Today I am honoured to play host to an article by Lisa Fray about the impact of books on readers and the way they think.
Do Books Make Us Better People?
Have you ever met one of those people who announces the fact that they have read a book with a sense of pride that suggests they just solved world peace, cured cancer, or at the very least completed a marathon? They almost seem to pause for your applause after telling you the title, and even worse, they might then go on to tell you how much they abhor "lesser" forms of entertainment like film, TV or (shudder!) video games. The myth that these people have fallen for isthat books are inherently more sophisticated and intellectual, and that the very fact that they have read one makes them a superior sort of person. It's easy enough to do, particularly if you've just made it through one of the heavier classics, or had your understanding of the world challenged by a great philosophical work, but we shouldn't be so quick to assume that reading alone is enough to turn us into better versions of ourselves. Books don't make us into better people simply because we read them. We only become better people if the books we read make us think about our own morality.
Origins of the Idea
It's hard to find a literary critic who doesn't think that literature has some sort of influence on the way we see the world, but modern theorists tend to focus on revealing the hidden ideologies that lieinside our favourite books, rather than on the way that books might make people better. The moral approach to criticism was more powerful during the 18th and 19th centuries, when it was believed that making sure people were reading the right kind of books would keep them peaceful and satisfied with their lives. Such a start for the idea that books can make us into better people hardly gives you confidence in the sort of morality that we might be developing as we read, but this is the origin of the belief that books are inherently good for us. If this were the only reason people believed in the power of books over morality, it would be difficult to believe in the intellectual superiority of the reader, let alone in their better moral character.
The Good, the Bad and the Amoral
Many stories have obvious morals, or were designed to teach us through showing how the "good" characters are rewarded and the "bad" ones are punished, but it has always been difficult for people to take these sorts of stories seriously. Samuel Richardson's Pamela, the story of an impossibly virtuous servant, was almost immediatelysatirised by Henry Fielding's Shamela, and it is often the bad characters who are most glamorous and attractive in fiction. If it were true that books could pressure us into being good simply by making us copy ourfavourite characters, we would be in trouble. Reading a moral book would make us good, but reading an immoral one would make us bad. All of the rest of literature, lacking a clear moral stance, would just leave us lost and confused.
Thinking About Philosophy in Fiction
The way that books change us is obviously more complicated than this. If books can make us better people, it is not by telling us simple morality tales. The difference that reading makes is that it encourages us to take the time to think about the unintended consequences of our actions and to empathise with strangers. Books make us think for ourselves, rather than trying to force us into the "right" way of thinking. The sorts of questions about what makes a perfect society that Thomas More raises in Utopia, or the ethical perspectives of Ayn Rand's protagonists in Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead can challenge us to look at the world in a new way. The difficult concepts that philosophers spend their lives studying can become clear when we approach them through fiction, even if some of the more challenging books force us to look beyond their pages to find out more about nihilism, solipsism or ethical theory. If we are willing to make the effort and engage actively with the ideas that we are reading about, we can actually learn a lot from our books, even if the text has been written before our time. Descartes, Locke, and Spinoza's publications on ethics can all reveal a better understanding of society before and how some of the ideas came to contribute to our world today.
Are We Better for Loving Books?
However cynical you might be, perhaps as a result of honing your mind with difficult philosophical books, it is hard to dismiss the idea that reading can make us more empathetic and thoughtful. It is much easier to laugh at the sort of moral control that the Victorians believed literature could exert and at the way that some people still believe that just reading a book will be enough to make them a better person. Books aren't in themselves morally good or bad. It is the way we read them that determines their influence. It is the way they make us think.
Here are some links to other articles she has written: