11 January 2015

A Case for Reading in the New Year

My next column for The Sunday Guardian.

If 2014 taught me anything, it is that the world, which can be cruel and atrocious and heartrending, has more good than bad: its collective consciousness grows murky every so often, but it is lightened by a compass so tuned towards goodness that social institutions almost seem to be based entirely around the concept of kindness. But for this trend to continue – and it is in danger, perhaps, of being weeded out – society must be based around culture: strengthened by thoughtful discussion, expanded by cultural diversity and made capable of complex analysis by works of art. For me, this has specifically revolved around good literature. The best people I know read – they read a lot, they read regularly and they allow their opinions to be shaped by the thinking people who have gone before them.

Barbara Kingsolver, in an interview, once said, ‘I don't understand how any good art could fail to be political. Good fiction creates empathy. A novel takes you somewhere and asks you to look through the eyes of another person, to live another life. Literature sucks you into another psyche. So the creation of empathy necessarily influences how you'll behave to other people. How can that not affect you politically?’

Studies regularly show us how literature makes us more empathetic or compassionate. Readers of literary fiction have been shown to have higher emotional intelligence and sensitivity towards the world around them. Art appreciation has shown its worth to socio-evolutionary world-building, despite some of the greatest artists of the past few centuries having been well known for their misogyny, cruelty and selfishness. Literature, like the imparting of any form of wisdom, has revealed itself to be far more effective as a social agent to the recipient than to the giver. It doesn’t cure, but it does condition. It’s almost accidental morality – in that way that folklore is perceived to be morally significant to the development of children. It is the gentlest of consciences.

To read is to watch another life unfold, but to find that one’s own particular, peculiar quandaries are cast into that other life. And so, literature teases us into being active participants in what is, by all appearances, a most passive act; it channels our philosophies, shapes our feelings, articulates longings we didn’t know we had names for. It elegantly taunts us into appropriating our mirror images from within its pages through characters whose lives unknowingly shadow our own. In these bonds – which are often so intimate that they render us more capable of emotional engagement than many of the people we encounter in the flesh – we are available to practise an intensity of sentiment in its rawest, earliest draft. Reading casts vulnerability aside with its offer of discretion: what you can openly feel in the throes of literature will forever be concealed in a pact between you and the book.

And so, as complex social equations are navigated in real life and real time, the reader is endowed with a habit, almost unbreakable, of reading between the lines, of seeing the larger perspective, of putting oneself, as it were, in the shoes of another. As Walt Whitman says in Song of Myself, ‘I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.’ This is the great skill that any good art teaches; and its worth is immeasurable.

Which is not to say that clever, well-read individuals are good people. But it seems, sometimes, that a reading society – whose collective substance and binding values are crafted by the principles of art, are structured around human decency and empathy – can, very easily, be a good society. In a commencement address that J.K. Rowling gave at Harvard University, she said: ‘Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and, therefore, the foundation of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.’ And although I hardly ever need a reason to quote J.K. Rowling, the context here is particularly apt: the cult of fantastical literature espoused by Rowling and other writers who are so often easily slotted in the young-adult category flourishes because of that good, old-fashioned principle that good shall triumph over evil. It’s romantic and old-fashioned … but shouldn’t it also be true?

So read. To make the world, which has ravaged us this past year, a place that’s easier to love.