Effects of Literature

I return to the topic of reading. In my earlier post on How to Read a Book, I briefly mentioned Harold Bloom’s similarly titled How to Read and Why that is primarily composed of Bloom’s suggestions on how to benefit from reading some of the classic works of literature.

In the first chapter, Bloom claims that we read because the experience has a number of important and highly desirable effects on the individual reader. I think it is important to examine carefully these claims.

He suggests, for example, that reading imaginative literature alleviates loneliness. Elsewhere Toni Morrison expressed a similar view: “I was lonely for the company of those people in the book.” Does reading literature have this effect? I am dubious as I know of no direct evidence for this kind of influence.

In my case, enjoying the company of my literary friends is not the same as lessening my isolation or in any permanent fashion decreasing the loneliness that I sometimes feel. Yes, I learn that there are other individuals who sometimes think and feel the way I do.

While this is somewhat reassuring, still I know that it is a fictional world that provides this confirmation and it won’t be long before I will have to come to terms if not with loneliness, per se, the relatively solitary world in which I now live.

In several places Bloom suggests reading “is the search for a difficult pleasure” and that it is “the most healing of pleasures.” However, further on, a certain inconsistency creeps into this claim when he admits “You cannot directly improve anyone else's life by reading better or more deeply.”

To be sure, reading is a great pleasure, one of the finest. But is that experience therapeutic which I take what Bloom means by “healing?” Here there is some supporting evidence, although it consists of only a small number of studies that leave much to be desired in terms of methodology.

Reading poetry is claimed to be therapeutic by some investigators. Others have employed self-help manuals to alter a wide-variety of undesirable behaviors with findings that are at best mixed.

There are also a small number of laboratory studies on the effects of reading literature. But these studies employ artificially created reading materials that are specifically tailored for use in the laboratory and they seem quite unlike the ordinary reading experiences that Bloom, as well as most everyone else would like to know more about.

Finally there are a few quasi-experimental field studies that document the positive effects of reading well-known works of literature. If interested, I invite the reader to read a review (the last essay) of this issue that I wrote a while ago.

Bloom does not ignore the underlying quest for knowledge, “not just of ourselves and others, but of the ways things are.” And later he writes, “We read Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Dickens, Proust, and all their peers because they more than enlarge life.”

But ultimately Bloom believes “We read to strengthen the self and to learn its authentic interests.” Absent any systematic research, at least that I am unaware of on these claims, each of us must ask if and to what extent that holds for us.

In my case, I know that literature has reaffirmed the interests that I have and the life it has led me to. And to that extent, it has certainly reinforced the confidence I have in this pursuit. Would I be saying this if I were unable to read literature? The question is tantalizing but impossible to answer.

Throughout this post, as well as others, I have asked for evidence relevant to the issue at hand. Is this question reasonable? Fair? Does it make sense to seek evidence for claims about how literature shapes an individual?

By training and background I am prone to ask questions like this. In time, empirical studies of these matters will develop. I know it exists in other areas of literary analysis that are not directly relevant to this one. The questions may be premature at this time but perhaps this will not be the case for long.