Written for the RSA -20/01/14
When was the last time you read a good literary book? Or recommended one? Though a staple for some, reading a good novel increasingly feels like a luxury not all of us can afford in the midst of busy schedules and digital distraction. Additionally, in a time where literary novel sales are declining and libraries are closing, it’s clear that our appreciation for the literary masterpiece is waning. It also seems as if children are beginning to mirror our increasing disengagement with literature; according to the National Literary Trust, only 40% of children aged 8-16 read daily in 2005, a figure which dropped to 30% in 2011 and by a further 2% in 2012.
However, a study in Science journal connects reading literary fiction with Theory of Mind; the ability to emphasise, imagine and understand the mental states of others. As part of the study, one group were given excerpts of literary fiction, while other groups read popular fiction and non-fiction. When finished, participants were asked to take a test to assess and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions. Interestingly, there were stark differences between those who had read literary fiction and those who had read non-fiction. Those who read the literary fiction excerpts exhibited increased levels of empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence. Participants who had read excerpts of popular fiction were also deemed less able to connect empathically.
The differences between literary fiction and popular fiction stir a series of old rivalries between ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ interpretations of literature, but I think what is most important is the potential for literature to enable a person to think and feel creatively. Good literature gives space and time for the reader to delve more creatively into the psyche of their protagonist and to explore human complexities and behaviours. But as we become increasingly embroiled within the world of social media, everyday communication is often whittled down to 140 characters and appreciation in the form of ‘likes’ and retweets has become a normalised endeavour. Our thoughts are increasingly becoming condensed and immediate for social media consumption as are our reactions. Though clearly beneficial in certain respects, the world of social media often provides a somewhat one dimensional approach to communication, often bereft of emotionally sensibilities.
Reading literature, it seems, is fast becoming the equivalent of ‘slow’ food – wholesome and most probably good for you but without the immediate gratification and universal appeal of faster alternatives. Tellingly, on speaking on Radio 4’s Front Row earlier this month, writer Ruth Rendell connects the belated literary success of John Williams’ novel Stoner, a novel in which a young farm man falls in love with literature, with our literary nostalgia and claims the novel reminds us of a love of literature that we as a society seem to be gradually forgetting. But in thinking more widely about this loss, we need to consider and examine the detrimental effects of the increasing absence of literature, particularly when considering its role in the development of empathy and emotional intellect.
In contemplating the RSA’s current discussions on ‘the power to create’, it’s clear that reading fiction is certainly not the only wayto delve deeper into what creativity at the heart of RSA might look like (if only!). But it’s interesting and important to consider our collective levels of empathy and emotional intelligence when thinking about channels of power and creativity. And while recent debates are still at the forefront of the RSA psyche, maybe reading literature is not a bad start…