Good reasons and, well, not-so-good reasons for reading great literature

This interesting article in Spiked.com overstates, I think, the case against literature as a valuable moral eye-opener. It may not be the purpose of Art, nor the reason for its existence – no more that it is the purpose or meaning of our own existence. It may not open everyone’s eyes but nevertheless, the insights it gives us to the human condition should not be written off as useless.

Just as we know that a work of art can be corrupting – remember Dorian Gray’s appeal to Sir Henry Wotton: promise me that you will never give that book to anyone again? – we can assume that art may also influence for the good.

In the past, if you asked someone why you should read Shakespeare, they’d probably give you two reasons: his work is beautiful; and it makes demands of us, prompting us to think a bit harder, a bit more deeply. These reasons remain true today. But there are also two bad reasons to read Shakespeare. And, unfortunately, it is these reasons that are increasingly being advocated today.

Bad reason number one: Shakespeare’s good for activating neural activity. That’s right, certain academics have been conducting all manner of neuroscientific experiments on Shakespeare readers – they’ve even come up with a piece of research entitled Event-Related Potential Characterisation of the Shakespearean Functional Shift in Narrative Sentence Structure. I kid you not. By observing the amount and location of neural activity in people’s brains while reading Shakespeare compared to lesser playwrights, the study found that, lo and behold, there’s more going on in the brain when people read the bard. Apparently, this is because he uses words in unusual and unexpected combinations.

You don’t need to be a neuroscientist or literary expert to see that this insight is banal at best. There are easier and quicker ways, I’m sure, to boost your neural activity if that’s what you really want to do.

Bad reason number two: reading great literature can make us better people, more empathetic and more compassionate. For example, psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano applied ‘theory-of-mind techniques’ to people who had been randomly assigned either popular and non-fiction books or literary classics. They ‘found’ that the latter group was better at identifying emotions in others.

This is a very self-flattering idea for those of us who like reading literature. Unfortunately, it’s just not true. In Literary Education: A Revaluation (1963), James Gribble argued convincingly against the literature-makes-you-more-empathetic fallacy. He points out that a direct correspondence between how we feel about characters when reading, and how we feel about people in real life, ignores the efforts and talents of the writer. It is through the art of writing literature that a writer can make it easy for us to feel sympathy for a character who, if we encountered them in real life, we may well struggle to give the time of day to. Empathy and compassion arise from a moral sense we all have, irrespective and independent of any knowledge of literature.

An important and worthwhile aspect of reading literature is that it demands we interpret the work. This involves considering both its objective form and the contents of our subjectivity. It involves making judgements based on our interpretations. This capacity to interpret and understand for ourselves, rather than take something as given, is something we can bring to bear on other areas of life, including attempts by academics to justify art in terms of science or moral virtue. If we permit these bad reasons to dominate the way we understand and justify reading Shakespeare, we go against his own profound humanism.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is reading for a PhD in the philosophy of education. She is a member of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum.

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