of seeing their world from one angle, they began opening up to new perspectives and started realizing that they had choices in life. For them, literature became a road to insight.”

study of 673 CLTL prisoner participants compared them to 1460 other probationers selected at random as a control group. Participation in the CLTL program dramatically reduced both the number and the severity of criminal incidents in those who had participated as contrasted with the control group. Another study showed that prisoners in the CLTL group had a recidivism rate of only 19%, compared to the other prisoners’ rate of 45%. Probation officers praise the program for creating a sense of empathy and community and credit the CLTL program for spurring many of the offenders to go back to school and to think in new, more generous and tolerant, ways about family and friends.

The CLTL program has worked well with at-risk students to create what Maureen Hall and Bob Waxler call “a new neighborhood” around reading and discussion of stories and poems, as a safe space for those students to try out new ideas and experiment with new identities, far away from neighborhoods often “ruled by the voices of gang leaders. By reading, thinking about, and discussing stories and poetry, [they] were given an opportunity to transport themselves through narrative texts and locate themselves in a new place, and to use their imagination and the engagement with language to reinvent themselves” (p. 92). CLTL has also been used with future teachers, helping them see how story readings and discussions could build students’ confidence and help them enjoy learning, and how even the most disaffected students can be reached and have much to share.

Why Reading Books Still Matters.

Harvard ethicist Zygmunt Bauman argues in Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? that in the new global village that is our world, “the skills we need more than any others are the skills of interactions with others—of conducting a dialogue, of negotiating, of gaining mutual understanding, and of managing or resolving the conflicts inevitable in every instance of shared life” (p 190). Martha Nussbaum, in Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities maintains that goals for education which aim to create good citizens and a healthy democracy must include empathy and concern for other human beings, in addition to critical thinking, responsibility, and individuality, and “the skill and courage [required] to raise a dissenting voice” (pp. 45–46).

Reading and discussing literature may be especially valuable in an age when both knowledge for its own sake and intellectual discussion are devalued, and when learning and building empathy and sociality through face-to-face human interaction is on the decline, as MIT psychology professor Sherry Turkle has warned in Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (review) and Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk (review) The documented effects of literary reading on empathy, sociability, and openness to new ideas need to be seriously considered as a way to counter selfishness and close-mindedness as well as insularity and hostility to those who hold different views.

reading can help reinforce people’s sense of who and what they are as human beings and how they are necessarily connected to other human beings. In so doing, as we argue in Why Reading Books Still Matters: The Power of Literature in Digital Times, literary reading offers a practical way to build humanity’s social capacity and capability in the face of the limited vision of life that is provided by the mass media.

Martha C. Pennington (B. A. Philosophy, Bryn Mawr College; M. A. and Ph.D. Linguistics, University of Pennsylvania) holds positions at the University of London as a Professorial Research Associate in Linguistics (SOAS, School for O

riental and African Studies) and a Research Fellow in Applied Linguistics and Communication (Birkbeck College). She is the founding editor of Writing & Pedagogy and edits two book series, Frameworks for Writing (Equinox) and Innovation and Leadership in English Language Teaching (Brill ). Her publications include academic books and articles as well as poetry, and her current book projects include Humor and Language: Two Things That Make Us Human (Equinox) and Introduction to Bilingualism and Multilingualism: People and Languages in Contact (Wiley-Blackwell). Martha is a writer and a world traveler who previously taught in Hawaii, Hong Kong, Japan, and England, and has so far this year toured Iceland and also spent time in Paris, Cadiz (Spain), and London.