Thursday, June 6, 2013

Does Great Literature Make Us Better?

In my personal reading, I read and shared a New York Times article entitled "Does Great Literature Make Us Better?" It's a provocative Cause/Effect claim, which boils down to "not necessarily."

Gregory Currie argues that while he personally enjoys and advocates reading literary fiction, the jury is still out on whether it makes us better people: more moral, more likely to treat our fellow humans with fairness, better able to make empathetic decisions.

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I was intrigued by this idea:

Might it not be the other way around: that bright, socially competent and empathic people are more likely than others to find pleasure in the complex representations of human interaction we find in literature?

He's turning the Cause/Effect on its head: saying that it's possible that being a good person causes you to read good books, not vice versa.

I was fairly receptive to his claim, until he brought in one of my favorite books of this year, Thinking, Fast and Slow. I feel that Currie misrepresents Kahneman's arguments. While it is true that Kahneman calls into question the judgment of experts, I think there is a missing link here. Having read War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, or Les Misérables doesn't make you an "expert" in literature, any more than hitting a tennis ball over a net makes you Rafael Nadal. So if Currie wanted to argue that professors of literature are no better at making moral judgments, that would more accurately use Kahneman's evidence. I'm fine with the idea that maybe lit experts are possibly kind of jerks (I'm sure they show the same range of personality any of us do), but that's not what he's arguing.

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As I discussed with Updike, authors are no more likely to be morally upright than anyone else (and possibly less so, if they are fêted as artistes), but I like what my friend Michael said, that he is clearly ignoring literature's other benefits. (Abstract reasoning, better communication skills, even better employment outcomes are all tied to early and often reading: take note, pregnant readers and young parents!)

Currie will only be convinced by empirical evidence. How would we set up a controlled, double blind study to say "did you think about Javert's moral dilemma in making that one life decision?"

So, let's take this argument at face value. Let's say that I read, say, Crossing to Safety, and let's say that I'm kind of a jerk (I sometimes am, I'm not that "nice" of a person, honestly), and learn absolutely nothing about friendship, how to measure success, how to deal with illness.

Is this impugning lit, or is it impugning me? You be the judge. Weigh in in the comments.

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