I read this article on Huff Post where social psychologists David Kidd and Emanuele Castano argue that reading classics like Tolstoy,Chekhov etc enhances what they term as “theory of mind”. In a study published online in Science, the duo argue that while the best sellers of might be a thrilling voracious mind ride, it is literature which actually helps us intuit better, empathize better and improves thoughts, sensitivity and ability to understand motivation.
In a study that they conducted, they asked their subjects to read 10-15 pages of popular fiction or literary works. Examples of literary work read included Anton Chekov, Don Delillo and popular fiction included best sellers like Danielle Steele’s The Sins of the Mother and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. The participants were then made to undertake some psychological tests like Diagnostic Analysis of Nonverbal Accuracy 2 – the participants had to look at a face for 2 seconds and decide whether the face was unhappy, sad, afraid, happy, angry etc. The second test was Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test – the participants looked at a slice of a face and were asked to pick 4 complex emotions. The results showed that both the reading groups did better than people who did not read or primarily read nonfiction. But the results within the reading group were dramatic – the literary group outperformed the popular group by about 2 questions out of 36 in the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test and missed fewer questions out of 18 in the like Diagnostic Analysis of Nonverbal Accuracy 2. The results substantiate the hypothesis – reading literature improves the mind and related cognitive abilities. The scientists are quick to point out that the theory does need more development.
Now having said all of that mouthful, one cannot deny what I had harped for ever – reading is awesome and reading books that are deemed classic, albeit difficult will only improve our mind. True they are not easy reads and true not all of them can be read – case to the point, my utter dislike for Madame Bovary and Middlemarch, but if we attempt 10, atleast we will come out like 4 at the least and the effort of reading in itself is mind exercise. I mean if there is ever a reason to read more classics, this is very much “it”.
However I am still curious about certain questions – this came up also on one of the comments and I was also thinking about stuff in the same lines: what about comic books? Does reading of comic books say a slower/more animated mind-set? I not only mean the Batman/Superman genre but Tintin and Asterix comics; I know a lot of kernels of ideas in my youth came from reading and re-reading these two comic series including my interest in Roman Civilization. Then there are books that are now considered a classic but originally not believed to be literary at all – like James Joyce’s Dubliner or Lorna Doone by Richard Blackmore. Does reading of these book enhance cognitive skills equally as reading Charles Dicken’s Great Expectation since Dicken’s work was hailed as a masterpiece right from the start and not in hindsight and therefore cannot be credited to changing tastes and belief system of the mankind? Finally of course the question remains as to what is considered to be a classic and literary? Per Wikipedia, In the 1980s Italo Calvino said in his essay “Why Read the Classics?” that “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say” and comes to the crux of personal choice in this matter when he says (italics in the original translation): “Your classic author is the one you cannot feel indifferent to, who helps you define yourself in relation to him, even in dispute with him” This kind of falls in line with what Kidd and Castellano argue on the ability of classics to make people think. But Calvino also says is a personal choice one cannot develop a universal definition of what is Classic Book since “There is nothing for it but for all of us to invent our own ideal libraries of classics” . I mean till 1975 The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger was considered to be obscene and vulgar and still makes a lot of people uncomfortable in calling it a classic
Some of these factors I am sure go into what we read, consciously or subconsciously and define our behavior and cognitive skills. I have interacted with two groups very closely – my university years were filled with voracious readers who read extensively and all kinds from Sylvia Plath to Tolstoy to Jhumpa Lahiri. I work on the other hand with a set of extremely bright and funny but very non reading people. While both the groups are kind and generous, the fact remains that most of my university “geeky’ friends are more sensitive and more attuned to people’s emotion and can sense change in a person’s temper than the other set. While I always knew this, I also kind of presumed that corporate world takes on a different kind of mental capabilities and I was an aberration and not a norm; considering most of my university friends continue working in the field of academics, social services and arts. However I never thought that reading and more importantly reading classics had anything to do with the cognitive capabilities. Again the Kidd and Castellano study is hardly definitive, but it cannot but help but make me wonder.
Caveat – This is not a blanket theory and there are exceptions and contradictions because one cannot typecast entire mankind in slot! But yes to end, a mental high-five for reading – any kind of reading! One will always be better off than a non-reader.