Sarah Worth’s engaging book defends the practice and value of reading stories, in particular the sorts of complex narratives we usually think of as literary. Written for a broad audience, Worth reminds philosophers of literature of some of the most important issues in our field while widening the debate. She challenges established assumptions, for instance philosophy’s tendency to focus more on the literary text than the reader. She draws our attention to evidence about the value of reading that philosophers tend to ignore. In addition, she reminds us of a variety of ways that attentive reading is actually developed and practised, for example in book clubs and prison reading programmes, as well how it is taught in primary and secondary education which, in America, is called K-12 education. Our engagement with literary narratives benefits us as readers in many overlapping ways, as Worth demonstrates. Attentive reading allows us to develop our ability to concentrate on complex and nuanced imaginary scenarios, trains us in the practice of making sense of described and inferred actions and the reasons behind them, and encourages us to respond not just cognitively but emotionally to characters and the events that befall them. These are all valuable skills which, Worth argues, literature uniquely helps us to cultivate. But there is another value beyond these benefits that Worth will also defend. Worth covers a range of central questions in the philosophy of literature, addressing the relationship between fiction and non-fiction, between popular and literary narratives, and between literary story-telling and the storied accounts of our lives. She discusses fiction as make-believe, the nature of the sort of ‘truth’ that literature affords us, and the question whether there is in fact a paradox of fiction. The chapter ‘The Boundaries of Genre’ discusses the challenges posed by works that operate across the fiction/non-fiction boundary, while her chapter ‘Memoir’ examines the role played by fictional invention in works that claim to be autobiographical. The book is particularly valuable for its treatment of two interconnected themes: the nature of narrative comprehension, especially the unique contribution narrative discourse makes to the general project of making sense of actions and events, and the question of just what counts as true in the context of narrative discourse, whether fictional or non-fictional. Her most forceful arguments respond to Gregory Currie’s claim that there is no evidence that reading literature makes us better persons. In terms of cognitive betterment, Currie has claimed that the best we get from reading literature is ‘pretend learning’ (14). In terms of moral betterment, Currie correctly notes that reading morally virtuous literature does not ensure that readers become morally virtuous. Indeed, Currie argues that we have no hard evidence to show that reading literature offers any actual benefits, cognitive or moral. Worth takes up Currie’s challenge, devoting the penultimate chapter of the book to assessing the current status of empirical evidence concerning links between reading narratives and the development of empathy. While her own argument does not depend on empirical evidence, she realizes that some sceptics will require it in addition to the philosophical positions she defends.1 Those who do not see the value of reading narratives—let us call them the reading sceptics—agree with Currie that there just are no significant objective benefits to be had. Given limited time, whether in the classroom or in day-to-day life, the sceptics see little reason to encourage literary reading. There are many factors that normalize the views of the reading sceptic while also impacting actual readers. Let me highlight three examples that are of particular concern to Worth. First, in practical terms of education policy—her examples are from the USA but the situation she describes is transnational—the rise of objective testing places considerably greater emphasis on factual knowledge than on narrative comprehension. As a consequence, less time is spent in the K-12 classrooms developing the habits and enjoyment of reading because the educational ‘goal’ is to ensure that students are able to pass so-called ‘objective’, that is, fact-based, tests. Second, in terms of the formation of habits of focused attention so necessary for the inculcation and development of independent reading in youth and early adulthood, the educational system is not the only roadblock. The enormous impact of personal technology has radically altered how individuals spend their leisure time. Reading complex narratives continues to be something primarily done alone, yet the siren call of our personal technology beckons us and our children onto sites and platforms where interactivity and shallow engagement are the norm. Third, Worth discusses the research that confirms what many of us already suspect: that extended engagement with the sorts of sites available on the Internet contributes to behaviours that run counter to those that help to sustain deep reading. Whether we find ourselves going down the rabbit hole of clickbait links or simply following a topic or theme ‘horizontally’ across a range of sites rather than concentrate on the development of a story in one location, the Internet works against focused, extended concentration on one complex situation. And even if we are concentrated on one source with our personal technology, we are often