Posts Tagged ‘Chronicle of Higher Education’

I get asked this a lot: “Why should I read?”  Or even “Why should I read THAT?”

These are legit questions in our technocratic society.  If we want people to focus on science and factual information, the easiest way to make those fields come out on top is to devalue literature, particularly fiction.

Working at a major university library in the past, I was shocked near the end of the school year when students would come up to me to get signed off for graduating, and they would boast: “I never used the library and I’m graduating.”  I even had a few tell me, “Guess what?  I’m graduating and I never read a full book the whole time I was here.”  The new thing, in this area of the country, is to get to graduation without learning anything.  Escape unscathed!  You’re da man if you can graduate and stick it to us by becoming functionally illiterate.

Is this a game of the uneducable, or is there something parents and teachers can do to remove the stigma associated with reading?

I know all about the stigma.  From childhood, every time I opened a book, my mother would ask me, objectionably, accusingly, “What are you doing?  Why are you doing that?  Is that a BAD book?”  When you’re seven, what does that even mean?  Is that a bad book?  Bye-bye Harriet the Spy and the non-fiction book on codes.  Bye-bye ghost story books.  About the only books that were okay to read were The Baby-Sitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High.  I even tried to create safe nooks and crannies and tents.  When we had to move my dresser to paint the wall, I built myself a fort where I thought I would be safe.  I was informed I needed to return my Morse Code book to the library.  I would try to read in bed with a flashlight and the covers over my head.  Books were persona non grata in our house.  My mother had a few boxes of old romance novels that she no longer read, and sometime after we moved, she just threw them away without donating them, because books of any kind had no value.

Looking back, it seems odd to encourage a ten-year-old to read Sweet Valley High.  The social situations verged on soap opera.  The emotions were heightened and everything was always the end of the world.  There was back-stabbing and every other book, half the kids weren’t speaking to the others.

Now that I’ve read a recent article from The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Why Fiction Does It Better” by Lisa Zunshine (fab name, btw, Lisa), I can now look back at my reading foray and realize that it was probably my bizarre socialization through soap opera kid-fic that makes me today a person that everyone comes to for advice when they have problems.  “Why Fiction Does It Better” focuses on how the sociocognitive learning within fictional texts can make students better, but instead, let’s look at how fiction can make a person better.  Zunshine describes the ability of fiction to teach readers cognitive “nesting”.  Primarily “third-level nesting” and higher.  In the article, her example is: “I didn’t want (first mental state) him to know (second mental state) that I didn’t like (third mental state) his gift.”  Babies fall into the selfish category of simple want.  It doesn’t matter what anyone else wants.  Let’s say, both babies and psychopaths, just for fun.  Although psychopaths have the ability to see that what they want might hurt someone else, they dismiss the effect on the other person as negligible.  And babies simply do not care.

If you want a person to think socially, they need to not only see how they fit into their own roles in society, but how they relate to others, how others relate back, how their relationships affect each other, how people can use each other to get what they want, how they can form alliances, etcetera etcetera.

Fiction has often gotten a bad name when it comes to looking at the forced socialization implied.  Sure, some people might write fiction as propoganda.  “I want people to act like this, so the characters will do so.”  The fact is, most prescriptive fictions don’t get large readerships.  There are some things that become ingrained in society to the point that the mass market fiction we read will reinforce the values chosen by society to be important.  In the 80s, that value was “getting ahead”, in the 70s it was “equality for women” and “free love”.

There have been studies to prove that one reason people read mass market fiction, and quite often in a very specific genre (for example, sub-genres of romance for widows or single mothers, or mystery sub-genres that focus on nosy neighbors) is because, although the story appears to follow the same path and end the same(ish), that we occasionally read for the comfort of stroking that same neural pathway.  People like that the same thing(ish) happens, although it may deviate slightly and the interactions between characters will be different, but that in the end, it follows the same path.  It’s a comfort.  In Sweet Valley High the pattern was normally that someone got mad at someone else, there was a misunderstanding or someone appeared to act selfishly, one of the Unicorns tried to get ahead of the group, and after the fight, relationships were mended.  It is somewhat prescripted.  If in this situation, then we can act this way, and perhaps this might be the outcome.

In literary fiction, the nesting complexity of the situation usually involves the reader.  Instead of leading the reader by the hand and stating If this, then that, instead the writer may create a situation in which the reader needs to decide for themselves that Although this misunderstanding… or maybe If only the characters had reacted as such… The problem solving in literary fiction does not always lead to an easy conclusion, which can leave a reader looking for a simple answer disillusioned.  Where’s the happy ending?  If the solution of the characters didn’t work out, how can I use this as an example of how I can act when I come upon a similar problem in my own life?

Readers who did not start reading young often can’t transition to the higher sociocognitive levels of complexity because they cannot apply a similar-but-different situation to a problem.  Reading non-fiction does not normally (except with the occasional memoir) include any of the complexity involved in social relationships.  A generation of socially inept people lack any common sense with dealing with each other, because they have not been encouraged to see examples of social interaction, both the ones that ended well and the ones that did not.

So why should we read fiction?  Zunshine concludes that reading more fiction will increase a student’s ability to perform well in college and to comprehend difficult texts.  Mumsy-Dearest reads fiction for the social interactions to get to the end of the story and escape for a while.  I read primarily for the joy of the wordplay skimming across the page, but I do enjoy the occasional mass-market work where you can escape into a world you’ve seen before and a situation well-known, with slightly different humans enacting this play.  There are many different reasons to read.  To increase our attention spans, to learn something new, to be tranported to a foreign land or a different time.  All I ask is that everyone find their own sub-genre, be it Star Wars tie-in novels, fantastic elvish devility, experimental horseplay, farce, whatever, and support the authors writing what you like to read.  You may be supporting them, but at the same time, you’re exercising your social sleuthing, your brain, your attention span, and staving off adult illiteracy.



Zunshine, Lisa. “Why Fiction Does it Better.”  The Chronicle of Higher Education 60:15 pt. B (2013): B4-B5.

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