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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Benefits Of Good Literature

I can't say that I'm surprised that science supports something I've always contended: reading literary classics, particularly works of fiction, has benefits beyond enjoying the plot and building vocabulary.

From the Washington Post:
Why literary novels are better for you than Danielle Steel
By Science News and Reuters, Published: October 7

Reading good literature may help you socially, psychologists suggest

Think of it as the bookworm’s bonus: People who read first-rate fiction become more socially literate, at least briefly, a new study suggests.

Researchers randomly assigned nearly 700 volunteers to read excerpts of “literary” novels by recent National Book Award finalists and other celebrated authors, to read parts of fiction bestsellers, including one by Danielle Steel, or popular nonfiction books, or to not read anything. Those who read literary works then scored highest on several tests of the ability to decipher others’ motives and emotions, say David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, psychologists at the New School for Social Research in New York.

One test asked participants to describe the thoughts or feelings of one or two individuals shown surrounded by various items in a series of images, based on written and visual clues. In another test, participants tried to match emotion words to facial expressions shown for two seconds on a computer screen.

By prompting readers to ponder characters’ motives and emotions rather than just a fast-moving plot, literary fiction recruits mind-reading skills used in daily encounters, Kidd and Castano propose in the journal Science. The researchers don’t know whether regularly reading literary fiction yields mind-reading upgrades that would last.
Will Common Core take into account these findings? Common Core emphasizes reading more nonfiction and less fiction.


  1. An excellent way of learning to advance a thought beyond 144 characters.

  2. I’m not saying that I disagree with the main point of the article, but only that the demographic that existed when I was a child no longer applies. As a child, I remember the Classic Comics, designed for Americans who could barely read above the fifth-grade level, but did provide somewhat of an introduction to illiterate citizens of rather fascinating classical tales. Today, however, America’s multiculturalism leads us away from the classics simply because the Hispanic immigrant from Mexico, or the Asian immigrant from Thailand, or the Black kid living in inner-city Houston cannot relate to the Song of Roland, or Ivanhoe, or War and Peace, and certainly not any of Shakespeare’s plays. Moreover, the “cliff notes” of these works seriously erodes the opportunities of good teachers to interest students in the classics.

  3. It would be difficult and expensive to measure the long term effects. I often wonder what the long term exposure to any of the arts might be.

    I believe the critical missing piece is the development of a critical attention span, even a little perseverance with a work.

    The long melodic development of a classical piece versus a one bar riff passing for melody in pop music.

    Your average action scene versus a complex film like Seven Samurai.

    Eugene O'Neill versus Andrew Lloyd Weber.

    It's relevant to any art form and may be as much a matter of new electronic media than anything else.

  4. I agree with the article. I am much more "in tune" when reading classical literature. And in my opinion, everybody can relate to the heroic struggle. It's human nature.

  5. ...and if you can't relate to the heroic struggle, the "Chorus" of "classical literature" will do it for you... interpassively. ;)

    ...We, the spectators, came to the theatre worried, full of everyday problems, unable to accustom ourselves without reserve to the problems of the play, i.e. to feel the required fears and compassions. But no problem; there is the Chorus, which is feeling the sorrow and the compassion instead of us, or, more precisely, we are feeling the required emotions through the medium of the Chorus: “You are then relieved of all worries, even if you don’t feel anything; it is the Chorus who will do it in your place.” Even if we, the spectators, are just drowsily watching the show, objectively – to use this good old Stalinist expression – we are doing our duty of feeling compassion for the heroes. In so-called primitive societies, we find the same phenomenon in the form of “weepers,” women hired to cry instead of us. So, through the medium of the other, we accomplish our duty of mourning, while we can spend our time on more profitable exploits, disputing how to divide the inheritance of the deceased, for example. - Slavoj Zizek, "The Lacanian real: Television"

  6. As for O'Neill vs AL Webber, I'll take Webber. At least his stories are ripped-off FROM the classics. ;)

  7. interesting observation AOW....there's nothing quite like a classic!

  8. I'm afraid that Common Core has a different goal in mind.

  9. I suspect we could have a pretty good slug fest on what constitutes a classic, Farmer.

  10. Common Core is really scary. The thing that bothers me is that I know teachers around here and they have NO idea what Common Core is really about. None. These are Conservative, Christian, teachers who simply have no idea.

    Right Truth

  11. ooops, Cuccinelli and Jackson both lose in Va.

    Bad day for Baggers.

    1. Duck,
      This map gives an interactive breakdown. Not a landslide for McAuliffe. Almost the whole state is red, but the heavily populated areas went for McAuliffe. The overall numbers were close. Libertarian Sarvis was "the spoiler."

      The race for Virginia Attorney General may require a recount.

      The House of Delegates is still significantly split.

  12. Common Core taking it into consideration?

    One word: no.


  13. I'd have to agree, from someone young raised on classics. My mother pretty much enforced that I read only true, new or children classics and very little else. I never owned a fast-paced thriller style book until I bought it myself. I do agree that it does wonders- even the newer, softer stuff forces one to analyze the characters and plot, and to pay attention to the book. I know I can lay all competency at grammar (until 8th grade) and other things at the feet of my books; without reading them, realistically, I would be far behind in school.
    Granted, fun fiction is fun, and I tend to read that more now that I'm a student, but the effects of those books hasn't completely gone. Still have a high Reading score on the SAT because of, in part, reading classics.

    One other note. I find that it is much easier to deal with, ponder, and weight out elements of real life through the vehicle of fiction, the more complex the better. Anything from social interactions to moral truths (and books like Crime and Punishment, Hamlet, 1984; to name a few) are easier chewed on with a good book. I find reading stories about issues invaluable to figuring said issues out- if only for the simple 'what if' scenarios (though, in truth, books offer more than that).

    Common Core is making a massive mistake removing literature. Classics used to be the a massive part of the diet of the educated in the past, and only recently have we started to remove it. Several facts stand. Fact one: people in the past (founding fathers for the overused example) were better thinkers than they are now. Fact two: they read ALL the classics since they were young and flat memorized them (among many other things). Fact three: the reason people nowadays NEED cliffnotes is because they cannot understand references a peasant could in the past. Fact four: we now find challenging what used to be elementary level work.

    In my mind, removing classics from our diet has done much of the above damage. I know for a fact that I can more easily read and understand, say, Shakespeare, than my un-reading peers (unreading as in they don't do it for fun, only school. Which has classics, but still). I don't get as fatigued going through a tome like Crime and Punishment as quickly. I will not say I'm smarter- I'm sincerely not- but I can read classics easier. Mostly because I have for a long time. The more we remove them, the less we can actually understand them, thus the more we remove them... a vicious cycle of dubious consequences.


    1. Wildstar,
      Thank you for your insightful comment. I appreciate it.

      As you know, one of my big complaints about students' difficulties with reading Shakespeare is that so many Christians today don't even open a King James Bible. The benefits of learning "high English" are many -- in part because active reading is required just to understand the sentence structure and the literary devices.

      It seems that so many who read today prefer passive reading and mindlessness. **sigh**

    2. Seems so. Interesting note about the King James- that was the Bible use in our house at my mothers insistence. It helped with at least pronouncing Shakespeare English (and understanding what thee, thy and thou actually meant). Wish it was more widely used- it is easily the prettiest sounding Bible translation, even if not the most accurate.


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