What Reading The Classics Does For Us

Posted: August 27, 2014

New studies attempt to prove that reading, and especially reading the classics, can make a big difference to our emotional intelligence and empathy.

I recently read this article published sometime back on HuffPost where social psychologists David Kidd and Emanuele Castano argue that reading classics like authors such as Tolstoy,Chekhov etc enhances what they term as the ‘theory of mind’.

In a study published online in Science, the duo argue that while the best sellers might be a thrilling, voracious, mind ride, it is literature which actually helps us intuit better, empathize better and improves thoughts, sensitivity and the ability to understand motivation.

In a study that they conducted, they asked their subjects to read 10-15 pages of popular fiction or literary works. Examples of literary work read included Anton Chekov, Don Delillo and popular fiction included best sellers like Danielle Steele’s The Sins of the Mother and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.

The participants were then made to undertake some psychological tests like Diagnostic Analysis of Nonverbal Accuracy 2 where they had to look at a face for 2 seconds and decide whether the face was unhappy, sad, afraid, happy, angry etc. The second test was the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test – the participants looked at a slice of a face and were asked to pick from four complex emotions.

The results showed that both the reading groups did better than people who did not read or primarily read non-fiction. But the results within the reading group were dramatic – the literary group outperformed the popular group by about two questions out of 36 in the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test and missed fewer questions out of 18 in the like Diagnostic Analysis of Nonverbal Accuracy 2.

The results substantiated the hypothesis – reading literature improves the mind and related cognitive abilities. The scientists are quick to point out that the theory does need more development.

Now having said all of that mouthful, one cannot deny what every scholar/psychologist has harped on for ever – reading is awesome and reading books that are deemed classic, albeit difficult, improves our mind and cognitive abilities. True, these ‘Classics’ are not easy reads and it is also true that not all of them can be read or seen as motifs in enlightenment – case to the point, my utter dislike for Madame Bovary and Middlemarch; but if we attempt to read ten such books , at least we will come out liking 4 and the effort of reading all 10 in itself a great mind exercise. It seems obvious that if there is ever a reason to read more classics, this is very much ‘it’.

Looking deeper into reading and its value

However I am still curious about certain questions – this came up also on one of the comments and I was also thinking on the same lines: what about comic books? Does reading comic books create a slower or more animated mind-set? I mean not only the Batman/Superman genre but the Tintin and Asterix comics; I know many kernels of ideas in my youth came from reading and re-reading these two comic series including my interest in Roman Civilization.

Then, there are books that are now considered classics but originally not believed to be literary at all – like James Joyce’s Dubliner or Lorna Doone by Richard Blackmore. Does reading these books enhance cognitive skills equally as reading Charles Dickens’ Great Expectation since Dickens’ work was hailed as a masterpiece right from the start and not in hindsight and therefore cannot be credited to changing tastes and belief systems of mankind?

Finally of course, the question remains as to what is considered to be a classic and literary. As per Wikipedia, in the 1980s Italo Calvino said in his essay ‘Why Read the Classics?’ that “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say” and comes to the crux of personal choice in this matter when he says, “Your classic author is the one you cannot feel indifferent to, who helps you define yourself in relation to him, even in dispute with him.”

This kind of falls in line with what Kidd and Castellano argue on the ability of classics to make people think. But Calvino also says that via a personal choice one cannot develop a universal definition of what is a classic book since, “There is nothing for it but for all of us to invent our own ideal libraries of classics”.

Until 1975, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger was considered to be obscene and vulgar and still makes a lot of people uncomfortable but it has been hailed as a classic and in fact is part of many University graduate degrees course work.

And while one argues about reading and reading the right kind of stuff to develop cognitive abilities, can one really state that reading alone makes a person sensitive or is there something to be said about the habitat, conditioning and DNA which plays into the kind of cognitive as well as emotive capabilities we develop?

Case to the point, many years ago, one of my university friends’ father fell seriously ill. Her University supervisor who was an extremely erudite, well-read Professor with a Ph.D. was not particularly supportive during that stressful period. However, her leader at the company where she was employed at that point, was very kind, generous, considerate and a pillar of strength. This leader while extremely intelligent, bright, funny and naturally kind was not a book reader. He was not an intellectual and the only books he had read were for his management degree. In light of such actions, one cannot help but wonder about Kidd and Castano’s theory.

Naturally, as a book worm and a devout reader of the classics, I would want to believe that reading makes you a better human being overall and I am sure it does, but this theory does not account for such instances as the one recounted above!

Pic credit: Carlos Porto (Used under a CC license)

To quote Albert Einstein, I am ‘enough of an artist to draw freely upon my

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