May 11, 2017
If books really make us kinder, better people, then why am I, an enthusiastic reader, so upset all the time?
by Chad Felix
A lot of ink has been spilled on studies reporting the positive effects of reading fiction. And the news of these groundbreaking studies and their value-of-fiction-affirming results is reported again and again. Fiction makes us kinder and more empathetic, we’re told. It promotes social development. In 2013, The Atlantic’s Zach Schonfeld proclaimed outright that reading Literary Fiction makes you a better person.
The impulse to quantify the value of the time we spend with books, and novels in particular, is not particularly useful — a response to, and appeasement of, our data-obsessed, results-minded world that, in the grip of the forty-plus-hour work week, contends that any practice that does not generate some verifiable, tangible outcome (a trophy, a certificate, a paycheck, an Excel sheet describing the fluctuations of your heart rate, number of calories burned, number of steps taken) is of dubious or negligible worth. These studies don’t so much combat the mentality that provokes them (which is what we should be doing) as assuage it, as if to say: “See here: all those hours I spent reading Sister Carrie were worth it. I’m going to heaven — see, it says so on this here card.” But that card, the trophy, isn’t why we read — at least, I hope not. More likely, it’s just how we’ll explain why we read when pressed by our friends, bosses, family members, ex-lovers, our own uncertain selves.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I like these studies. I leave them feeling better about how I spend my Friday nights. And I do believe with all of my heart that if Donald Trump, a man who defiantly does not read, spent some time, in earnest, in the company of, like, Willa Cather and Mark Twain, the world would be in a much better place. But would anything in that book likely pevent Trump from then being a total jerk about it, bragging incessantly about the book’s importance? About how smart he is? No. Probably not. Those of us who sat through college-level English courses with Young Scholarly Men know better than that.
Books, and books of fiction especially, are subtle, complicated things. They are mysterious. They posses the ability to create better, more informed political agents. They are in a rare position to expand our ideas about what we, citizens of this world, believe we are capable of pulling off. And they put us in other peoples’ shoes, let us walk around for a while, better understand our fellow human beings.
But none of this is worth much if you’re only approaching a book for the certificate of completion. Your experience with a book is a reflection on you, first and foremost, and an author’s first and last hope, I’ll bet, is not that you get a gold star for turning the last page, but that you forget what you thought you were doing there in the first place, what you were told you’d get out of it, and just follow the book’s lead.
Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.