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.