by Kim Pederson…….
More years ago than I like to admit, I was a graduate student at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. I was also a teaching assistant and, since I was in the English Department, our assignments were to teach first-year English classes. At times in those courses, I would ask students to read aloud from whatever piece of fiction or nonfiction we were studying. At times, I was shocked to see some of them read very haltingly, even sounding out unfamiliar words syllable by syllable the way kids often do when they first learn to read.
When you read a description of the process of reading, it sounds horribly difficult: “Reading is a complex cognitive process of decoding symbols in order to construct or derive meaning (reading comprehension). The reading process requires continuous practice, development, and refinement. In addition, reading requires creativity and critical analysis.”
It’s no secret that being able to read well is an essential skill in developed societies and a skill that helps bring undeveloped societies into the modern world through greater knowledge and understanding. It also, according to a Signature article that was posted on Medium, “teaches us to be human.” More specifically, “literary fiction teaches us to be human.”
In the article, author Tom Blunt asks this question: “Think about every bully you can remember, whether from fiction or real life. What do they all have in common?” His answer is that these individuals don’t read much and especially don’t read literary fiction. Blunt goes on to cite scientific results that reading fiction heightens brain activity, especially in the areas of visualization and understanding language, and that reading literary fiction leads to better results in subjects being tested for Theory of Mind.
Theory of Mind, in case you are wondering as I did, is “the human capacity to comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires and that these may differ from one’s one beliefs and desires.” The authors of the study Blunt mentions define literary fiction as “narratives that focus on in-depth portrayals of subjects’ inner feelings and thoughts.” Reading such fiction can increase our empathy for the individuals we read about, no matter what their national, religious, or cultural proclivities.
At the end of his piece, Blunt comes back to bullies: “Bullying behavior is not exclusive to ignorant people, but there may be more to the stereotype about getting picked on by the class dullard — or the grownup s/he becomes — than we may have ever realized.” He writes that the cultivation of empathy should be given the same importance as physical fitness or mental health. Unless that happens, any inclination we have toward empathy “will gradually give way to the immediacy of one’s own firsthand experience, weighted with the prejudices and confirmation bias that are bound to accumulate over time.” Sound familiar?
All this makes me think that I have been inexcusably laxsponsible [lax and irresponsible] in my reading habits, that I should put down my science-fiction novel and pick up Saffron Dreams or Beloved or Blubber or A Wrinkle in Time and start, as Blunt describes it, “beating back the apathy and entropy that persists (and even flourishes)” today. I vow to do this and perhaps you should, too. First, though, I have to see whether we Earthlings survive the ominous onslaught of the nefarious Nepatrox.
*Miss Auras, by John Lavery, depicts a woman reading a book. Public Domain.
Visit Kim Pederson’s blog RatBlurt: Mostly Random Short-Attention-Span Musings.