I’m equally ambivalent about the question of whether reading literary fiction really does make you a better person—not just about what the answer might be, but whether the question itself is really a meaningful one to be asking at all. It implies a fairly narrow and reductive legitimation of reading. There’s a risk of thinking about literature in a sort of morally instrumentalist way, whereby its value can be measured in terms of its capacity to improve us. There was a weirdly revealing quality, for instance, in the language that the Atlantic Wire used in reporting on similar research conducted in the Netherlands earlier this year. “Readers who emotionally immerse themselves with written fiction for weeklong periods,” David Wagner wrote, “can help boost their empathetic skills […] Gauging the participants’ empathetic abilities and self-reported emotions before and after such reading sessions, they found that the fiction readers got more of an emotional workout than the nonfiction readers.” It’s possibly unfair to put too much pressure on one writer’s choice of words in framing the discussion (particularly in a roundup blurb), but it hints at a certain view of literature that is implicit in this way of thinking about it—literature as PX90 workout for the soul, as a cardio circuit for the bleeding heart.
Nah, it’s not unfair. The Atlantic Wire, as we saw only a few weeks ago, looooves this sort of superficial ego-stroking for the moderately-cultured, and Wagner in particular is exactly the sort of “journalist” you’d expect to find reporting on hashtag news. Anyhoo, yes, that’s not to say that the whole moral-benefits-of-fiction idea is totally useless, however — knowing the vapid twits who are impressed by it allows you to avoid ever being trapped in conversation with them.