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The Powers of Reading


Keith Haring

The question of whether reading makes you a better person is an evergreen one, but in the past few months has been bouncing around a little more vigorously than usual. I trace this current inquiry to a February post on the New Yorker‘s site by Teju Cole, in which he wondered how it might be possible for so committed a reader as Barack Obama to do so many bad things — indeed, many of the same bad things that George Bush had done. (I have written before about this Cole post.)

Cole takes it as a given that our previous president “was anti-intellectual … he didn’t know much about the wider world, and did not much care to learn.” Presumably he didn’t know what a voracious reader George Bush is, but even if he did he surely would he said that Bush wasn’t reading the right books. Of Obama, by contrast, Cole says that

a man who names among his favorite books Morrison’s “Song of Solomon,” Robinson’s “Gilead,” and Melville’s “Moby Dick” is playing the game pretty seriously. His own feel for language in his two books, his praise for authors as various as Philip Roth and Ward Just, as well as the circumstantial evidence of the books he’s been seen holding (the “Collected Poems” of Derek Walcott, most strikingly), add up to a picture of a man for whom an imaginative engagement with literature is inseparable from life.

So how come his political actions, especially in foreign affairs, are so much like those of the anti-intellectual and incurious George Bush? It must be that literature doesn’t have the ennobling effects we’d like it to have.

Recently, in the New York Times, a philosopher named Gregory Currie took up the question and concluded that, as much as we’d like to believe that reading great literature makes us better people, we just don’t have any reliable evidence to back up that hope — to which Annie Murphy Paul quickly replied, in Time, that “Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer.”

Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, and Keith Oatley, a professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, reported in studies published in 2006 and 2009 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. This link persisted even after the researchers factored in the possibility that more empathetic individuals might choose to read more novels. A 2010 study by Mar found a similar result in young children: the more stories they had read to them, the keener their “theory of mind,” or mental model of other people’s intentions.

As a literature professor and a lover of reading, I can’t tell you how much I would love to offer a full endorsement of Paul’s argument — but I can’t. For one thing, in studying the effects of people’s reading habits on their moral lives, it’s impossible to control for all sorts of other factors. For instance, children who are read to aren’t just being read to: they are being attended to, loved, cared for. There is a significant body of research demonstrating that people who are read to as children will for their rest of their lives associate reading with affection and security. What reading might do for when extracted from this familial context … we just don’t know and probably can’t know.

Second, if you can “better … understand other people” and acquire a “keener … mental model of other people’s intentions,” that could make you kinder to them. On the other hand, it could also make you a better manipulator of them: the most successful con men understand other people’s motives and intentions very well indeed.

So I’m disinclined to think that reading alone will necessarily do anything for people’s moral character. But I believe reading has a powerful role to play in supporting and strengthening the character of people who are formed by strong families and communities of belief and practice. Annie Murphy Paul writes,

Their reading [that of most young people] is pragmatic and instrumental: the difference between what literary critic Frank Kermode calls “carnal reading” and “spiritual reading.” If we allow our offspring to believe carnal reading is all there is — if we don’t open the door to spiritual reading, through an early insistence on discipline and practice — we will have cheated them of an enjoyable, even ecstatic experience they would not otherwise encounter. And we will have deprived them of an elevating and enlightening experience that will enlarge them as people. Observing young people’s attachment to digital devices, some progressive educators and permissive parents talk about needing to “meet kids where they are,” molding instruction around their onscreen habits. This is mistaken. We need, rather, to show them someplace they’ve never been, a place only deep reading can take them.

To this I would say, no, not quite: deep reading all by itself can’t take them there, but deep reading as an essential part of a comprehensive moral education — three cheers for that, indeed.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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