There were several comments on Heather’s recent Atticus Finch post about the power of reading and how it can make us better people. Commenter Krisha noted that literature can “mold and shape” people. Our own Erin added that the power to be shaped by characters and stories is what drew her to her career as an English professor. Anyone who has read Stacks on a regular basis knows that I share Erin and Krisha’s feelings. Books have a kind of holiness for me that can only be described as deeply spiritual (and probably overbearing when I get going about a book I’ve really loved. Just ask my poor book club).
But we are far from the only people to have these ideas, which is why I was fascinated by a recent book review by Salon’s literary critic Laura Miller that challenges the conventional wisdom that reading makes you a better person. Writing about William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship and the Things That Really Matter, Miller reports that Deresiewicz has written a beautiful and clever memoir, but she questions the premise of the book:
Does reading great literature make you a better person? I’ve not seen much evidence for this common belief. Some of the best-read people I know are thoroughgoing jerks, and some of the kindest and noblest verge on the illiterate — which is admittedly an anecdotal argument, but then, when it comes to this topic, what isn’t? There’s a theory, vaguely associated with evolutionary psychology, maintaining that fiction builds empathy, and therefore morality, by inviting us into the minds, hearts and experiences of others. This is what the British children’s book author Michael Morpurgo implied recently in the Observer newspaper, when he claimed that ‘developing in young children a love of poems and stories’ might someday render the human-rights organization Amnesty International obsolete … Isn’t it just as likely that many people who are already empathetic and moral will be drawn to literature because they’re curious about and interested in how others think and feel? Of course, not everyone with a literary appetite is so motivated. Quite a few, like the youthful Deresiewicz, are driven by intellectual vanity.
As Miller suggests, reading alone doesn’t make you a moral person and we can never escape the lens of our own personalities and experiences. In the subjective realm of literature interpretation, it is reasonable to assume that a kind person will interpret stories and characters with empathy and a pessimistic crank will find lots of evidence in fiction to confirm their foreboding sense of doom and the utter stupidity of their fellow-human beings.
Except that most people aren’t one or the other – kind or curmudgeonly. Most of us are compassionate and wise in some areas and shockingly blind and unfair in others. And that is why I ultimately disagree with Miller. To offer up some anecdotal evidence of my own, literature has been the place where I’ve learned to consider the question that Jonathan Franzen asks in his excellent introduction to Alice Munro’s story collection Runway, titled “What Makes You So Sure You’re Not the Evil One Yourself?” Franzen writes that when he is in “need of a hit of real writing, a good stiff drink of paradox and complexity” he is most likely to encounter it in fiction, as he explains:
I like stories because it takes the best kind of talent to invent fresh characters and situations while telling the same story over and over. All fiction writers suffer from the condition of having nothing new to say, but story writers are the ones most abjectly prone to this condition. There is, again, no hiding. The craftiest old dogs, like Munro and William Trevor, don’t even try.
Franzen goes on to delineate the ways in which great writers like Munro are able to keep mining the same story, peeling back the layers of her characters to continually reveal new depths. As Munro herself has stated, “The complexity of things – the things within things – just seem to be endless. I mean nothing is easy, nothing is simple.”
Franzen concludes his essay by asking:
Can a better kind of fiction save the world? There’s always some tiny hope (strange things do happen), but the answer is almost certainly no, it can’t. There is some reasonable chance, however, that it could save your soul. If you’re unhappy about the hatred that’s been unleashed in your heart, you might try imagining what it’s like to be the person who hates you; you might consider the possibility that you are, in fact, the Evil One yourself.
Confronting this question as a reader has continually destabilized that self-righteous tendency that creeps in, which makes me think I have people and situations figured out. I’ve received revelation after revelation that all boil down to the same thing — nothing is simple. People are complex and never wholly good or bad and, consequently, even those that seem the worst are not separate from me and deserve my compassion. And this knowledge has permeated every area of life, spilling off the pages of whatever novel I’m reading and into the fabric of all my relationships.
So what about you? What makes you so sure you are not the Evil One? Does reading makes you a better person?