It's true that we can't expect - and most of us, surely, have no desire - to find neat moral lessons wrapped up in our favourite books. Good books are not didactic. Nevertheless, reading can have a profound, and profoundly humanising, effect on our lives. Literature has its own ways of teaching us about life and living.Someone please pass this article on to educational planners!
The central experience in reading is of immersion, of entering so completely into the world of the story that everything else fades away. When this happens, we are opening ourselves up to a very different way of knowing. Not just our minds and our consciousness but our whole self is brought into play.
We register impressions at all levels of being, conscious and unconscious, visceral and cerebral, instinctual and aesthetic. Our deepest prejudices and ideals are engaged, along with the detritus of language and culture that contributes to who we are.
All of this is a kind of learning. When we identify with a character in a novel, or with the voice of a poem, we not only experience a sense of connectedness, we also begin to reflect on our own self. Consciously or unconsciously, we start to sort through what we want or don't want for ourselves, what we like or don't like, what kind of person we want to be or don't want to be, and how that fits with the other kinds of people we have encountered in life and literature.
Through reading (and through the study of literature), we rehearse the great dilemmas of life, both personal and social. We find ourselves asking the big philosophical questions: How should I live? What is the good life? What is love? What is justice? And what does it all add up to? Literature is not philosophy, it's not psychology and it's certainly not religion or theology. But it is a form of knowledge that tells us about who we are, about ourselves, our society and our culture. Milan Kundera calls it a "parallel history". Through the novel, he argues, we encounter all the dimensions of existence, from "the nature of adventure" to "the secret life of the feelings" to "the role of myths from the remote past", and on. Reading enables us to reflect on elements of existence we don't encounter anywhere else, and to do it in a unique way. It enables us, in the words of Virginia Woolf, "to learn through feeling".
The effect on individuals is, of course, unpredictable. There are no tidy moral lessons. This is the beauty and the challenge of novelistic knowing. As Kundera says, to take "the world as ambiguity, to be obliged to face not a single absolute truth but a welter of contradictory truths ... to have as one's only certainty the wisdom of uncertainty" requires courage. Literature does not give us a set of rules for living but it gives us a wider frame of reference, and it does enable us to reflect more broadly and engage more deeply.
Does this make readers morally better people? Of course not. Yet there can be no doubt that reading has the potential to enrich our lives and make us more humane. In bringing us into contact with the inner lives of others - fictional characters as well as writers - reading makes it difficult to withhold our empathy in the real world.
It's Official - Fiction Readers are Better People (25/10/06)