Support the news

A New Kind Of Literary Analysis

This article is more than 5 years old.

We've always agreed that books are fun, diversionary, and entertaining. Now they are apparently as good for you as a bowl of bran flakes and a jog around the park.

In the latest issue of the journal Science, we find yet another study validating literature because it, well, makes us better people. In an article called "Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind," new experiments show "that reading literary fiction led to better performance on tests of affective ToM" — a.k.a. Theory of Mind, the "ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others and to understand that others have mental states that are different from one's own."

In other words, empathy. Reading good literature makes us feel for each other.

It seems to me there are some definite pitfalls in using science to prop up the value of literature.

Another study released earlier this year suggested that reading literary fiction can make us not only more empathetic, but improve our decision-making, and "make people more comfortable with uncertainty."

And yet another study in 2011 concluded that reading can even "affect our personalities." Readers of “Harry Potter” self-identified as wizards, “Twilight” readers self-identified as vampires. Apparently "belonging to these fictional communities actually provided the same mood and life satisfaction people get from affiliations with real-life groups."

Science has come along to the rescue again, supporting that which we’ve suspected all along: Reading is good for you. (Thanks, Mom.)

On one level, this is good news. I mean, who should be grumpy about research helping to boost the cultural relevance of an art form? Stories have always instructed us. Hopefully this data will provide further ammunition against those nay-sayers who argue the arts are a luxury. Now school boards can claim books make us better leaders, better decision makers, better business-people.

But on another level, I'm skeptical, and a little depressed, by this new kind of literary analysis. (I also think post-structuralist, Marxist, feminist, post-colonialist, and deconstructionist literary theories take the joy out of literature, but that's another rant.) Is relying on laboratory research to tell us books make us better human beings a positive development?

It seems to me there are some definite pitfalls in using science to prop up the value of literature.

First, can the effects of fiction really be measured? Perhaps I'm a romantic, but I'm not so sure. There's something ephemeral and magical that takes place between text on the page, the eye and the human imagination — some synergy that creates waves of emotion and compassion. Can that really be reduced to results to laboratory tests?

Furthermore, to me, justifying the value of a good book with science is laced with pathos. It's sad we need another study loaded with finite statistics to defend what we've always done well, without any rationalization — namely, the ability of the human species to tell good stories. Justifying the arts with science suggests that, as a culture, we've lost faith in literature. Maybe it's a sign of the waning power, and cultural moment, of books. After all, literature is up against stiff competition from other distractions and entertainments, ranging from social media and video games to constant texting and random surfing of the Internet.

The irony is that what we're searching for — namely, a sense of connection — is the nourishment that books have always provided. I believe that reading stories about the human condition is undeniably important. It's too bad that we can't simply have faith that reading is good, without having to enumerate its effects on us.

Perhaps science coming to the rescue is not a surprising state of affairs. American culture has always been driven by results. Profits. Numbers. The bottom line. We're lean and mean. We don't pretend to have much time or patience for superfluous or non-measurable activities that drain resources and take our eyes off the ball game.

Unless, that is, these activities can make us better people. If Americans universally value one thing, it's self-improvement. That promise that a new improved you is just a diet and fitness regimen away. Good literature can now stake a claim in that territory.

The irony is that what we're searching for — namely, a sense of connection — is the nourishment that books have always provided.

Why read a good novel? It's an exercise program for the mind.

I can just picture the infomercial:

"Don’t you wish that big flabby brain and pale personality would instantly become more lean and less mean? That there was a proven product that could help you make more friends, become a success at your job, and become a better lover? In short, a product to help you excel and read other people.

"Hi, I’m lit-fitness celebrity JK Rowling. If you’re busy like me, then stay tuned because I’m excited to share with you the most innovative piece of emotional and interpersonal exercise equipment ever. I'm talking about the fastest, easiest way to make lightning-fast decisions and get your empathy into its best shape ever.

"Introducing, the great American novel. Available now, for the low price of $24.95, plus shipping and handling. Operators are standing by.”

So too, apparently, are scientists.


This program aired on November 7, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

+Join the discussion

Support the news