The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

The Power of Literature in Our Lives

on November 14, 2016

Today’s post is about the power of literary fiction. I was moved to write about my own attachment to great novels, stories, poems, and plays by reading an article titled “ Literary Fiction Here to Stay in Curriculum” posted by Education Dive in October.

I must also tell you that I’m taking a break from writing starting today and ending on November 30th. Very soon I will be attending the annual NCTE convention and then visiting my family in Philadelphia for Thanksgiving. I expect to have recovered from all those lazy, happy days by the 1st of December, and I hope you will be ready and happy to hear from me again at that time.


When I saw the title of the article, “Literary Fiction Here to Stay in Curriculum” I was eager to read it. Mainly, it was about a recent study that showed “reading literature enhances the human capacity to understand the beliefs and feelings of other people.” Since I agree completely with that judgment, I went to the research site, but could not open it because I was not a member of the organization. The best information I can provide is that the study consisted of giving groups of young people factual material or pieces from high quality fiction. The results showed that those who read fiction expressed greater empathy for real people than those who read non-fiction. Here is a key quote from the article: “In the experiments we ran, we saw the immediate effects of the readings even after just 15 minutes or so. We also have some data showing how much exposure people have had to fiction, and we demonstrate that it is only exposure to literary fiction, specifically, that has better effects on theory of mind, not popular fiction.”

The article also mentioned a recent survey that reinforced the study’s results. Finally, it offered quotes from several psychologists who agreed about the power of fiction to build empathy. Here’s one from David E. Kirkland, an English professor at New York University:There’s a greater goal in education. When we flush literature down the toilet, we also flush opportunities to enhance our humanity, to prepare people to participate in a multicultural global democracy in ways that might heighten our level of human participation in the larger project of humanity. School is beyond career and college training. We are preparing people to interact in a multicultural democracy.”

Kirkland also said, “Round characters are characters that are complex, obscure, and difficult to interpret. If the characters are like this, the reader is forced into this process of mentalizing…[and] we are making the case that this kind of writing characterizes literary fiction more than other genres.”

Although I did not find enough substantive information in the article about the research study or the survey to consider recommending it to others, it’s conclusions were so close to what I believed that I could not resist writing about my own experience with quality literature and how it has helped me to understand the people I have worked for, taught, managed, lived with, or known only at a distance.

Reflecting on my experience as a reader, l remember well my first adult book, the novel “Little Women”, a gift from my mother when I was about ten years old. Up until that time I had read only fairy tales, children’s books and traditional textbooks. “Little Women” covered the lives of four sisters from childhood to adulthood. As they matured, each one had to work to overcome the harshness of family poverty and their own weaknesses. By the time they reached adulthood they had made personal adjustments that enabled them to be strong and secure in their relationships and everyday lives.

Because the characters and situations in “Little Women” were so interesting to me, I swept through it in several days, but soon afterword I read it again, more slowly. I also started to hunt for young adult fiction in our school library. When I asked our librarian to help me find books about young women in new adventures, she did her best to please me. After a while, however, she also led me to books that explored the lives and feelings of boys and men. She never explained her reasons for the shift, and since I also enjoyed those books, I never asked.

Later, as a college student majoring in English, so much reading was assigned that I had no time to choose my own books. Yet, I loved most of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry and also the works of Chekov, even though most of his characters were not very likeable. On the other hand, I did not like reading “The Scarlet Letter” or “Moby Dick”. Both left me cold; I think because I could not see any deep feelings for others in the characters.

A few years later, graduate study in English, again, offered little time for me to choose my own reading. Yet most of the required literature pleased me and became a part of my life.  Even now I can recite the introduction to Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” and think about the sad story of “Troilus and Criseyde”.

Over my adult years, as a wife, mother and teacher, my affection for certain kinds of fiction did not change. One of my favorites,“Madam Bovary” I have read three times over the years and felt her desperation, even though she was selfish and dishonest, and the sadness of her husband, even though he was weak and foolish. When I taught high school English, I assigned that book to my 12th grade class and  also had them read “The Mayor of Casterbridge”.

Many years later, when I joined a book club, I was unhappy with many of the books selected. We read too much non-fiction, especially biographies, that did not make their characters come alive.  I was often bored as I read, and I have forgotten most of the titles and content. The only piece of non-fiction I remember enjoying during that time, and which I have read again, was “Under the Banner of Heaven”. I think that is because in addition to describing the course of the Mormon religion, it dealt with the feelings of real people, both good and bad.

Over the past 16 years, retired and writing books and articles about education, I have read mostly non-fiction. The most valuable book I found was”Mc Donogh 15, Becoming  a School”. It was written by an elementary school principal, whose understanding and treatment of students and teachers and what it takes to make a good school, were more compelling and persuasive than anything else I’ve ever read about education.

At the same time, I also remember the wonderful fiction I’ve read in the past, and I go back to the books still on my book shelves.  I learned more about human feelings and behavior from such books as “All Quiet on the Western Front”, “A Death in the Family”,“To Kill a Mockingbird”, “In Cold blood”, “The Poisonwood Bible”, “The White Hotel”, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, “The Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam”, “Lord Jim”, “The Painted Veil” and other great pieces of fiction than I ever learned at school or in my early experiences in the real world.

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2 responses to “The Power of Literature in Our Lives

  1. Don Bellairs says:

    I came to know of you as a member of the Connecticut Council of Teachers of English. You are a rock star in that world. Enjoy the city of brotherly (and sisterly) love. It will be improved by your presence. Good travels.

    Like

  2. Anne Kolibaba Larkin says:

    I would definitely expand to include literary non-fiction, which Joanne does mention. There are some very gifted columnists and essayists out there; Portland’s own Brian Doyle comes to mind.

    Like

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