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Books Education Science

Read Better Books To Be a Better Person 158

00_NOP writes "Researchers from the New School for Social Research in New York have demonstrated that if you read quality literary fiction you become a better person, in the sense that you are more likely to empathize with others [paper abstract]. Presumably we can all think of books that have changed the way we feel about the world — so this is, in a sense, a scientific confirmation of something fairly intuitive."
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Read Better Books To Be a Better Person

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  • Nonsense. (Score:5, Informative)

    by ornil ( 33732 ) on Saturday October 12, 2013 @12:19PM (#45108879)

    It's a deeply flawed study. Basically, it's cherry-picking with a vengeance. There's a good discussion at Language Log: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=7715 [upenn.edu]

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      Also, it seems to be a rather self-involved definition of "better person".

      I could make the case that reading Ayn Rand's Fountainhead is a better indicator of being a "better person", than reading Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. And I could make that case without even agreeing with Rand's beliefs, or whether her method of storytelling is seriously flawed.

      • Re:Nonsense. (Score:5, Informative)

        by Samantha Wright ( 1324923 ) on Saturday October 12, 2013 @12:39PM (#45109003) Homepage Journal
        For what it's worth, that was thrown on later by media uptake; the authors simply talk about theory of mind [wikipedia.org]. It is safe to assume Ayn Rand has a very small chance of fostering this in someone.
        • I read the intro paragraph, and the definition section. I can understand what the concept is, but a lot of it is beyond me. Also, as someone who has high-functioning autism (from before Asperger's syndrome was 'discovered'), a lot of the topics discussed are more or less foreign to me.

          Thanks for clarifying what the study was about. And, having read the link, I agree with your conclusion about Rand in this case.

      • Re:Nonsense. (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward on Saturday October 12, 2013 @12:46PM (#45109041)

        "There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs."

        • Some of us enjoyed them both.
        • The quote is idiotic and yet it gets repeated every time Ayn Rand is mentioned and seems to always get modded up. Obviously, neither book will read to an "emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood". No single book can ever do that.

      • Re:Nonsense. (Score:4, Interesting)

        by I'm New Around Here ( 1154723 ) on Saturday October 12, 2013 @01:03PM (#45109143)

        Wow, multiple mods of "Troll" to counter the upmods from people who can actually read context.

        I never said Ayn Rand was a good person, or that her books embodied 'truth', or that her books were an enjoyable read. In fact, in several prior posts I have stated the exact opposite positions.

        But as far as the premise that choosing what books you read makes you a better person, I can still state that choosing her works over Dickens is not necessarily a detractor.

        • We the Living was pretty good. And Anthem is so short it doesn't matter. But the others... yeah I read them, but usually don't recommend them.

      • Two names guaranteed to start /. modding wars: Bill Gates and Ayn Rand.

        • Re:Nonsense. (Score:5, Insightful)

          by SternisheFan ( 2529412 ) on Saturday October 12, 2013 @02:25PM (#45109663)

          Rand was broken by the Bolsheviks as a girl, and she never left their bootprint behind. She believed her philosophy was Bolshevism's opposite, when in reality it was its twin. Both she and the Soviets insisted a small revolutionary elite in possession of absolute rationality must seize power and impose its vision on a malleable, imbecilic mass. The only difference was that Lenin thought the parasites to be stomped on were the rich, while Rand thought they were the poor.

          http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2009/11/how_ayn_rand_became_an_american_icon.html [slate.com]

          Sounds to me that she was a sad, drug addicted nut who was overly influenced by her rough childhood, and any nut can write books. Doesn't make them right (see: L.Ron Hubbard).

          • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday October 12, 2013 @02:43PM (#45109765)

            There's a wonderful little joke in my language, and it comes from a time of being a peoples republic:
            Capitalism is humans exploiting other humans. Communism is the reverse of that.

          • "a sad, drug addicted nut who was overly influenced by her rough childhood". Sounds like a good description of a fair few writers out there. Seriously though, even if Rand wanted to impose her vision using methods similar to the Bolsheviks, you'd also have to compare her vision with theirs to make any sort of meaningful comparison between the two.

            I've read some of Rand's books when I was 14 or so, and they did change my life. Not because they are such great books or because I agree with her philosophy
            • Hey, if her works got you thinking, that's great. It's the people who feel that anything any writer says must be true, and don't question, those zealots are scary to me. It seems Rand would not accept a viewpoint that did not fall into line with hers. That's what makes her, imo, sad.
        • Some folks tend to use Ayn Rand like ketchup . . . they put her on anything, without thinking about the taste.

          An architecture student I knew at school was a big Ayn Rand fan. She explained to me that engineers were "leeches" living off the ideas created by "real scientists", who were "producers."

          . . . um, . . . ok . . . whatever . . .

    • And if you read Slashdot too often, you become an argumentative, brain-dead stunted fellow who can't see anything but flaws, in anything.
    • by hey! ( 33014 )

      Well... papers exist to be ripped apart by other scholars. The initial claims and counter-claims are bound to be the most obvious ones, the ones that turn on simple issues rather than abstruse ones. So it's no surprise that the initial criticism seems to have caught the authors with their methodological pants down. It's better to let a few rounds of point/counterpoint run before drawing any firm conclusions.

      The study seems to belong to subfield of social pyschology which has become somewhat controversial

  • I've always thought that this was the case. However, I think it might be an example of the "chicken or the egg" problem. Is it you become a better person because you read good books, or do better people automatically read better books? For myself, I would much prefer to read a Charles Dickens' novel than any of the schlock produced by Dan Brown, although I have read both. ;-)

  • by Anonymous Coward

    ... or causation ?

