bookie: science says reading makes you better, so here’s 12 thought-provoking books…

Does reading fiction make you a better, less self-absorbed person? You read because you are interested in the broad sweep of human experience, and because you want to gain access into the narrow sanctum of specific otherness – to feel Anna Karenina’s recklessness and desperation, or know the shape and weight of Ahab’s obsession, and thereby something of humanity itself. But to make any headway with a novel, you need to grant yourself a leave of absence from human affairs, to sequester yourself in a place where you are sheltered from the demanding presence of other people. Opening a novel might be an exposure to the world, but it necessarily involves a foreclosure against it, too. A life spent reading is, among other things, a life spent alone.

The idea that reading is an ethically salutary pursuit gets more appealing the more time you spend doing it. There’s something reassuring about the notion that you might be a better person – not just intellectually, but morally – for having read a lot of literature.Recently, a paper in the journal Science offered evidence that social skills are improved by reading fiction – specifically high-end stuff, the 19th-century Russians, the European modernists, the contemporary prestige names. The experiment found those who read extracts from literary novels, and then took tests measuring empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence, did significantly better than other subjects who read serious nonfiction or genre fiction. Their basic finding was that reading literary fiction temporarily enhances what’s known as theory of mind – the ability to imagine and understand the mental states of others.

Finally, science has given its approval to one of the literary world’s most cherished ideas about the value of literature. Even though the study only measured short-term benefits, it was taken to stand for a wider truth about the morally improving effects of the stuff, the notion that it makes you a better, more empathic person.

Although the novel has often been subject to self-reflexively ironic anxiety about the dangers of excessive investment in fiction (see Don Quixote, Northanger Abbey and Emma Bovary for further details), the consensus among writers has generally been that imagining ourselves into fictional minds and lives is something that increases our moral faculties, a practice that grows our capacity for empathic engagement with the minds and lives of actually existing other humans. Novelists have historically tended to be invested in the notion that narrative art can jolt us out of selfish complacency.

So this research is, in one sense, a reiteration of something long taken as an article of faith by many for whom literature is more than mere escapism. The difference here, obviously, is that it is science that is telling us this about literature, and not literature itself and so the idea seems, rightly or wrongly, more like something you can take to the bank. But although literature is a huge and indispensable aspect of our humanity – that books are, as Susan Sontag put it, nothing less than ”a way of being fully human” – there is something oddly diminishing, and perhaps even absurd, in the notion of bringing literature to account in this way. Of sitting people down and giving them a chunk of Chekhov to work their way through, and then measuring the short-term uptick in their ability to read people’s facial expressions.

There’s a risk of thinking about literature in a way whereby its value can be measured in terms of its capacity to improve us. We have an anxiety about the place of literature in our world, about the usefulness of reading fiction. If we can answer the question of why we read with the empirically verifiable assertion that it makes us more socially attuned, then that seems to give literature an identifiable job to do, a useful function in our lives. Perhaps reading Kafka or Woolf or Naipaul does make you a better, more empathic person. But even if it didn’t, even if reading made you a worse person – if you found yourself too engrossed to take your bored children to the park – reading would be no less vital.

I don’t know whether books have made me kinder and more perceptive, or whether they’ve made me more introspective and self-absorbed. Most likely it’s some combination of all these characteristics. But I do know that I wouldn’t want to be without those books or my having read them, and that their importance to me is mostly unrelated to any power they might have to make me more considerate. This, at least, is what I plan to tell my wife next time she complains about my keeping her awake by reading too late.

12 books that will get you thinking {and maybe..just maybe change your life}

  1.  go tell it on the mountain: baldwin’s first novel has become an american classic, and with good reason: it is a deeply affecting, lushly written novel about a boy’s struggle to understand God and himself. read it for self-actualization
  2. a personal matter: a deeply felt, semi-autobiographical novel about a man whose son is born with a brain hernia. for those who aspire to have more compassion and more hope this year. read it if you aspire to be more compassionate
  3. salvage the bones: equal parts brutal and beautiful, ward brings us a gut-punching story about a family in the mississippi bayou before and after hurricane katrina, language that, like the storm, can “cut us to the bone,” and one of the best and most original teenage girl protagonists you’ll ever meet. read it to expand your horizons and remember the importance of family
  4. zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance: classic self-improvement book that teaches what quality means.
  5. the unbearable lightness of being: the novel that has probably, at some point or other, blown just about everybody’s mind. after all, when you truly believe in the lightness of being (that there’s only this, that all is fleeting), you’ll probably want to be as good a person as you can be.
  6. the beautiful things that heaven bears: mengestu’s first novel follows an escapee from the Ethiopian revolution who finds himself in Washington, DC, struggling, some 17 years later, to find his place. a novel about displacement and identity, race and home, truth and hope, it will open your eyes and heart.
  7. things fall apart: there’s a reason so many of us are asked to read this book while our minds are still forming. if you can grasp the subtleties of clashes between cultures, and between the self and one’s culture, at a young age, you’re likely to be rather better able to function in the modern world.
  8. kindred {one of my favorite books}: butler’s “grim fantasy” snatches a normal girl from her life in 1976 and drops her into 1815, where she, a black woman, is automatically a slave. as she shunts back and forth between the two worlds, her sheltered life crumbles in the face of the horrors of the past. for anyone who needs a little perspective.
  9. invisible man: not just a superb novel, nor one that lays bare the life of African Americans in the early half of the 20th century, but also a book that challenges the reader and calls him on his own hypocrisies and assumptions. will make you a better person every time.
  10. memoirs of hadrian: this classic philosophical novel, written as a letter to marcus aurelius, will leave you ruminating on the nature of love, self, and soul. plus, nuggets of wisdom abound.  a favorite: “Our great mistake is to try to exact from each person virtues which he does not possess, and to neglect the cultivation of those which he has.”
  11. the moon is a harsh mistress: if nothing else, this book will teach you the truth of TANSTAAFL (There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch). harsh but fair, and important information for the rest of your life
  12. the remains of the day: this book is so quiet, so elegant, that you might not realize it’s seeping into your head and making you a better person — until after you close it, and your newfound empathy and ache for others and resolutions to be better just wash on over you.
source: flavorwire

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