By Jason Phillips
DVMS Dad Geoffrey Laxton recently shared an article with us that summarizes Neil Gaiman‘s recent talk to the Reading Agency at the Barbican in London. Gaiman discussed the benefits of reading, including such treasures as revealing how the private prison industry in the U.S. uses “a simple algorithm” to predict numbers of future prisoners 10-15 years down the road : “What percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds currently cannot read?”
Another tidbit Gaiman notes is his surprise at attending a Sci-Fi Conference in China: “a surprising event since Chinese authorities had always frowned on the genre as frivolous.” He describes how the Chinese government realized “their people were brilliant at making things other people designed, but they themselves did not innovate or invent. So they sent a delegation to Apple, to Microsoft, and to Google to ask the people there to talk about themselves. What they found was this: All of them had read science fiction when they were children.”
Gaiman also posits two reasons why reading is good for you, that lead the article’s author to conclude that books “are portals to other worlds and other minds.”
This is something American writer William Gass also points out in his essay “The Book as a Container of Consciousness,” wherein he says a book is like “a bodied mind.” Gass describes the task of the writer to be “that of replacing her own complex awareness with its equivalence in words,” in order to create a consciousness the reader is invited to experience:
…the consciousness contained in any text is not an actual functioning consciousness; it is a constructed one, improved, pared, paced, enriched by endless retrospection, irrelevancies removed, so that in to the ideal awareness which I imagined for the poet, who possesses passion, perception, thought, imagination, and desire, and has them present in amounts appropriate to the circumstances…there is introduced patterns of disclosure, hierarchies of value, chains of inference, orders of images, natures of things. …It remains for the reader to realize the text, not only by reachieving the consciousness some works create, …but by appreciating the unity of book/body and book/mind that the best books bring about.
Gosh dang, he’s good at the writin’!
Gaiman describes “two uses” of fiction: “Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going… And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy.”
Gaiman’s second point is is achieved by experiencing the consciousness contained within stories, something that has recently been demonstrated in a study (which is stuck behind a paywall, boooo) by researchers from The New School for Social Research in New York entitled “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind.” From the study’s abstract:
“Understanding others’ mental states is a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies. Yet little research has investigated what fosters this skill, which is known as Theory of Mind (ToM), in adults. We present five experiments showing that reading literary fiction led to better performance on tests of affective ToM… and cognitive ToM.”
A New York Times summary of the study states that the researchers “found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking.”
“Frankly, I agree with the study,” said Albert Wendland, who directs a master’s program in writing popular fiction at Seton Hill University. “Reading sensitive and lengthy explorations of people’s lives, that kind of fiction is literally putting yourself into another person’s position — lives that could be more difficult, more complex, more than what you might be used to in popular fiction. It makes sense that they will find that, yeah, that can lead to more empathy and understanding of other lives.”
All of which leads to Gaiman’s reminder that, “We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves.”
Happy reading everybody!