Monday, June 17, 2013

Does reading make us better?

Library users were exactly the same as everyone else, it seemed, and this came as a terrible shock to Israel. He had always believed that reading was good for you, that the more books you read somehow the better you were, the closer to some ideal of human perfection you came, yet if anything his own experience at the library suggested the exact opposite: that reading didn't make you a better person...
Ian Sansom, Mr. Dixon Disappears

Several years ago when I led a discussion about the 2003 movie Girl With a Pearl Earring, one of the questions we talked about was this: Does art make us better people? The story, based on the novel by Tracy Chevalier, offers a fictional version of how Vermeer's famous painting Girl With a Pearl Earring came to be. Vermeer, played by Colin Firth, is shown to be a great artist who can see all the many colors contained in a white cloud, yet he is blind to the needs and feelings of everyone around him, including his wife and his many children. His patron, whose purchase of paintings helps feed Vermeer's growing family, appreciates fine art, yet he is a corrupt and abusive man. Meanwhile, a young butcher with no interest in art whatsoever is shown to be a good man. Only Griet, the maid (Scarlett Johansson) who poses for Vermeer's painting, and her father, now blind, possess both an artistic sense and a moral sense.

So when we encourage art education in public schools and applaud the art displayed in museums is it with the expectation that art somehow makes us better people? Is beauty itself a moral value? Great artists sometimes, like Vermeer in the movie, act like they have a get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to ethical behavior. Are we willing to forgive behavior in talented artists we would not tolerate in others? Is art moral, immoral or amoral?

The same kinds of questions can be asked about literature, as Israel Armstrong does in Ian Sansom's wonderful comic novel Mr. Dixon Disappears (2006). He is a reluctant librarian in Northern Ireland who is shaken when he discovers that the people who use his mobile library are really no better than anyone else. He had believed, as many of us sometimes do, that good people read good books and that reading those books is one of the things that makes them good.

"While the value of literature ought not to be a matter of faith, it looks as if, for many of us, that is exactly what it is," writes philosopher Gregory Currie in a New York Times column printed Sunday in the Tampa Bay Times. Currie suggests that "advocates of the view that literature educates and civilizes don't overrate the evidence -- they don't even think that evidence comes into it."

Great literature often wrestles with moral questions. One can't read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without thinking about slavery and racism. How often does reading it actually make someone less racist? The same question might be asked about To Kill a Mockingbird. Novels as diverse as War and Peace, The Scarlet Letter and The Heart of Midlothian deal with other moral issues. One would think that simply thinking about moral questions would help one make better moral choices, but does literature really do more than a simple moral code such as the 10 Commandments or, simpler still, the Golden Rule?

Currie calls for research on the question. "Everything depends in the end on whether we can find direct, causal evidence we need to show that exposure to literature itself makes some sort of positive difference to the people we end up being," he writes. I have no idea how one might conduct such research.

Whatever the moral dimension of literature, I tend to believe that it makes us better in other ways. It allows us to travel the world and meet an endless array of people without leaving our homes. It educates us, exposing us to ideas and beauty and experiences we could not otherwise find in our own living rooms. Perhaps that is enough. And if it is, then that is a moral good.

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