distracted by incoming messages or the hope that someone might message us. Readers in what we might call a social media mode claim that they are successful multi-taskers. Worth provides evidence and reasons why this view is mistaken. Social media consumers are distracted and distractible. They are the antithesis of the focused deep reader of literary narrative. The benefits of deep reading, while not quantifiable in the way captured by objective testing, derive from the cognitive, imaginative, and emotional skills and abilities required for narrative comprehension. These are a distinct set of skills, not the ones typically thought to contribute to developing the kinds of knowledge tracked by objective testing. One of the most important aspects of Worth’s book is the clarity with which she analyses the nature of narrative discourse, which, as she argues, is shared by works of both fiction and non-fiction and is importantly different in kind from discursive practices aimed at communicating facts. Narrative comprehension is not just a feature of understanding literary fictions. It applies equally to understanding non-fictional agents and their actions. The most basic form of narrative, the story, is found in everyday life as a feature of how we make sense of ourselves and others as well as the projects we engage in together. When we tell the story of how our day went or of our plans for the upcoming holiday, we make use of narrative to make sense of the events, interactions, goals, surprise happenings, and other features of our past, present and future. Literary narratives are considerably more complex than the stories we tell to make sense of our day-to-day lives, but this is a matter of degree and not a difference in kind. Worth’s analysis of the basic features of stories, and their centrality to our ability to make sense of ourselves and our world, is clear and persuasive and will serve as an excellent introduction to those new to these ideas and a helpful refresher to those already familiar with the area. Worth defends the ‘intangibles’ that result from deep reading—the sorts of things that objective testing is not designed to identify. These include central features of narrative comprehension, including ‘making connections between events and details when you do not know how or when they will become relevant, being able to practice decision-making, and predication of outcomes and counterfactuals’. But Worth argues that ‘perhaps most importantly, reading helps us to feel empathy’ (xii). The role of narrative in the inculcation of moral values and virtues starts for many with the stories and fables told to us in childhood, and continues as we become more familiar with stories that feature heroes and villains, the morally virtuous and those who intend them harm. As we become more adept at reading complex literary narratives, we learn to judge characters in terms of subtler aspects of moral character. The great works of the Western canon are centred on moral dilemmas, and as readers, we develop and refine our ability to appreciate the different ways these dilemmas are worked out, whether we are dealing with Macbeth or Sense and Sensibility, The Bluest Eye or American Psycho. Worth’s argument is that the most important moral virtue that literature engenders in readers is empathy. Her response to Currie’s scepticism about evidence focuses on what empirical psychology has found about the connection between reading narrative and empathetic response. But a challenge I want to put to Worth is whether, in fact, empathy is her best test case. Perhaps complex narratives are better suited to developing skills of compassion rather than empathy. There has been considerable interest in the narrative strategies involved in fostering readers’ emotional engagement with fictional characters, and more recently with protagonists in non-fictional narratives. Coincidentally, philosophers, psychologists and cognitive scientists have examined such other-directed emotions as empathy, sympathy, and compassion. At the intersection of these two lines of inquiry is an emerging consensus that narrative point-of-view, that is, the position from which a narrative is told, shapes viewers’ emotional responses to the characters and actions of the story. Whether we are dealing with first-person narration, or with limited or omniscient third-person narration (or a combination of these), readers are aligned with characters in a variety of ways. In many cases, readers are given access to what characters think and feel ‘from the inside’, in the case of first-person narration, or from a position of knowledge, as when an omniscient narrator reports on a character’s thoughts or emotional responses. Does this sort of access to the inner workings of fictional characters cash out in terms of an increase in readers’ empathy? Or does it cash out in terms of readers’ sympathy or compassion? This depends on our understanding of empathy; for Worth, empathy is our response when we vicariously feel what another feels. Mental simulation is the model Worth adopts to explain this ability. Simulation, Worth advises us, is not merely imagining what another feels (180); it is actually feeling ourselves as another feels. True, we need to imagine ourselves into the other’s situation—into her shoes, as the saying has it—but what we feel is actual emotion. And because, according to Worth’s argument, we actually experience these empathetic emotions in response to the literary