How often have we heard it said that literature doesn’t influence anyone? “…in spite of my being a voracious reader, I have rarely been truly affected in my behavior (in any durable manner) by anything I have read.” Nassim Taleb
And then how often have we heard a person say it was a book that has had a major influence on their life? “I’m reading Martin Eden for the first time in three years. I can see clearly now, over four years after I first read it, how enormous a personal influence it has been on me…” Susan Sontag
Is there a way to decide between these competing views? Surely there must be some evidence on the matter. Well there is, but it isn’t very extensive and it isn’t very good. One of the most interesting programs that has tried to test the efficacy of reading literature is known as Changing Lives Through Literature. It was written about in the Book Review section of the Sunday, 3/01/09 edition of the New York Times. The program is designed as a sentencing alternative for high-risk offenders with a large number of prior convictions. In addition, the program is restricted to offenders who express a willingness to participate in lieu of a jail sentence.
Changing Lives Through Literature is based on the belief that criminal offenders can derive considerable benefit from the experience of reading and discussing major works of literature. Robert Waxler, one of its founders, suggests that "...offenders often commit criminal acts because they operate from a value system that gives priority to emotions and primal instinct, rather than to reason and critical thinking. We need to challenge that single-minded value system by using novels and short stories that unfold the complexity and diversity of character and human consciousness."
Literature, according to Waxler, can achieve that goal by providing individuals with an opportunity to engage in serious reflection and analysis of their behavior. The program involves intensive reading and group discussions of contemporary literature, including works such as Bank's The Affliction, Dickey's Deliverance, Ellison's Invisible Man, Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea, London's Sea Wolf, Mailer's An American Dream, and Morrison's The Bluest Eye. The discussion sessions take place every other week for two hours.
In a study of the first four groups of offenders, the recidivism rate of 32 men who completed the course was compared with a matched group of 40 probationers who were not exposed to any aspect of the program. An analysis of follow up criminal records indicated that only 6 of the 32 men in the reading group (18.8%) were convicted on new charges after completing the program. In the comparison group, 18 of the 40 men (45%), three times more than the reading group, were convicted on new charges during this period.
While these differences are important, it is not entirely clear they can be attributed to the specific works that were read or to the reading experience itself, independent of its content. The differences could also be due to the group discussions or the contact the offenders had with each other, as well as the group leader. Moreover, the attempt to match the groups was not successful, as those in the reading group had more prior convictions and were rated as more motivated to "make changes in their lives" than members of the comparison group. Without further tests that ideally should include a control group of offenders who read non-literary materials, these factors cannot be ruled out as possible explanations for the initial findings.
In spite of this uncertainty, the Changing Lives Through Literature program impressed me. It sought to measure objectively the effects of a literary reading program. It did so in a formidable setting with a group of individuals who are not often responsive to recidivism reduction techniques. Perhaps the offenders did gain some insight about their own behavior from the readings and discussions after all. As one of the participants reported: "I started to see myself in him [the ship captain in Sea Wolf] and I didn't like what I saw."