It began when a professor forced him to read “Emma.” Balky at first, Deresiewicz was soon thunderstruck by the revelation that Austen had “not been writing about everyday things because she couldn't think of anything else to talk about. She had been writing about them because she wanted to show how important they really are.” Each chapter in this fusion of memoir and literary criticism reflects on how one Austen novel helped Deresiewicz reach a fuller understanding of some important aspect of life: common courtesy, learning, the importance of character over charm, social status, friendship and love. He makes a good case; Austen is a profoundly moral novelist and surely meant her readers to glean some insights on how best to live from reading her books. I do not doubt that Deresiewicz improved a lot while reading them. It's the causal relationship between the two phenomena that I doubt.
Does reading great literature make you a better person? I've not seen much evidence for this common belief. Some of the best-read people I know are thoroughgoing jerks, and some of the kindest and noblest verge on the illiterate — which is admittedly an anecdotal argument, but then, when it comes to this topic, what isn't? There's a theory, vaguely associated with evolutionary psychology, maintaining that fiction builds empathy, and therefore morality, by inviting us into the minds, hearts and experiences of others. This is what the British children's book author Michael Morpurgo implied recently in the Observer newspaper, when he claimed that “developing in young children a love of poems and stories” might someday render the human-rights organization Amnesty International obsolete.