Does Reading Great Literature Make You A Better Person?

I love Laura Miller, the Books critic for Salon.com.  However, in today’s Salon she’s making an argument that I’ve heard a lot and that I do not like.

She’s reviewing William Deresiewicz’s new book, A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship and the Things that Really Matter.  I have not read this book – Miller’s review is the first I’ve heard of it – but it’s gone straight to my wish list.  In it, according to Miller, Deresiewicz

explains how his long engagement with [Austen’s novels] helped convert him from a surly, preening grad student — “about as dumb, in all human things, as any 26-year-old has a right to be” and grandiosely convinced that anything other than “complex, difficult, sophisticated” modernist fiction was beneath him — into a decent, civilized man.

Miller is not convinced that the novels were responsible for Deresiewicz’s transformation.  Her argument is basically this: lots of readers are bad people.  In fact, everyone loves stories, but the world is still full of nastiness.

Some of the best-read people I know are thoroughgoing jerks, and some of the kindest and noblest verge on the illiterate…. There’s a theory…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…when he claimed that “developing in young children a love of poems and stories” might someday render the human-rights organization Amnesty International obsolete.  While I’m all for cultivating such tastes in children, I also don’t think the love of stories has to be taught. Most children are keenly interested in stories in all their forms. (Reading is a different matter.) They always have been. Yet there has always been a need for groups like Amnesty and it seems probable there always will be, no matter how many stories we pump into our youth.

I hear a lot of variations on this argument.  “Joseph Goebbels loved literature.”  “Sit in on a PhD literature class and see if you come away thinking that literature makes people more empathetic.”  These statements strike me as identical to saying, “Broccoli isn’t good for you – people who eat lots of broccoli still get cancer.”  That is: sure, literature doesn’t cure terminal meanness, arrogance, or psychopathy, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t improve many people. What’s more, a particular book may not turn me into a bodhisattva, but I still might be more compassionate, having read it, than I was before.

Do you buy the idea that literature teaches empathy, that books can make us better people?  I still do, but maybe you can convince me otherwise.

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23 responses

  1. I imagine this all depends on why you are reading the stories–for love? for criticism? for ego? To me, this feels like an argument about religion–it’s what we bring to the subject that determines its effect on us. Interesting stuff though…thanks for writing about it!

    • TW: I’d love to hear more about your take on that. Is it possible for literature to affect us despite ourselves and the approach we take to it? If I am reading literature in order to feel superior to others, can it still teach me humility? Etc. Obviously, anything can affect us for the better or worse, often in unexpected ways, but I buy the argument that the very nature of literature is likely to teach us how to see the world from perspectives other than our own, and that it may not teach everyone that to the same degree, but that the overall effect is positive.

  2. Well….without any scientific study, I am using my 20+ years of teaching experience to base my opinions on–sure, we can be positively affected by literature–but only if we are receptive to it in the first place. And if we are receptive to literature, that probably means we are receptive to all kinds of thoughtful influences. So, while I love literature, I don’t think it’s any different from other forms of communication (including the shitty ones) in its positive effect on a general public not receptive to literature.

  3. Books CAN make someone a better person, but that doesn’t mean that books WILL make someone a better person.

    (BTW – it sounds like Bill there is still a dumb, preening fob. Of course, I haven’t read HIS book… *g*)

    • Clix:
      I started reading it this afternoon, and so far he seems intelligent, humble and … what is the opposite of “fob”?

  4. I don’t think love of literature and good personhood (ha!) are mutually exclusive. One can result in the other, in my opinion, though. Mostly, I love that literature gives me the opportunity to ask the “bigger questions” in my classes–and, ultimately, I think consideration of those topics DOES make my students more well-rounded in a sense.

    So, isn’t that better?

    • CrysHouse:
      I guess that ties in w/ TW’s comment above about how literature can influence us positively if we are receptive to it, but this says more about us than it does about literature as a medium…

  5. I wish there were some empirical way to…no, actually, I don’t. I have often sat in a movie theatre during a scene in which some small injustice to a disadvantaged or marginalized character is perpetrated listening to the shocked and outraged tongue-clicking of the audience, thinking that they are responding this way because the story has led them to respond this way — they know the character; they know how great the small injustice is. But I bet in real life three-quarters of them (and I include myself) would not see the scene in the same way, and might in fact say or do the same stupid thing they are tsking at in the theatre. I think that fiction allows us to feel morally superior by externalizing onto other characters right-thinking and right-action and wrong-thinking and wrong-action.

    And yet I think that my morals and empathy have been enhanced and bolstered by my reading.

    • Anne:

      I see this in my classroom all the time. Students know exactly what moral judgements they are supposed to pass on characters, but see no parallels between the characters’ actions and their own.

      I began reading A Jane Austen Education yesterday, and throughout the first couple of chapters, the author recognizes himself and his foibles over and over in Austen’s characters. I’m not sure literature can teach us to do this, to recognize our own weaknesses when we see them in others. If we already have this capacity, we can learn a lot from literature. So perhaps Miller’s argument holds water. Literature can help me grow, but only if I’m already the sort of person who grows.

    • Jon: I would argue that seeing things from different perspectives likely to lead to being a better person – empathy often inspires us to do the right thing.

  6. There’s a fairly well known Mark Twain quote that says, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” I’d say it’s rather applicable here. Having a wider range of experience does help you to appreciate more things in life, be open to new ideas, and be more appreciative of other peoples’ experience.

    That said, just going to Mexico or London once is not going to suddenly make you adjust any cultural supremacy or racist tendencies you already have. You can easily go to other countries and maintain a feeling of superiority, or not even interact with that culture much.

