Do Good Books Improve Us?

by Emrys Westacott

ScreenHunter_465 Jan. 20 11.14Does reading good literature make us better people? The idea that exposure to good art is morally beneficial goes back at least to Plato. Although he was famously suspicious of the effects that tragic and epic poetry might have on the youth, Plato takes it for granted that art of the right kind can be edifying and that therein lies its primary value. Most educators from Plato's time to the present have made similar assumptions, even though they may disagree over what sort of effects are desirable and therefore which sort of books should be read. In the past a lot of powerful art has glorified tradition, upheld religion, celebrated national identity, and helped foster social cohesion. This is the sort of art that often appeals to conservatives. Today, by contrast, much more emphasis is placed on art's critical function, its capacity to make us more informed, aware, self-aware, thoughtful and questioning, particularly in relation to aspects of contemporary culture that the artist finds troubling.

Obviously, no one expects every important work of fiction to precipitate some great moral awakening or social reform after the fashion of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Nor do we expect to see patrons of a New York literary festival dispensing cash to street people as they wait for their cabs after a reading. The moral and social benefits of art identified by critics are usually more subtle. Typical academic commentary on fiction, for instance, will see its importance as lying in the way it enlarges our moral imagination, helps us to grasp another's point of view, sensitizes us to another's feelings or sufferings, warns us against certain kinds of illusion, exposes insidious forms of cruelty, shows us how to avoid self-deception, impresses on us some profound truth, strengthens our sense of self, and so on. This approach receives theoretical support in works such as Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Martha Nussbaum's Love's Knowledge, and John Carey's What Good are the Arts?

A huge amount of literary criticism is of this sort, and it can certainly be interesting, insightful, and entertaining to read. But I also believe that it might be useful, for once, to meet it with a robust, even vulgar skepticism. I would not deny that literary works are sometimes capable of having desirable effects of the kind just mentioned on individuals and society. But I believe that in most cases, such benefits are either negligible, or short-lived or non-existent. They certainly provide a rather flimsy reason for valuing the works. Compared to the much more obvious good of the enjoyment we derive from reading fiction and poetry, their value as instruments of edification is like the light of stars against the light of a full moon.

It is true, of course, that literature can inform us about some terrible injustice occurring somewhere and bring home something of the horror experienced by the victims. But so can news reports; and those in the mass media usually reach a much bigger audience and therefore, frankly, are far more likely to do some good. Cases such as Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, where a work of art tangibly helps to advance some important social reform, are rare.

Far more common are works like Milton's sonnet on the massacre of protestants at Piedmont or Arthur Miller's The Crucible. They may not directly bring about change, but they register complex emotional and cognitive responses to events, trends, and experiences; and this is certainly something we value when it is successfully accomplished. We derive a peculiar satisfaction from witnessing artistic responses that express thoughts, feelings, and moods with which we identify. But satisfaction is not edification; and this sort of satisfaction is more appropriately classified as a form of pleasure than as the sort of enlightenment that translates into any improvements in our attitudes or behavior.

Here we come up against an embarrassing paradox lying at the heart of so much literary criticism. According to the most common species of critical analysis, a major part of the significance and value of much great literature is moral; the works communicate moral insights, moral truths, and moral warnings. But if this were correct, one would expect those who read most–that is, professors of literature, high school English teachers, editors, publishers and authors—to exhibit at least some of the supposed benefits that extensive engagement with literary texts is supposed to bring. But who would ever suggest that this is the case? Are the people who have swallowed shelves loaded with Milton, Goethe, Austen, Tolstoy, James, Shaw, Proust, Kafka, Marquez, Solomon, and the rest typically kinder or more trustworthy than people who are unversed in literature? Do they tend to be more insightful about people and relationships? Are they less prone to self-deception? Do they make better parents or partners? Are they typically less self-centered or selfish? On the nation's campuses, are English departments little oases of moral sensitivity and self-awareness? My experience has been that there is zero connection between how much a person has read, or how able they are to offer clever insights into literary texts, and their exhibiting any sort of enhanced moral awareness or commitment. The argument here is admittedly crude, but it still needs to be met. Anyone who thinks good literature is morally beneficial needs to persuade us that there is a causal connection between certain habits of reading and certain kinds of virtue.

Doing so would be a tall order. To be sure, there is some evidence (published in a report by the National Endowment for the Humanities on “The Arts and Civic Engagement.”) of a correlation between engaging with the arts and positive behavior patterns such as community participation. But this hardly supports the idea that reading good literature is likely to make one in some sense a better person; there are too many variables relating to income, class, ethnicity, gender, education, and so on to justify inferring any causal relationship here.

