Every now and then I go through the file I keep on literature and discover a nugget that I had completely forgotten about. There are profiles of my favorite authors, research studies I thought to be of some merit, or an occasional e-mail exchange I had about some question. Several of these concern the effects of reading literary fiction, a topic that is central to my current interest in literature. Here is a dialogue of sorts I discovered recently.
I’ve been thinking of this question: What is the effect of reading literature on an individual’s personality and behavior? Here I refer to literature in the narrow sense of fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction. Does reading influence the life we lead or the path we have chosen to take? I sense it does, but is there any evidence for this? I haven’t found much research on this question, although I imagine literary critics have given a good deal of thought to it.
Okay, good question, here goes. I’ll give it a try. What is the value of literature? Does it help people? I think so, but why and how. I’ve given it some thought before, but glad to have the question come up again, this time posed by another other than myself. That’s refreshing.
My first thought is that people recognize themselves in the lives of characters in stories. It mitigates loneliness and isolation to realize interconnectedness. That’s helpful. To read about a character experiencing the same kind of existential and moral struggles, finding solutions, living life’s causes and effects makes one feel less alone in the world. I see myself. I can reflect on the lives of the Ahab and Moby as I might my friends, a mirror in which to see my own reflection.
I think literature like good visual art draws us toward our potential. I mean that certain moral existential truths presented in literature are digestible in this form, whereas didactic tracts often bore, condescend, and aren’t necessarily effective. I believe literature only echoes the truths that we already know inside at some level; it just gives us a step up. We can say—aha, yes, I see for myself and I see myself in this universal problem. I knew this but I just didn’t know it consciously. Now I can act from a new-found consciousness, perhaps being more responsible in the world.
So it is important then to define literature, I think. I’ll give it a try. Certainly all fiction, poetry or creative nonfiction is not literature, maybe you’ll agree. Just as all pieces of visual creation aren’t art. Literature to me is a successfully realized vision executed in words, a work all of one piece with very few, if any, extraneous words. It’s a unified creation, a thing of beauty with integrity and an overlying gestalt. A tall order, I guess. Risking redundancy I’ll say there’s something special that happens—inspiration (dictionary definition: a divine influence directly exerted upon the mind or soul.)
Well, that’s it for now. I’m certain I’ll have more thoughts on the subject. Right now you’ve compelled me to brainstorm a bit, perhaps I’ve waxed a wee bombastically, but oh well. Sometimes these tough questions just come out that way.
Thanks for the good question. So, what do you think about the subject?
The forgoing answer is a verbatim, unedited transcription of one individual’s answer to my question. It came to me in an e-mail exchange from an individual whose name regrettably I did not record and of course do not remember now. I believe it was written about seven years ago when I first started thinking about the effects of reading literary fiction. When I chanced upon the page the other day, I once again thought how well the author expressed him or her self and how perceptive I thought the answer was. I am posting it for these reasons, as well as to provide the perspective of another reader.