narratives we read, we can develop our empathic skills through reading and, arguably, apply them to real world situations. This is the foundation for Worth’s belief that reading narrative is uniquely able to make us morally better people. My question to Worth is whether empathy is as morally salient a virtue as she claims? Could the case not be made that narrative is better suited to help us develop the moral virtue of compassion? While Worth was writing In Defense of Reading, the psychologist Paul Bloom published Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.2 Empathy, it should be noted, is not always narrowly a case of feeling as another does. Empathy also involves being able to think as another does; to simulate how another understands her situation, her options, and the decisions she is likely to make on the basis of her interests and values. Empathy in this sense is not necessarily morally virtuous. Although it might sound counterintuitive, people who are empathetic in this sense can be very skilled at manipulating those whose thinking and emotional responses they are simulating. Also, those who themselves vicariously experience the emotions of others can be uniquely unsuited to helping when action is called for. As Seamus O’Mahony has recently noted: ‘One can be empathetic without being compassionate, just as one can be compassionate without being empathetic.’3 There are many situations where too much emotional empathy would be counterproductive and what is needed instead is compassion. In a hospital emergency ward, for example, I would much prefer a doctor who was professionally compassionate rather than able to experience my pain alongside me. Compassion seems to me to be much more closely aligned with narrative as a discursive form than empathy. If there were empirical tests that could investigate my hunch, I think we’d discover that the perspective-taking and point-of-view construction of narratives (whether fictional or non-fictional) encourage readers to feel for characters much more regularly than they cause us to feel with them. What literature allows us to do is see how others respond to the situations they are in. Reading complex narratives allows us—in some degree—to see as others see, to judge what they value, and to understand why they act as they do. These features of narrative discourse seem to me to be the foundation for compassion. If complex narratives are particularly well-suited to help readers develop either moral skill, my money is on compassion rather than empathy. Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly agree with Worth that engagement with complex literary works, whether fictional or non-fictional, benefits us in ways that are unique to the form of narrative. As readers of narrative literature, our job is to make sense of the information provided to us, to find order in what might appear initially random or coincidental, to judge the salience, not to mention relevance, of details, and to make the various parts of an extended story coherent with one another. And there appears to be evidence to support the hypothesis that readers can benefit morally from reading narratives, which Worth examines in relation to empathy. But Worth goes further in defending the benefits of reading. She defends the pleasure of becoming engrossed in narrative worlds. This is reading for its own sake rather than, for example, for the sake of doing well on a test; it is self-directed rather than undertaken in response to external demands. Such pleasure is one of the intangibles that objective testing cannot measure, and which is too easily dismissed in a culture where only objective facts are thought to matter. Worth includes this sort of immersive reading among the cultural practices that, following Susan Wolf, she calls ‘good-for-nothing’.4 Along with the appreciation of the arts more generally, but also food, philosophy, and science, our relation to literature ought to be one that also recognizes its intrinsic value; as Worth observes, ‘Good-for-nothings are good in themselves, good examples of their kind’ (207). As important as the moral and cognitive benefits that can be derived from reading literature, Worth goes further to argue that the pleasure of reading is valuable in itself. In the age of objective testing, on the one hand, and omnipresent social media, on the other, the challenge for all of us is to encourage, especially in the young, the love of reading. Worth’s book is in the vanguard of that effort. Footnotes 1 See, for example, Gregory Currie, ‘Does Great Literature Make Us Better People?’, The New York Times: Opinionator Blog (published online 1 June 2013) <https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/01/does-great-literature-make-us-better/> accessed 20 Nov 2017. 2 Paul Bloom, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (New York: Ecco, 2016). 3 Seamus O’Mahony, ‘Compassion, Empathy, Flapdoodle’, Dublin Review of Books, 93(2017) <http://www.drb.ie/essays/compassion-empathy-flapdoodle> accessed 11 October 2017. 4 Susan Wolf, ‘Good-for-Nothings’, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, 85 (2011), 47–64. © British Society of Aesthetics 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the British Society of Aesthetics. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: email@example.com
The British Journal of Aesthetics – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 17, 2018
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