There is, in fact, a rather simple explanation of why no such causal connection exists. Most of us, most of the time, read literature for the same reason that we listen to music, watch films, visit art galleries, and so on: not for edification but for entertainment. This does not imply that we are shallow philistines compared to higher-browed aesthetes; the enjoyment we derive does not have to be simpleminded, thoughtless, or superficial. This is a crucial point. We can take pleasure in all sorts of things: in vivid sensations, aroused emotions, intellectual challenges, virtuosity, accuracy of representation, being surprised, being shocked, sheer beauty, subtlety, power, irony, wit, the capturing of a mood or feeling, cognitive insight, learning, enlightenment, moral deliberation and metaphysical reflection. But the value of the experience, and our motive for opening ourselves to it, lies overwhelmingly in the pleasure we experience rather than in any self-improvement we supposedly derive.

Even when the moral meaning of a work is obvious, the practical effect is still likely to be negligible. Michael Moore makes this point memorably at the end of his documentary Roger and Me. Moore juxtaposes shots of General Motors CEO Roger Smith quoting Dickens in his Christmas address to GM employees with footage of Flint Michigan residents being evicted from their homes. The evictions are directly connected to a decision by GM management to close a Flint plant in order to move production to Mexico. The disconnect between Dickensian compassion for the poor and the millionaire executive's indifference to anything but the bottom line is stark.

Now no one ever accused Michael Moore of subtlety. But where the meaning of a work is more subtle, requiring a learned critic to bring it into the light, a second paradox arises. As noted above, a great deal of critical analysis seeks to offer novel interpretations of works that bring out their moral or political significance. For example, they might show how E.M. Forster's Howard's End exposes the links between social attitudes and imperialism, or how Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible illuminates the constructive value of forgiveness. Commentaries of this sort can certainly be enlightening. But the less obvious the truth or teaching that is uncovered by the critic, the less likely it is to have had any tangible impact on the reader. Often, in fact, the meaning discerned by the critic has largely escaped most readers—hence the need for the commentary. There are thus two paradoxes here. One is that gifted communicators—as great writers presumably are—should need scholarly commentators to clarify the moral significance of their work. The other, more basic conundrum is that so much importance is attached to the edifying potential of literary works when there is so little evidence that they actually edify us.

There is a real and deep-seated reluctance on the part of critics, connoisseurs, scholars and theorists to concede that the value of an excellent work of literature may reside almost entirely in the pleasure it affords us. The prevailing and pervasive attitude is that literature matters, it is important, ergo the ultimate value of good art lies in something more than mere enjoyment. Something more than pleasure must be at stake: some sort of enlightenment, some way in which the work contributes to the betterment of self or world. This assumption is mistaken. But it is worth asking why we are inclined to fall into this way of thinking.

I think there are two main reasons. First, we effect a sort of transference from the importance the arts have in our own lives to the importance of artworks in themselves. And we naturally think of that importance in moral terms. It is almost a commonplace among ethicists that moral considerations trump all others; that nothing can be more important than the right and the good. Some moral philosophers even see this as a logical feature of moral discourse. So a natural impulse when seeking to either express or explain how important we feel the arts are is to conceive of their value in moral terms.

Second, no matter how modern, postmodern, or cutting edge we think we are, the fact remains that most of us are heirs to an intellectual culture in which duty, work, and seriousness have generally been praised while pleasure has been viewed with suspicion. One part of what Nietzsche called “the spirit of gravity” clings to our backs like a demon we can't shake off. We naturally employ phrases like “mere enjoyment” or “just for pleasure”; we would never think to talk about the “merely moral benefits” of a work, or of something being “just for justice.” Those of us who work as teachers and scholars of the arts may be especially prone to suffering from a bad conscience about devoting ourselves to something the primary value of which lies in the pleasure it gives. Moreover, like everyone else, from pure mathematicians to basketball coaches, we have a vested interest in asserting that what we do has an importance that goes beyond “mere enjoyment.” Our sense of our own importance, our social standing, and even such things as our candidacy for available awards and grants, are positively affected by the idea that the arts are edifying. Recently, and understandably, this has come to be one plank in a broader argument for their instrumental value–as opposed to the intrinsic value of aesthetic enjoyment–that is advanced as part of a strategy to defend the arts and humanities against the technocratic axe.

To sum up: I am not claiming that reading literature never improves us. I am claiming, rather, that we tend to both overestimate its capacity to edify and exaggerate this as a reason for valuing it. Neither a power nor an intention to effect any sort of moral improvement on the audience or in the world is a necessary feature of great art; and even when edification occurs, its importance in determining the value of a work is usually small compared to the pleasure the work gives. This pleasure need not be simple or shallow; it can be subtle, complex, and difficult; but it is still pleasure. We should recognize it for what it is, value literature for its sake, and do so with a good conscience.