Does it Matter?

In the film 1,000 Times Goodnight a war photographer is dedicated to carrying her cameras into the heart of ongoing war zones. In E-Team, a Neflix produced film, a group of emergency investigators for Human Rights Watch report on their visits to warn-torn battlefields of Syria and Libya.

In both films there are scenes of total destruction, weeping survivors, unexpected onslaughts of bombing attacks or marauding warriors. Photographers take their pictures, investigators write their reports.

I ask what does it all matter? Do the photographs affect anyone? Do the reports decrease the frequency of human rights violations? Where is the evidence that either have any influence? Wars continue. Human rights violations continue. Whistleblowers come forward. Nothing seems to change.

The courageous chroniclers return to their glamorous homes, devoted husbands and children. Then they head out again to the war zones. Are these people heroic communicators or danger addicts? Do they even measure the impact of their work?

Or are they under no illusions about the difference they make? Perhaps they view their task as making public what the perpetrators seek to keep secret. They judge their work in terms of newspaper reports, blog hits, tweets, and minutes on the nightly news.

I am continually asking the same questions of others form of communication—television, newspapers, literature. Consider the influence of reading literature on an individuals beliefs or behavior?

Perhaps reading a book or set of them might change the behavior of some individuals, but for others, perhaps the majority of readers, it has little or no effect. Even some writers lament how little influence their work has. Within a day or two of each other, I read the following confessions:

“Although I’ve spent much of my life writing and speaking in opposition to the corrupting influence of money on medicine, I find doing so increasingly pointless because it seems futile.” Marcia Angell

“[Barbara] Garson has similar doubt about the value of her work. Talking in a restaurant booth with Alice Epps, who is bravely fighting foreclosure, she suddenly gets up, goes around to sit down beside the woman, and begins to cry, because my books never do anyone any good.”

A while ago, this issue became the question of the moment on the Web. It was initiated by Susan Elderkin and Ella Berthoud’s new book, The Novel Cure. They write about how reading novels can overcome a variety of mental ills, suggesting novels for depression, anorexia, bulimia, obsessive-compulsive disorders, etc.

The novels they recommend are designed for adolescents, the middle-and-old age. Elderkin and Berthoud are widely read, the novels they discuss are among the best and most well known. However, they don’t provide any evidence for the effectiveness of reading them.

Not long after The Novel Cure was published, the results two studies one in the US and the other in the Netherlands provided some relevant data. The methodology in both studies was roughly the same. The results indicated that individuals who were asked to read from literary works of fiction (Chekhov, Munro, DeLillo etc) for only three to five minutes scored higher on measures of empathy than those who were asked to read “popular fiction” or nonfiction books.

The authors suggest that reading fiction exposes us to the perspective and emotions of individuals who may be quite different from ourselves, at least for a short period. This leaves open the duration of this effect or how a longer reading period, including a lifetime of reading literary fiction influences empathy.

But I do know that reading literary fiction or an appreciation of the arts in general does not guarantee a strong sense of empathy. One only need look to wartime Europe for evidence that well educated individuals who appreciate Beethoven or Goethe can be entirely indifferent to the suffering of others.