Does reading a good book make you a better person?
It’s a great question — one that has sparked a big debate recently among academics. It started with Gregory Currie’s provocative New York Times essay “Does Great Literature Make Us Better?” Currie argues that while we humans are good at accumulating tidbits of information when we read fiction, there is no “compelling evidence that suggests that people are morally or socially better for reading Tolstoy.”
Author Annie Murphy Paul responded in the pages of TIME magazine. Citing a Canadian psychological study, Paul asserts that “individuals who often read fiction appear to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and view the world from their perspective.”
So, reading a good book won’t make you a more moral person, but it will help you understand others better. Got it. But what else does reading great literature do? My friend Karen Swallow Prior — who is a professor of English at Liberty University — gave an intriguing answer recently in The Atlantic Monthly. Reading a good book and reading it well makes us more human.
Prior says that “What good literature can do and does do — far greater than any importation of morality — is to touch the human soul. “Reading,” she continues, “is one of the few distinctively human activities that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.” Reading does not come naturally to us, like language does. We must be taught how to read. And, she says, there’s something decidedly spiritual about considering a bunch of words and symbols, understanding them, analyzing them, interpreting them, and especially finding meaning in them.
To read in this way, “with focused attention for pleasure, reflection, analysis, and growth,” might be, she says, “one of the most spiritual of all human activities.” Karen makes a sharp distinction between “spiritual reading” and merely accumulating and decoding information (like the kind of reading we do on the Internet every day!).
That’s why, she says, “the way we read can be even more important than what we read. In fact, reading good literature won't make a reader a better person any more than sitting in a church, synagogue or mosque will. But reading good books well just might.”
And folks, as Karen says, being able to read a good book well won’t “happen by way of nature or accident.” It takes effort. We have to practice it. We have to make time for it.
That’s why Harvard University sends its upcoming first-year students some ideas on how to do what it calls “thinking-intensive reading” — like previewing what you read, taking notes, summarizing, comparing and contrasting, and contextualizing. As a Yale man, I hate to admit it, but it’s pretty good, which is why I’ll link you to it at BreakPoint.org.
So, is the effort worth it? Absolutely. I love the quote Karen uses from Eugene Peterson: “Reading is an immense gift, but only if the words are assimilated, taken into the soul — eaten, chewed, gnawed, received in unhurried delight.” That kind of spiritual reading “enters our souls as food enters our stomachs, spreads through our blood, and becomes ... love and wisdom."
So why not get spiritual this summer and read a good book and read it well? To read Karen Swallow Prior’s excellent article and to see BreakPoint’s 2013 Summer Reading List, come to BreakPoint.org and click on this commentary.
BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.
Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.
Publication date: July 22, 2013