Joyce Carol Oates

Read Books. Save the World

bookstackWe live in a world full of division, dissension, struggle strife, conflict and a seemingly endless string of challenges and issues that are never adequately discussed or addressed.

A friend of mine once said that the greatest issue facing our culture is the division among people and our inability to come together and have a meaningful conversation – with open hearts and minds – to openly discuss, disagree, find compromise and progress in regards to the issues facing us.

Instead, we argue and yell. Live in echo chambers of our own creation – shouting our opinions to those who already agree. We preach to the choir and change nothing.

Why do we do this? What are we missing? I think its because we’re disconnected. When you disconnect from people, you cease to care.  Empathy, compassion and understanding of the experiences and perspectives of others all diminish. Without this, solutions will forever elude us.

Derrick Jensen discusses, in A Culture of Make Believe, thinking of things subjectively and objectively.  When we look at something subjectively, we infuse it with feeling and meaning; we care. In looking at them objectively, we do none of those things; no feelings, no meaning, no care.

Imagine you here a report of a plane crash on the news. You might feel bad, but it doesn’t significantly alter our normal patterns of thought or behavior – it won’t ruin your day. Now put someone you love on that plane, this event just changed your life drastically. That is subjective and objective – the former is detached, the latter is real, full of meaning.

So how do we come together, finally have this conversation? We need to increase compassion, empathy, understanding and care.

Books can help us do this. They can help us to reconnect and care.

David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano conducted reasearch to determine the connection between reading and Theory of Mind (ToM).  Theory of Mind is the ability to recognize our own  beliefs, intentions, desires, experiences and perspectives AND understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, experiences and perspectives that are different from one’s own. We see them as human, we connect and we care (even if we disagree) because we UNDERSTAND how/why. Essentially, Theory of Mind equals – Empathy, Compassion and Understanding.

The higher your ToM, the better able you are to have conversation with people who hold different opinions, listen respectfully to their logic and, possibly, take pieces of their thinking and incorporate it into your own. The lower you ToM, the more likely you are to isolate, to barricade yourself against opposing opinions and preach to the choir.

Comer and Castano, who published their results in Science Magazine, The Atlantic, The New Yorker and Time Magazine, found that reading deeply increases Theory of Mind. Reading increases compassion, understanding, empathy and care. It connects us intimately with other people and makes them real.

“Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.” – Joyce Carol Oates

What we read matters. Deep reading means, to paraphrase The New Yorker, we should seek out books that are, perhaps, unpleasant. Books that are searching, drastic, stinging and relentless – that push us outside ourselves, force us to evaluate different experiences, perspectives  opinions and beliefs – to see the humanity – and SIMILARITY – in others. To see the world through the eyes of another.

Literary critic Frank Kermode places reading into two categories: carnal and spiritual.

Carnal Reading is hurried, pragmatic and utilitarian. It involves information processing or, in the case of popular fiction, tends to be focused on plot with good and bad being clearly defined. Spiritual Reading requires focused attention, reflection, analysis and forces growth. Good literature reaches into our souls, draws us in and connects us to others. They focus on psychology and the inner lives of the characters, who are often complicated and  incomplete. Readers have to pay close attention  and infer what they are thinking and feelings.

Victor Nell, in a study of the psychology of pleasure reading, likens deep reading to a hypnotic trance … our pace slows…. And this unhurried progress … provides us time to reflect, analyze, and connect our  own memories and opinions. It gives us time to establish an intimate relationship with the author and characters.

Our connection to the thoughts, feelings and experiences of those we read about becomes REAL. We establish a bond, these “characters” are no longer objective – they are subjective – REAL – and therefore meaningful to us. Theory of Mind increases. Empathy, compassion, understanding and care all go up. People unlike us, outside our relationship circle, become REAL.

Reading deeply can help us connect and to care about others by  increasing our  Theory of Mind. A study conducted by Raymond Mar, and Keith Oatley  found that individuals who read deeply (and often) are better able to understand other people, empathize with them and view the world from their perspective.

Reading is an immense gift, but only if words are assimilated, taken into the soul – eaten, chewed, gnawed and received in unhurried delight…reading that enters our souls as food enters our stomachs, spreads through our blood and becomes – love and wisdom.
– Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book

This seems so simple. If we could all just read a few good books, get together, talk it all over and hug it out – problem(s) solved.

Not so much.

The “Pew Internet and American Life Project” A 2012 survey found:

  • 42% of college students will never read a book again after graduation
  • The average American home has 2.86 TV sets – more televisions per home than human beings.
  • Nearly 33% of American children live in a household where the television is on all or most of the time.
  • 61% of children in the US use screen technology everyday. Their brains are being wired to NOT read deeply.

Why does this matter? Because staring at screens and watching television reduces theory of mind, diminishes our ability to empathize or relate to others – and SCREENS abound in our culture. Regaining the ability to read deeply on a wide scale will be a great challenge.

So if we want to come together, have a meaningful conversation about the issues facing us – with open hearts and minds – we would all benefit by reading more often and more deeply.

Be Strong. Stay Hungry. Walk Tall.

“How Reading Makes Us More Human” – The Atlantic, Karen Swallow Prior (6/2013)
“Can Reading Make You Happier?” – The New Yorker, Ceridwen Dovey  (6/2015)
“Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer” – TIME, Annie Murphy Paul (6/2013)
“Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind” – Science, David Comer Kidd
Want To Read Others’ Thoughts? Try Reading Literary Fiction” – NPR, Nell Greenfieldboyce (10/2013)