A study came out recently that has a lot of my colleagues buzzing.
Here are two articles you might find interesting:
I wonder about the validity of relying too much on one study but based on my own understanding their conclusions make sense. In sum, their research indicates that people who read good quality fiction, demonstrate greater empathy than other people, all other variables held constant. It appears that the complex characters in better literature stimulate the imagination and foster identification with the protagonists.
Since I relate everything to my own training, I maintain that this would be especially true of the critical developmental period for most human beings between birth and age 21. After all, we don’t manifest empathy temporarily. In normal, healthy individuals affect is an established trait by age seven.
Like most people, I read many of the classics by the time I finished high school. Even though I was not an English major, I enjoyed literature and even took a course called “Prose and Poetry of the Romantic Era” as an elective while I was in college. Since that time, I have overwhelmingly concentrated on reading professional material and non-fiction. So, based on this study, I thank the gods that I read the great works before I hit grad school! I might have been one mean-spirited witch, if I had not. 🙂
Even though it is gratifying to give one’s mind a complete rest and read simple material from time to time — a great use for fashion magazines or things like Time or New York Magazine to catch up on gossip — for the most part, I prefer reading materials that really make me think or help me solve problems, be creative, etc. (and this helps ward off dementia). I guess this falls into the familiar ‘get out of your comfort zone’ philosophy. Who knows, reading Proust or String Theory may be mind candy for some people – those would be exercise for my brain.
For children — and again this is because I think childhood is so determinative of adulthood — I recommend the old nursery rhymes, Aesops fables and the like, fairy tales from the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Anderson, instead of 98% of the so called children’s literature being sold in bookstores and online these days. I also love Margaret Wise Brown. There is a place for Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss, but they pale by comparison to the material that my grandmother and her mother and grandmother read when they were children.
OK, I know I am going to get blowback from fans of the Berenstein bears and the like — I have nothing against them but, since there are only so many hours in anyone’s day, those would not be my choices for children.
I also object strenuously to what Disney and his influence has done to much of the world’s great writing for children. My favorite pet peeve is the outright cartoonification of P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins. If anyone has taken the time to read the original books, they know what I mean. I watched that movie with feelings of silent outrage about what was done to such a brilliant piece of art. No books ever written could better captivate and cultivate a child’s imagination and creativity than that series. They are masterpieces that even adults would need to read several times to appreciate and understand, but that children, who have not been spoiled by the mediocrity that passes for writing and illustration nowadays, grasp with intuitive immediacy.
Likewise, Beatrix Potter’s books and those of A.A. Milne. When you go to Amazon to give a child the original books about Winnie the Pooh just notice all the inferior renditions of those tender and moving stories that flowed from the mind of a genius.
My ideal list would include the writing of Frances Hodgson Burnett and L. Frank Baum.
[Wait : before you say it, I am a singer and I appreciated the quality of Julie Andrews voice. I am not a fan of that style of singing (just like I don’t care for Barbra Streisand’s style and selections but appreciate the exceptional instrument she has) but Julie Andrews is a delightful performer and I loved The Sound of Music and her acting in Torn Curtain with Paul Newman. If I had never read the original Mary Poppins, I might even have tolerated the musical (although, strangely for a singer, I don’t like musicals for the most part – just here and there, but this is off-topic).]
Which brings me to another of my philosophical causes: don’t waste your precious time. You have arguably, if you are lucky, 85 X 365 X 24 X 60 minutes on this planet. Why waste too many of them reading nonsense (maybe even this blog? if you choose Homer, Stendahl, Reade or Manzoni over Byrnes, I applaud your discerning taste! OK, otherwise, I would love it if you read my blog whenever you want something simple, let’s say, for mental vacations).
Back to the articles and the study. We can all use being more empathic! Read the great fiction before you vote, please, and especially before you visit this site, so I can be sure you look as kindly as you can on my eccentricities.