The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Reading will supposedly make you a better person. That’s not the real reason to pick up a book.

(Washington Post Illustration/iStock)

January is a time for reading resolutions — and declarations that reading good books will make us better people. At the end of 2019, for instance, New York Public Library President Anthony Marx challenged city residents to resolve to read for at least 20 minutes a day, arguing that “reading helps generate empathy, something our world needs more than ever before.”

Marx’s statement is backed up by studies that correlate reading and aspirational qualities like compassion and emotional generosity. One suggests that nurses who work with dementia patients would do well to read more literary novels. Another argues that a capacity to intuit others’ feelings falls like sunlight upon those who read novels “by the likes of Salman Rushdie, Harper Lee and Toni Morrison,” (though not so much upon those who read genre fiction.) Another report implies that Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s affection for audiobooks may increase her emotional intelligence. And a study of a host of such studies concludes that reading fiction produces a “small, statistically significant improvement in social-cognitive performance.”


I value openheartedness and goodwill as virtues, of course. And I don’t question the scientific rigor of these studies, or their conclusions. Or, at least, I don’t have the intellectual chops to question them. In part I’m irked by how readily news of these studies goes viral, the way that they’re so often taken as opportunities to run a victory lap for one’s own good habits. These studies always seem to unleash approving noises of self-congratulatory self-regard — ironically betraying a narcissism that seems to counter the argument all these studies are making.

[Where do you read books? I read at the mall.]

But I also think that these studies miss a bigger point by implying that reading fiction is, at its best, a tidy cause-and-effect process. Enter intellectually weak and benighted, exit emotionally toned and trim, as if a novel were the psychological equivalent of kettlebells or a Peloton bike. Fiction’s strength, though, is that it delivers not order and clear direction, but mess and evocations of our unsteady state of being. I’m uncertain what wisdom I can take from the March family, Anna Karenina or Karl Ove Knausgaard that I can apply to my daily life. Nor do I wish to read so programmatically.

For me, fiction is a kind of Schrödinger’s box — a way of simultaneously being in the world and not being in the world. Some books deliver that uncanny feeling better than others, but in the right context any book can do that, not just the “literary” ones that studies typically advocate.

Here’s how I came to that conclusion: About 15 years ago, I had a breakdown. Not the kind that puts you in a facility, but serious enough — one that made me decide to quit the job I started after a month because I was vibrating with anxiety, terrified of conversation for fear of veering into a panic attack. It was, I think, the culmination of years of an A-student’s low-boil anxiety over desperately needing not to fail at something, and then failing at a number of things professionally, in quick succession. I was inconsolable for reasons I couldn’t articulate, and I’d become the sort of person that friends and colleagues made concerned phone calls about.

One of the clearest measures of my adrift-ness during that period, which made me wonder whether I was truly going to be okay, was simple yet troubling: I could not read. I could not pick up a book, look at the words inside them, and process them for meaning. At my worst, the idea of consuming a paragraph felt unthinkable. How could you read an entire paragraph? How could somebody write one, and then another, and then a whole book full of paragraphs? It was all I could do to process the headlines in the morning newspaper. If I was going to get better, the effects of interventions by friends and clinicians would provide one measure of it. But being able to read a book would provide another.

[What’s the best American novel? A PBS vote is a revealing look at our (limited) taste.]

If only I could say that Philip Roth or Yukio Mishima or Alice Munro delivered me from that emotionally paralytic state. The fact is, the book that helped get me where I needed to be, eventually, was a paperback that somebody left in the lobby of my apartment building: Sidney Sheldon’s 2000 thriller “The Sky Is Falling.” Sure, it’s entirely nutrient-free. Indeed, I don’t think I’ve read a work of fiction more bereft of insight into the human condition. I recall there were sophisticated jet-setting journalists hunting central-casting Russian bad guys. Gunplay and skulduggery abound; at one point a person gets decapitated by a helicopter rotor. How was that going to replenish my stockpile of empathy?

And yet, what better place to be at that moment, I felt, than inside that dumb, overheated plot? Things were happening! To people! In a world where things happened to people! It was reassuring in a way, to be in such a world. What I valued was the simple happening-ness of life. The book reknitted my conception of reading, demonstrated that it wasn’t a stoic march to edification but a way to be open to experience.

If you feel that reading fiction has made you a more empathetic person, that’s to your credit. But I wonder whether the emphasis on achievement that comes with all these studies and reading prescriptions is more off-putting than encouraging. In 2013 Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, two self-declared “bibliotherapists,” published a well-intentioned book called “The Novel Cure,” which proffered “fictional plasters and poultices” for a host of ailments. For anxiety, they suggest “Portrait of a Lady”; for depression, “Herzog,” “The Bluest Eye” and “Revolutionary Road.” I love all of those novels, but I doubt any of them would have done me a lick of good during my months in the wilderness. I didn’t need a book that mirrored my own emotional world so much as a window into a different one.

A couple of months ago I finally caught up with Larry McMurtry’s 1985 western, “Lonesome Dove,” and that old feeling welled up again — the sense of being seduced by a plot that presented a world not my own yet that still rang true. I suspect that fine book, as lavishly plot-driven and simply delivered as it is, might have been as much a comfort to me at my low point as that trashy Sheldon novel was. (I confess: I resent my neighbor a little for not leaving better books in the lobby.) When it comes to literature, not all books are created equal. But when it comes to healing, sometimes just about any book will do.

Mark Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”

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