    • ...or reverse causation. It wouldn't strike me as odd at all if people who have already developed the qualities espoused by a certain type of literature would enjoy reading that sort of literature. In fact, it makes a hell of a lot more sense than the reverse.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    The last book I read was "The Prince," so fuck you asshole!

  • by Anonymous Coward

    And now said researcher please tell me what "quality literary fiction" is.

    One thing is certain: this is not quality reseach.

    • It uses "literary" and "research" in the same sentence. You have to use the "special" definition of research in this case, and by special I mean mentally challenged, and by definition of research I mean making shit up. So with this footnote, you get the general idea of what they're talking about.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Over at Language Log, Prof. Mark Liberman gives an annoyed critique of this study [upenn.edu].

  • by rueger ( 210566 ) on Saturday October 12, 2013 @12:39PM (#45109007) Homepage
    Need I say more?
  • Interestingly enough, while many literary typse laud the New York Times or the Washington Post, the most popular 'news' paper in America is the National Enquirer. With most folks reading that, no wonder there is a lack of empathy (or thought or insight) in American politics today.

    Or is this just another story about how reading comments on the internet just dumbs us down even more (assuming empathy is a good thing)?
    • by ledow ( 319597 )

      Junk tabloids are always more popular. In the UK, it's the Sun and the Mail and the Mirror and the Sport, etc.

      The same way that the most popular shows on TV don't have much in the way of thinking involved - celeb shows and "reality" TV.

      The barrier to entry is lower, so more people consume them. Unfortunately, it's pretty much a one-way downhill run from there.

      You have to wonder what we're teaching our kids, especially in the celebrity areas. Let's all consume trivial information about people who got rich

      • Is the National Enquirer a junk tabloid? They offer a lot of worthless "famous people news" (not really any worse than E!...), but the do also occasionally break actual newsworthy stories. At least one that the vaunted New York Times knew about and had decided not to report on.

        Choosing not to report something because of a political agenda is one of the most insidious, vile things a news organization can do.

  • ...watch better TV to ... no, wait....

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday October 12, 2013 @12:52PM (#45109077)

    Now I want to kill all the Bugs and blow up their planet...

    • I want to kill Paul Verhoeven and blow up his house.

      It's the least he deserves for what he did.

  • Did the authors plot crime rates against sales of 50 Shades of Grey and similar "literature"? If so, they just might be on to something.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    So.. if reading quality works makes you a better person.. ..what does reading Twilight novels make you?

    • Sparkly?

    • by hey! ( 33014 )

      I actually read *Twilight* to see what all the fuss was about. And if you read with a sufficiently open mind, you can see what the fuss is all about. Meyer is a gifted writer. What she is *not* is a technically proficient writer -- at least in her debut novel. She offers little that will lure you in if you aren't square in the novel's target demographic, and plenty that will put you off if you aren't immediately swept up in the spell. Her handling of dialogue is particularly painful for the non-fan.


  • Some do, some don't (Score:3, Informative)

    by Dr. Winston O'Boogie ( 196360 ) on Saturday October 12, 2013 @01:09PM (#45109175)
    The only possible interpretation of any research whatever in the 'social sciences' is: some do, some don't. -- Ernest Rutherford
  • hmm ... do I really want to know the answer?

  • Books, songs, movies, comics, oral tradition, news, all of that brings a story with them, one were you can identify with it, recognize as a pattern, and use that pattern to seek a guidance for our actions to get a better outcome. They also draws a picture in how other people (should) think, the more clear is that picture, the better the concept is assimilated by us, and books usually have a bigger extent on showing how characters think and feel, but is not something exclusive of them. But books probably hav
  • Empathy is good an all but I dont think its the leading quality to becoming a better person. I argue that becoming self sufficient (ie not a burden) makes one a better person because then one wouldn't have to depend on other's empathy.
  • The way this is set up, it relies at its foundation on a purely subjective concept - what is "quality" literature? I consider myself well read, and empathetic. But my favorite literature, which meets my personal criteria for quality, was written by authors like William S. Burroughs, Mickey Spillane and Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Not exactly a collection of empaths or good citizens by standard definitions.

    • The way this is set up, it relies at its foundation on a purely subjective concept - what is "quality" literature? I consider myself well read, and empathetic. But my favorite literature, which meets my personal criteria for quality, was written by authors like William S. Burroughs, Mickey Spillane and Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Not exactly a collection of empaths or good citizens by standard definitions.

      Quality literature is what influential readers reach a inter-subjective conclusion about. So it isn't a law of nature, nor are there objective ways to deduce whether a work is quality literature or not. Still, assuming that not every piece of literature is of quality, and one cannot ever hope to read even a fraction of the books ever written, one has to rely on the taste of other influential readers and writers to shift through the masses of books. The system actually work in its own peculiar way.

      All 3 auth

      • by astro ( 20275 )

        Excellent and thoughtful reply - thank you. I do see your point, especially as you make the specific point about Céline. Taking the difficult jump to really get in to his often first-person, disjointed and abstract narratives, really does allow the reader to understand a character I would find loathsome in the real world.

  • Both "Quality" and "Better" are subjective. NEXT!

  • "if you read quality literary fiction you become a better person, in the sense that you are more likely to empathize with others."

    That is a false assumption. Being more empathetic does not make your a better person. Too much empathy is a disease. It is also curable. There's a medication for that.

I've finally learned what "upward compatible" means. It means we get to keep all our old mistakes. -- Dennie van Tassel