Then You Read

by Madeleine Rex

What follows is my English final for this year. It’s a bit long – perhaps too long to read straight through if you’re busy, but I tried to be thorough and research the topics I discussed. I’ve detected a theme among my argument and synthesis papers this year – they almost always tie into my belief in books and the written word. I’m not sure about the quality of this paper, but I am sure about what it says. So here goes…

Then You Read

Some of the most dramatic and heart-wrenching moments of my life, as well as some of the most sweet and simple, have occurred while I was deep in a fictional world, whether the world was that of Anne Shirley, Harry Potter, Elizabeth Bennett, or Scarlet O’Hara. Since my appreciation for fiction commenced with the reading of Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, I have become convinced that fiction is not merely a type of story, but a medium through which a person can form relationships, develop character, and learn how to thrive in reality.

In a comment on the article, “A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like” by Motoko Rich, a man said, “…if we aren’t going to consider the quality of what is being read, then a love of reading is no more or less beneficial than a love of television-watching, slot-car-racing, or pizza-eating. The student who loves reading Captain Underpants but who is never forced to move beyond that material has done nothing to prepare for a life of active, intelligent, inquisitive citizenship (which is something training in the humanities ought to prepare us for) and has been poorly served by her educators.” This theory is unsound primarily because of its association of reading with television-watching and “pizza-eating.” Reading fiction is naturally more productive than both activities, as it does not only serve as entertainment. Recently, studies have shown that reading has a profound effect on a person’s ability to empathize with other people, fictional or real, because the brain reacts in similar ways to the plights of fictional people and to those of real ones. Such were the findings explained in the New York Times Article, “Your Brain on Fiction,” which delves into the benefits of fiction reading, stating, “[Reading] is an exercise that hones our real-life social skills, another body of research suggests. Dr. Oatley and Dr. Mar, in collaboration with several other scientists, reported in two studies, published in 2006 and 2009, that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.”

However, there is no need to rely on statistics and experiments to prove the benefits of reading fiction. By reading books myself, I have encountered myriad situations, personality types, and nuances of human nature that I would otherwise never come across. These fictional dealings I have may involve characters on a page, but they often apply to those off the page as well. Motivations of characters, in particular, help me understand the motivations behind actions of people in my life. In “Your Brain on Fiction,” Annie Murphy Paul says, “Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica [of life]. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.” The richness of fiction, its intricate details and finely crafted characters, mirrors that of reality. It creates an alternate universe in which we can stumble and learn things before we must deal with them in our world.

Authors are aware of fiction’s power over a reader’s empathy and moral development, and they have been for years. Charles Dickens is a prime example of an author whose works are full of characters who inspire empathy and are easily associated with social groups from that time period. In “The paradox of fiction and the ethics of empathy: reconceiving Dickens’s realism” by Mary-Catharine Harrison, it reads, “If readers cried for fictional suffering, Dickens and many of his contemporaries believed, then they would try to ameliorate the actual suffering they encountered around them.” However, this is also the mindset of modern authors, such as Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace. According to Garth Risk Hallberg in his article, “Why Write Novels at All?”, “The idea that ‘the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness’ crops up all over the writing of the Conversazioni group: in [Jonathan Franzen]’s nonfiction, and in [David Foster Wallace]’s, and in [Zadie Smith]’s beautiful encomium to Wallace in her book of essays, ‘Changing my Mind.’ It also helps to explain these writers’ broad turn away from various postmodern formalisms and toward the problems of the human heart.”

Authors, therefore, can use fiction and characterization to induce in readers understanding and appreciation for social groups that might relate to the story. For instance, one’s pity for the poor orphan Oliver Twist might alter their behavior toward foster children and children from broken homes. Fiction holds the power to open our eyes to new ideas and eliminate old prejudices without our knowing it, while we foolishly believe we are just enjoying a good story.

One argument against the theory that fiction helps us empathize with others is called the Paradox of Fiction. The paradox, according to Jerrold Levinson, is composed of three main factors, “…(a) We often have emotions for fictional characters and situations known to be purely fictional; (b) Emotions for objects logically presuppose beliefs in the existence and features of those objects; (c) We do not harbor beliefs in the existence and features of objects known to be fictional.”

This paradox is dependent on the idea that because the object we have feelings for does not exist and the reader knows it, the reader will not act (as there is no obvious object upon which to act). However, as Harrison states, “…the inaction inherent to the paradox of fiction is mitigated by a character’s synecdochal relationship with a ‘class’ of people, in the more general sense of a group of people defined by a shared or similar characteristic.” The very existence of a person or group of people that can be associated with a character allows the reader to actually act upon his or her empathy and is a crucial benefit of fiction.

So why is fiction steadily being erased from school curriculums, if, as these articles argue, fiction develops character and promotes action? This elimination of fiction is evident in the increasingly popular “Common Core” curriculum. The curriculum calls for a decrease in the amount of fiction read as students get older. According to the standards, by twelfth grade, the ratio of fiction to nonfiction books assigned in the classroom will have decreased from 50/50 in fourth grade to 30/70. This ridiculous ratio reflects a mindset similar to that of Joel I. Klein, New York City Schools Chancellor, who is implementing a program “based on the belief that when students struggle with reading comprehension in elementary school, middle school and beyond, a large part of the problem is that they lack basic knowledge in subjects like history, science and literature.” This idea directly conflicts with a statement made by the U.S. Department of Education, saying, “Helping your child become a reader is the single most important thing that you can do to help the child to succeed in school—and in life. The importance of reading simply can’t be overstated. Reading helps children in all school subjects. More important, it is the key to lifelong learning.” The question we must answer is whether it is other subjects that aid reading, or reading that aids learning in other subjects?

