Can books make us better people?

A New York Times piece ignited a debate over the claim that literature makes us morally and socially better.

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    'Anna Karenina' and 'Middlemarch' were two of the titles mentioned in a recent New York Times piece questioning whether or not literature "expand[s] our imaginations and refine[s] our moral and social sensibilities?"
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Does literature make us better?

That’s the intriguing question behind a provocative debate percolating through the literary community.

It was sparked by a piece in the New York Times by University of Nottingham professor of philosophy Gregory Currie. Though kitchen table – and indeed, ivory tower – wisdom would have it that literature improves us as human beings, Prof. Currie argued that the evidence is simply not there to support such a claim.

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“Wouldn’t reading about Anna Karenina, the good folk of Middlemarch and Marcel and his friends expand our imaginations and refine our moral and social sensibilities?” he asks, touching on the very benefits many readers attribute to reading good literature.

And yet, Currie says, proof of such benefits doesn’t exist. 

“What we don’t have is compelling evidence that suggests that people are morally or socially better for reading Tolstoy,” he writes.

One reason this is such an interesting debate is that many readers take for granted the premise that reading good literature makes us better people – smarter, more empathetic, more cultured. Currie goes so far as to say that so pitched are the emotions over this debate we fail to even question the premise or seek out the evidence.

“There is a puzzling mismatch between the strength of opinion on this topic and the state of the evidence,” he writes. “In fact I suspect it is worse than that; advocates of the view that literature educates and civilizes don’t overrate the evidence – they don’t even think that evidence comes into it.”

In fact, counters Time’s Annie Murphy Paul, reading literature does indeed make us “smarter and nicer,” and what’s more, the evidence is there to prove it.

In a June 3 article, she writes that 2006 and 2009 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 suggest that “individuals who often read fiction appear to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and view the world from their perspective.”

That’s because literature acts as a cognitive exercise of sorts, walking us through complex affairs in preparation for situations we may encounter in real life.

“The emotional situations and moral dilemmas that are the stuff of literature are also vigorous exercise for the brain, propelling us inside the heads of fictional characters and even, studies suggest, increasing our real-life capacity for empathy,” Paul writes. 

Paul likens reading literature to “deep reading,” and contrasts it with the superficial reading done on the Web. The two engage different parts of the brain and studies have found that the latter is less satisfying and less engaging than the former. 

“Recent research in cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience has demonstrated that deep reading – slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity – is a distinctive experience, different in kind from the mere decoding of words,” Paul says.

Taking the debate a step further, Lakshmi Chaudhry of First Post piggybacks on Paul’s argument. 

“Little else forces us to make that leap of empathy in our 21st century life,” she writes. “Great literature may not make us better human beings, but it forces us to encounter the world – and our self – in its wondrous and fearsome complexity. For that alone, a good book is and will remain one of the great achievements of humanity.”

Nonetheless, the question remains - does literature make us better?

If we turn to literature itself and the nuanced messages it conveys, we may find that the answer, unlike the question, is not nearly so clear-cut and precise. Literature, after all, deals with the messy, the ambiguous, the muddled, and, we suspect, that’s just what we have on our hands with that deceivingly straightforward question.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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