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Can books make us better people?

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(Read caption) 'Anna Karenina' and 'Middlemarch' were two of the titles mentioned in a recent New York Times piece questioning whether or not literature "expand[s] our imaginations and refine[s] our moral and social sensibilities?"

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Does literature make us better?

That’s the intriguing question behind a provocative debate percolating through the literary community.

It was sparked by a piece in the New York Times by University of Nottingham professor of philosophy Gregory Currie. Though kitchen table – and indeed, ivory tower – wisdom would have it that literature improves us as human beings, Prof. Currie argued that the evidence is simply not there to support such a claim.

“Wouldn’t reading about Anna Karenina, the good folk of Middlemarch and Marcel and his friends expand our imaginations and refine our moral and social sensibilities?” he asks, touching on the very benefits many readers attribute to reading good literature.

And yet, Currie says, proof of such benefits doesn’t exist. 

“What we don’t have is compelling evidence that suggests that people are morally or socially better for reading Tolstoy,” he writes.

One reason this is such an interesting debate is that many readers take for granted the premise that reading good literature makes us better people – smarter, more empathetic, more cultured. Currie goes so far as to say that so pitched are the emotions over this debate we fail to even question the premise or seek out the evidence.

“There is a puzzling mismatch between the strength of opinion on this topic and the state of the evidence,” he writes. “In fact I suspect it is worse than that; advocates of the view that literature educates and civilizes don’t overrate the evidence – they don’t even think that evidence comes into it.”

In fact, counters Time’s Annie Murphy Paul, reading literature does indeed make us “smarter and nicer,” and what’s more, the evidence is there to prove it.

In a June 3 article, she writes that 2006 and 2009 studies by Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, and Keith Oatley, a professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto suggest that “individuals who often read fiction appear to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and view the world from their perspective.”


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