Can Republicans, Democrats find common ground in 'bridge books'?

A pair of researchers suggests political foes may find reconciliation in books.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Alison Thomson reads passages from 'The Painted Drum' during a book club meeting at The Book Cellar, an independent bookshop in Lincoln Square on February 7, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois.

They've been found to boost intelligence, kindness, and empathy; to rehabilitate criminals in prison; even to elongate your life. Now, a new study suggests that books may alleviate one of the most entrenched problems in modern American society: extreme political polarization.

That's right, in an election cycle in which the political climate is so contentious it divides families, incites violence at political rallies, and has presidential candidates forgoing long-held conventions of civility, a pair of researchers suggests political foes may find reconciliation in books.

Discussing so-called "bridge books," books that bridge the gap between right and left, offers common ground and appears to help readers of different political persuasions become less tribal and more tolerant, according to researchers Andrew Piper and Richard Jean So.

The researchers, both professors of literature, crunched reader data from and found a group of bridge books – books like "To Kill a Mockingbird," "1984," "Lord of the Flies," "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," "Game of Thrones," and "The Lovely Bones" – that appear to change the way readers of different political persuasions typically think or speak about politics, reduce negative or hateful language, and perhaps help unite groups under a shared banner of books.

"Literature and books, long seen to be the thing that drives Republicans and Democrats apart, can be a site of political reconciliation. And there exists a particular group of books that facilitate this process," Professors Piper, a professor of German and European literature at McGill University, and So, a professor of English at the University of Chicago, write for the Guardian.

That doesn't surprise Virginia Zimmerman, a professor of English at Bucknell University, who has witnessed the very same phenomenon play out in her classroom.

"In my experience teaching students with a broad range of political values, I have found that literature seems to offer a sort of neutral territory. It's easier to discuss controversial topics when the focus of the conversation is a work of fiction," Professor Zimmerman says.

"In other words, literature does not provide an escape from the political conflicts of our time so much as it provides an alternative space for trying to work through those conflicts. For instance, readers may have opposing attitudes about how to handle poverty in America, but they are likely to agree that the 'Hunger Games' are not a good solution. So, readers discover they share common ground and may even be able to move from a discussion of fictional politics into a more productive and more peaceful discussion of real-world issues."

As Zimmerman pointed out from her teaching experience, the researchers behind the Goodreads study also found that books offer a safe place for partisans to discuss issues that may typically incite conflict. They began their study by identifying readers' political affiliations by seeing if they had positively rated books from a list of highly partisan writing – titles like James Carville’s "It’s the Middle Class, Stupid!" or Paul Krugman’s "End This Depression Now!" on the left and Glenn Beck’s "Cowards," Ann Coulter’s "Demonic," or Pat Buchanan’s "Suicide of a Superpower" on the right.

Once they had identified a set of readers as "liberal readers" or "conservative readers," they plumbed both sets of readers virtual bookshelves and found a large swath of books in common, so-called bridge books that bridged the gap between right and left. "In a sense, these books point to some kind of shared culture," the researchers wrote. The list, titled "100 books that bring readers together," was incredibly varied and diverse, including "Romeo and Juliet," "World War Z," "Jane Eyre," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress," "The Bonfire of the Vanities," "Game of Thrones," "The Invisible Man," "Bridget Jones's Diary," and "Inferno."

"[W]hen both conservative and liberal readers talk about “bridge books” instead of their usual partisan books, they change their way of talking and thinking in significant ways. They use less negative or hateful language. They use more words related to cognitive insight, such as 'admit' and 'explain,'" the researchers wrote. "In short, what is special about these books is that they make readers who otherwise have strong political dispositions become less tribal. When people read these books, they embrace a more tolerant worldview."

Contrary to conventional opinion, they also found that conservative readers were not less intellectual or more contentious. In fact, they were more generous, less heated and emotional, and produced more complex thoughts, according to an analysis of grammar.

Scott DiMarco, director of library and information resources at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania, says books have always been a source of positive discussion and common ground, especially for those of vastly different viewpoints, and says novels often contain lessons relevant today.

"Political novels often contain a relevance to today, by looking at our past in a nostalgic light," Mr. DiMarco writes in an email. Robert Penn Warren's "All the King’s Men," is an excellent example of power corrupting.... "Fahrenheit 451," by Ray Bradbury that examines a society that outlaws critical thinking and expression of thought; "Lord of the Flies," by William Golding...examines politics and power at its rawest."

No. 1 on his reading list and ours – "The Killer Angels," by Michael Shaara, which he says "shows the nobility of the American spirit and how friendship can cross political division."

After an such a contentious election cycle, perhaps that should be required reading for healing deep political divides.

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