    As others have said about literature here, you have to be receptive to it. The best literature out there should make us broaden our horizons and eliminate our narrow-mindedness, but only if we are open to what it is saying. Writing is communication, and like any communication, it’s a two way street. If one side is closed off or not listening, the communication is not happening. As my students prove when they ask a question that I literally just answered for another student. Heh.

    • Neal: I teach a course on travel writing, and we often talk about how reading and travelling have many of the same effects – they can lead to a greater understanding of the world and others through wider experience, but, as you say, a lot depends on one’s approach.

  7. Literature can make you more empathetic, but it sure isn’t the only thing that does that. The world is full of experiences that make us more (or sometimes, less) empathetic. But I’m not sure empathy is the right goal. Opening minds is. And, again, some students have their minds opened by literature, and some do not. We have a tendency (and by “we, ” I mean those of us for whom literature is a mind-opening experience) to impose our preferred methods of mind-opening on all students, and then are surprised when some of them don’t appreciate the experience.

  8. JB:
    I would argue that empathy entails an opening of the mind. And I also wonder what the purpose of opening the mind is, if not at least in part to make empathy possible? I agree, though, that assuming we know what will open a particular student’s mind is arrogant and self-defeating – it would be far more useful, I think, to expose students to a lot of different books and experiences and then ask them what effects these books and experiences have on them.

  9. That’s a really interesting question. I think that literature definitely has the potential to make people more empathetic — but only when (if) they are receptive to the idea in the first place. Which, unfortunately, is not always the case. I’m taking a lot of graduate lit courses in university and empathy is unfortunately NOT one of the things that people seem to value, so I often feel out of place with my idealistic opinion. So, to answer your question, I believe that literature CAN teach people empathy (or help them develop it further). However, in the end, what a book can teach you really depends on what kind of reader you are, and what “message” you’re going to accept. Oh, and talking about “messages”: If I’d written the previous sentence in one of my university term papers, they’d have failed me for sure because post-modern literary criticism apparently doesn’t believe in the idea of literature having a “message”. I assume this might be one of the reasons why very well-read people don’t really accept that fiction could have a true emotional and moral impact on their real lives. The idea is simply not intellectual enough.

    • Sophie:

      The whole question of the “messages” literature sends is an interesting one. When I’m discussing themes with students, I try to avoid the word “message” and try to use words like “idea,” “suggestion,” “illustration…” I think students are too willing to believe that the author is trying to teach them a moral lesson, and they often state the author’s “intention” in those terms, instead of seeing literature as an examination that raises more questions than answers, but comes up with some suggestions.

      I also think that, beyond sending us a message, the very act of reading can have a moral impact – if, as you say, we are receptive to it. Just seeing the world through someone else’s eyes for a while can help us develop a sense that our view of the world is just one view. I think you’re right, though – if we’re not open to this experience, we will shut it down, and often we’ll put down the book, or, if forced to read it, will describe it as “weird” – or maybe even “interesting” in an exotifying, specimen-under-the-microscope way.

  10. I’m inclined to agree with those who think that you have to be open to asking questions of the book, its characters and how they relate to you. An unintended side effect of reading so-called classic or great literature is that students often have a preconcieved notion of who the “good guys and bad guys” are in the story simply because the stories are so well known. I remember in junior high when we read Romeo & Juliet, almost everyone in the class knew the basic plot, the main characters and had already formed a judgement without having actually read the entire piece before. This is not to say that people can’t come up with interesting observations if they know a work of fiction in advance, but that their observations may be weighted by what they already think is the thrust of the novel. When we read lesser known works, there was no preview in our brains. Our ability to come up with unconventional analysis was much more potent. I do understand the tradition of reading certain classics but I think mixing in “unknown” books is a great way of keeping people thinking beyond what they think is expected.

    • Christopher:
      One of these days I’m going to teach R & J for exactly the reasons you describe above: everyone thinks they know what it’s about, even if they haven’t read it, and most of the time they have no idea. But I am always inclined to give students work they’re not familiar with, and although it’s never occurred to me before, the observations you make here may be a part of that decision.

  11. While my experience tells me that Miller is right in saying that reading does not make one a good person, it provides an opportunity for growth – I want to use the concept of ‘possibility space’ here – for an opportunity never makes one better, but how one makes use of that opportunity may.

    Your analogy of broccoli-eaters still receiving cancer works well enough; the issue may be that the opportunities to enact possibilities due to reading are more difficult to see. That is, tracing a chain of causality from dietary choice to health is far easier than showing how reading books correlates to performing the actions associated with being a better person. Some of these actions may simply appear to observers as inactions, and worse, there are innumerable possible items to extract from a book. In the end, I trust that efforts to better oneself through text will produce some results (at the least the practice of reading expands vocabulary and therefore means of interpreting/applying texts) – but only if the possibilities enacted find targets grounded in the interpersonal rather than solely within the self- i.e. a better person benefits others.

  12. On introspection i believe that never had I read anything worthwhile with a predetermined purpose other than just for the love of reading and so to draw an analogy of being a better me just because i read literature is a difficult concept for me to understand. Indeed those priceless books have educated me for a finer life way more than anything else could have but if in case reading would not have been an option there would be other means of life to enrich me.

  13. Although I haven’t yet gained a degree in Literature, I can already appreciate the influences that books have had upon my life. Literature has provided me with skills to empathise and explore situations that others have found themselves in; as readers, we are invited into a different world by the author, as we learn from the characters’ experiences.

    If the reader wants to excel themselves – if the reader wants to learn lessons from others, and look at themselves in a different light – I strongly feel that reading helps us to advance ourselves.

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