Great literature is not just entertainment. Researchers at The New School (in New York) have discovered that reading literary fiction enhances one’s sensitivity to the complexity and nuance of human interaction and human behavior. Which will necessarily improve your social skills.
However, reading pulp and popular fiction has no such effect. Nor does reading what the researchers call quality non-fiction.
The New York Times summarizes the report:
It 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.
The researchers say the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.
How was the experiment conducted?
People ranging in age from 18 to 75 were recruited for each of five experiments. They were paid $2 or $3 each to read for a few minutes. Some were given excerpts from award-winning literary fiction (Don DeLillo, Wendell Berry). Others were given best sellers like Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl,” a Rosamunde Pilcher romance or a Robert Heinlein science fiction tale.
When it came to choosing nonfiction the researchers chose excerpts from magazine articles. They were not handing out snippets of Matthew Arnold or John Ruskin. And they were not measuring the effect of reading Descartes or David Hume:
In one experiment, some participants were given nonfiction excerpts, but we’re not talking “All the President’s Men.” To maximize the contrast, the researchers — looking for nonfiction that was well-written, but not literary or about people — turned to Smithsonian Magazine. “How the Potato Changed the World” was one selection. “Bamboo Steps Up” was another.
One understands that one’s social skills are not going to be enhanced by reading about how the potato changed the world. But, is the same true for reading and seriously studying Plato or Thomas Aquinas?
The jury is still out.
What does it all mean?
It suggests that great literature activates areas of the brain that teach people to appreciate the complexity of human character and motivation.
Junk novels and contemporary magazine essays do not activate your imagination. They are more about the story line than the characters or the writing.
Human beings, despite what today’s psychologists think, do not live their lives in order to make for interesting stories.
It all makes sense: people study the Humanities because they want to learn about human beings. Even if science gives us some of the rules that govern human interactions it show us the dizzying complexity of how different relationship games can be played out.
The study also demonstrates that children should learn how to read the best literature and even the best philosophical writing. They should, in other words, be taught the canon of literary and philosophical classics.
You probably know that Humanities departments have long since rejected the literary and philosophical canon in favor of ideological drivel. Students are well versed in the work of mediocrities like Slavoj Zizek and Judith Butler but know nothing of Aristotle or Locke or Schopenhauer. They pore over feeble-minded politically correct thinkers but ignore Dickens, Austen and Henry James.
More importantly, when classics are presented in college classrooms these days they are taught as ideological vehicles, not as literary works. A college student is more likely to study Shakespeare’s sexism than to learn to appreciate the characters and language.
Many of today’s Humanities professors are in the indoctrination business. They understand that great literature poses a threat to their aspirations. They have not banned it entirely from curricula but have tried to neutralize its benefits by wringing the genius out of it and turning it into an instrument of thought reform.
The result: fewer and fewer students are now taking Humanities courses. The departments are passing into obsolescence. They can be compared, in the bard’s words, to the engineer who is: “hoist with his own petard.”
One wonders, in this day and age, how many of them know what that means.