Today fewer than half of all Americans read literature, and the number interested in books of any kind has decreased by seven percent over the last ten years. What are we losing in the process? The ability to empathize and put ourselves in another’s shoes. Keith Oatley, a novelist and professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, has found a strong link between devouring fiction and doing well on tests of empathy and social awareness. A host of other studies confirm that reading helps us understand the world beyond our doorsteps.
In Virginia Woolf’s Essays on the Self, introduced by Joanna Kavenna (Notting Hill Editions, 2014), there is a superb entry on the benefits of reading. Entering the atmosphere of a novel, Woolf says, requires suspending our own attitudes and beliefs, and entering the lives of the characters. Through the imagination, we come to understand those whose values and experience differ from our own:
Most commonly we come to books with blurred and divided minds, asking of fiction that it shall be true, of poetry that it shall be false, of biography that it shall be flattering, of history that it shall enforce our own prejudices. If we could banish all such preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning. Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-work and accomplice. If you hang back, and reserve and criticize at first, you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read. But if you open your mind as widely as possible, then signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twists and turns of the first sentences, will bring you into the presence of a human being unlike any other.
Woolf then goes one step further—encouraging us to experiment, putting our own recollections down on paper, so we can fully appreciate the writer’s craft.
Perhaps the quickest way to understand the elements of what a novelist is doing is not to read, but to write; to make your own experiment with the dangers and difficulties of words. Recall, then, some event that has left a distinct impression on you—how, at the corner of the street, perhaps, you passed two people talking. A tree shook; an electric light danced; the tone of the talk was comic, but also tragic; a whole vision, an entire conception, seemed contained in that moment.
But when you attempt to reconstruct it in words, you will find that it breaks into a thousand conflicting impressions. Some must be subdued, others emphasized; in the process, you will lose, probably, all grasp upon the emotion itself. Then turn from your blurred and littered pages to the opening pages of some great novelist —Defoe, Jane Austen, Hardy. Now you will be better able to appreciate their mastery.
Woolf concludes that reading is a muscular act—a vigorous exercise of the brain and senses.
To read a novel is a difficult and complex art. You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist—the great artist—gives you.
American readers can purchase the full collection of essays from Notting Hill Editions through nyrb, New York Review Books. Those living across the Atlantic can order directly from Notting Hill in London, or from their favorite bookshops. Readers can also sign up for a monthly selection.
The NHE Essay library (from John Ruskin to Roland Barthes, Hannah Arendt to Rebecca West) is both an invaluable reference tool–and a wonderful place to browse. You can find it here.