Without literature, we lose our humanity, writes Davis Clark
The perception among many of us is that reading as an art is slowly fading from public consciousness, as people throw down their Shakespeare in favour of smartphones and Netflix.
This is only partially true – literacy is increasing worldwide, and it’s been estimated that today’s teenagers read more words than any generation before them. Reading itself is as central to our way of life as ever, as we are expected to consume mountains of information every day.
But it is true that literary reading – that is, consuming novels, fiction, poetry and so forth for pleasure – is on the decline, as more and more people of all ages are beginning to choose other forms of media to fill their time.
Why and how this may be happening isn’t rocket science – reading has a lot of competition these days, and many of these competitors offer gratification more immediate than the pleasures of making your way through a 300-page novel. And many are aware of this trend but, in a manner seemingly indicative of our times, they would ask why this is such a tragedy. Why is it such a bad thing if entertainment, like anything else, progresses and evolves? World literacy itself is moving in the desirable direction and, as stated above, our smartphones have us reading more words per minute than any population in history.
Why worry that fewer and fewer people are reading the likes of Dostoevsky and Austen and meeting their literary quotas with tweets and Facebook statuses?
As it happens, reading literature – good literature—has been shown to have many important benefits for those who do it regularly, both young and old. Reading increases communication skills and vocabulary, but it also has much deeper effects on the mind.
Researchers at the New School in New York City conducted a study recently, in which randomly selected participants were divided into different groups with each of the groups being given either a piece of literary fiction or a piece of genre fiction (while the line can get blurry, literary fiction tends to be more sophisticated, less focussed on plot and more focussed on themes, character development etc.).
After reading their book, all of the participants were asked to take a test that assessed the ability to empathise with others. They found that those who had read literary fiction scored far higher than those who had read non-fiction or genre fiction, meaning that the former had a significantly greater capacity to infer and understand other people’s emotions.
These results are not inconsistent with what we know about the two genres. Literary fiction offers meticulously crafted, psychologically complex rendering of human beings, with due focus given to motivations and internal experience. The appeal of high literature is revelation – the reader is exposed to a consciousness that, although fabricated by the author, is as multifaceted and unpredictable as the mind of a real human being. Genre fiction, by contrast, appeals to us in the same way that Hollywood films do – the plot is easily followed and in the forefront of the work, and the characters are archetypal: the hero, the damsel in distress, the jester and so on.
The backbone of these works is a skeleton as old as stories themselves, one which adheres to a familiar and formulaic structure easily recognised and followed by the audience. These tried-and-tested bones can then be dressed up in exciting action sequences and sensual romance scenes to offer easy and accessible emotional experience.
If the foundation of these books is the same, it is no wonder that they do not improve our ability to understand and empathise. Readers do not have to work to empathise with the characters because they are already intimately familiar with them, and can easily predict their arcs of development and eventual fates.
Great literature forces us out of our comfort zones, and makes us consider the fates and internal experience of strangers who often don’t think exactly like us or those paradigms with whom we’ve become so cosy. As readers, we are forced to reconcile our own beliefs with those of the characters we embody. The distance we traverse between our own minds and the minds of the characters is where we exercise our empathy and learn to appreciate the views of others.
In 2016, the latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) examined nearly 350,000 primary students across 50 countries and religions, in what is the largest comparative international literary study in the world. The study found that Irish pupils are among the most proficient readers in the world, only significantly behind Singapore and Russia. 21% of Irish children tested as advanced readers, over double the national average. Irish schools also perform well in regards to the gender gap in reading, which is relatively small compared to other countries where girls do significantly better.
The Department of Education credits a national strategy instituted five years ago which encourages, among other things, more class time devoted to reading and writing. It is certainly possible that these efforts have yielded positive results, but we have also to thank Ireland’s general positive regard for literacy.
Ireland has a storied history with the written word, and it seems that this may have trickled down from Oscar Wilde to the average Irish household. As part of the PIRLS, parents were also surveyed internationally concerning their efforts toward their children’s literacy. Irish parents score, on average, quite highly when it comes to being supportive of their children’s reading as well as having general positive attitudes toward reading themselves.
This is reflected in how often they read to their children and how many books they have in their homes, among other things. This support seems to have created a fertile environment for child literacy.
But there exists a disconnect between Ireland’s admirable achievement in literary education and the actual literacy of its adults. It would hopefully be the case that this strong foundation in reading in childhood will allow literature to hold its own in Ireland, but Irish adults often struggle with basic literacy.
The OECD Adult Skills survey, which tests adults internationally on their ability to comprehend basic written and numeric information, showed that 17.9% of Irish adults are currently at or below the first level of a five-level literacy scale.
This is a level at which someone may be unable to comprehend basic written information like medical instructions on the back of a pill bottle, for example.
Even if Irish pupils are doing well, it seems that some of the adults of Ireland, particularly those aged 55-65, struggle as they grow up. This may be a generational divide, as adults aged 25-34 scored the highest in literacy.
This phenomenon could have many causes, but the unfortunate truth across the world seems to be that reading is losing its appeal to working class people. Those who lack an abundance of leisure time and whose jobs do not directly involve heavy reading may lose touch with the practice, and as a consequence their skills decline.
Even if reading isn’t a central part of certain occupations, one could argue that it is a central part of being human being. In a time of increasing alienation and disconnection, reading offers a way to reflect, both on ourselves and others. If we stop reading good books, we risk our empathy and, by extension, our humanity.