Reading & Literacy

Does Reading Help Make Us Better People? Maybe

By Ellen Wexler — June 11, 2013 3 min read
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English teachers, you might be used to STEM advocates claiming that literature is inferior to more technology-oriented subjects, but a recent Commentary that appeared in The New York Times blog, The Stone, practically dismisses literature’s benefits altogether.

According to Gregory Currie, a professor of philosophy at the University of Nottingham, we can’t be sure that reading great literature helps us improve as people.

Currie argues in the Commentary that, for many—but not all—people, the value of literature is accepted as so obvious that evidence doesn’t seem necessary. Essentially, when we speak about the benefits of literature, we may discuss how it broadens our understanding of the human condition, or how it gives us a deeper appreciation for the intricacies of varying perspectives—but we don’t feel the need to back up these claims with evidence like psychological studies. Currie isn’t saying that the research in this area proves that literature doesn’t have moral value. He’s saying that the research in this area doesn’t exist. “Advocates of the view that literature educates and civilizes don’t overrate the evidence—they don’t even think that evidence comes into it,” he writes. “While the value of literature ought not to be a matter of faith, it looks as if, for many of us, that is exactly what it is.”

Even if researchers started focusing more on the value of literature, Currie notes the difficulty of actually producing evidence:

“That will take a lot of careful and insightful psychological research (try designing an experiment to test the effects of reading War and Peace, for example). Meanwhile, most of us will probably soldier on with a positive view of the improving effects of literature, supported by nothing more than an airy bed of sentiment.”

Two days after Currie’s piece was published, Annie Murphy Paul published a response in Time magazine titled, “Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer,” in which she argues that there is evidence for literature’s improving effects. She cites two studies by psychologist Raymond Mar and psychology professor Keith Oatley, which show that those who often read fiction are better at empathizing with and understanding other perspectives. A third study by Mar showed that the more stories young children read, the better their mental model of other people’s intentions.

According to Paul, the problem isn’t that reading doesn’t help us improve, but that we’re losing those benefits altogether as our ability for “deep reading” declines—deep reading being what we do when we read a great work of literature, versus the more superficial kind of reading available on the internet.

Deep reading is “an endangered practice, one we ought to take steps to preserve as we would a historic building or a significant work of art,” Paul writes. “Its disappearance would imperil the intellectual and emotional development of generations growing up online.”

Paul believes that if we don’t effectively teach children how to develop their deep reading skills, they might believe that the more superficial kind of reading is all that there is.

And the result?

“We will have cheated them of an enjoyable, even ecstatic experience they would not otherwise encounter” Paul writes. “And we will have deprived them of an elevating and enlightening experience that will enlarge them as people.”

Image: “Fact and Fiction” [old man reading newspaper beside young woman reading book], by Norman Rockwell (1917), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-696; Call number: Illus. in AP2.L52 1917 (Case Y).

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.