I firmly believe that reading is the primary basis of learning. It instills in a child a sense of wonder and curiosity, and also develops their comprehension and ability to express their own ideas. As written in the article “Encouraging literacy for personal development,” “Previously, literacy was valued as part of the development of the whole self-character, mind, soul, etc. – as well as for its practical value. Now it seems that the reasons advanced for literacy education are generally limited to either job success or light entertainment. As important as fun and money are, however, something has been lost.”

I would add to the modern reasons for advanced literacy education the importance of high test scores. Since the No Child Left Behind Act, schools determine the success of both teachers and students by state test scores. The article “A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like” highlights a teacher in Jonesboro, Georgia who dared to offer her kids an alternative to the usual stale curriculum offered in school English classes. Ms. McNeill determined she would create a classroom that would promote a love of reading. She instituted a program in which kids choose their own books (though she must approve them), read independently, share ideas and findings, and essentially created a classroom book club. Many of her students found that reading had become less of a chore and more entertaining, but Ms. McNeill was still put on edge when two of her students failed a state writing assessment. Blessedly, the principal of the school allowed her to keep the program running, and eventually a majority of her students “exceeded expectations” on state tests. Ms. McNeill’s nervousness about the results of these tests despite the clearly positive results she saw in her classroom are evidence that state tests are breathing down the necks of today’s teachers and possibly holding them back from novel ideas and inspired programs.

By allowing students to choose their own novels, Ms. McNeill took the first step toward showing her kids the benefits of reading. One could argue, as a man did in the comment on “A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like,” that reading “just anything” does a child no good, but as Catherine E. Snow, a professor at Harvard University Graduate School of Education, says, “If what we’re trying to get to is, everybody has read “Ethan Frome” and Henry James and Shakespeare, then the challenge for the teacher is how do you make that stuff accessible and interesting enough that kids will stick with it. But if the goal is, how do you make kids lifelong readers, then it seems to me that there’s a lot to be said for the choice approach. As adults, as good readers, we don’t all read the same thing, and we revel in our idiosyncrasies as adult readers, so kids should have some of the same freedom.”

Becoming a lifelong reader is perhaps one of the easiest and most important things a child can do. Through fiction, a million doors open, stars are reached, galaxies become boundless. On a more down-to-earth level, through fiction we can develop empathy, morals, and an ability to understand the motivations and feelings of those around us. Just as importantly, reading brings love and friends into your life, fictional or not, who can uplift you and carry you through the lonely moments on the playground, the awkward brace-face stage, and the raging emotions of high school. Fiction arms a person with a battalion of stories, worlds, and people to escape to. As author David Foster Wallace says, “If a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own.” In one good book, one may find many friends who you feel understand you.

This is incredibly evident in an experiment done by Duke researchers, in which they studied teenage girls in an obesity program. 64 girls received books that dealt with the same or similar issues, while 17 went through the program without the book. According to Tara Parker-Pope in her article, “Healthful Messages, Wrapped in Fiction,” “After six months, the girls who got ‘Lake Rescue’ posted a decline in average body mass index scores of 0.71; those who didn’t read the book had an average increase of 0.05. That seemingly minor difference means the girls who read ‘Lake Rescue’ will achieve a healthy weight in a few years if they maintain their regular growth rate and do not gain any more weight.” This study proves the remarkable effect fiction can have on a reader’s physical well-being as well as emotional.

Ultimately, fiction weaves a web between people, real or unreal, their issues, lives, and feelings, forming an indelible understanding between human beings. Author James Baldwin put it this way, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

Works Cited:

Harrison, Mary-Catherine. “The paradox of fiction and the ethics of empathy: reconceiving Dickens’s realism.” Narrative 16.3 (2008): 256+. General OneFile. Web. 31 May 2012.

Koppe, Tilman. “Evolutionary Psychology and the Paradox of Fiction.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 42.2 (2009): 125+. General OneFile. Web. 31 May 2012.

Dobel, J. Patrick. “The moral realities of public life: some insights of fiction.” American Review of Public Administration June 1992: 127+. General OneFile. Web. 31 May 2012.

Boody. “Encouraging literacy for personal development.” Reading Improvement Fall 2003: 99+. General OneFile. Web. 31 May 2012.

Gootman, Elissa. “Literacy Experiment at 10 Schools.” City Room. The New York Times, 25 August 2008. Web. 4 June 2012.

Rich, Motoko. “Where Does a Love of Reading Come From?.” Arts Beat. The New York Times, 31 August 2009. Web. 4 June 2012.

Parini, Jay. “Feeling ‘Gamed’.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 19 December 2011. Web. 4 June 2012.

Santos, Fernanda. “A Trial Run for School Standards That Encourage Deeper Though.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 24 April 2011. Web. 4 June 2012.

Hallberg, Garth Risk. “Why Write Novels at All?.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 13 January 2012. Web. 4 June 2012.

Rich, Motoko. “A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 30 August 2009. Web. 4 June 2012.

Parker-Pope, Tara. “Healthful Messages, Wrapped in Fiction.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 October 2008. Web. 4 June 2012.

Paul, Annie Murphy. “Your Brain on Fiction.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 17 March 2012. Web. 23 March 2012

One Commentto “Then You Read”

  1. Bravo on a very cogent argument! I agree that just reading "anything" is not a helpful stance. Many kids would simply choose what is easy, instead of what's challenging or thought provoking.

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