Reading Literature Increases Our Capacity for Empathy

I read in the NY Times’ health blog yesterday about an interesting study from psychology researchers at New York’s New School For Social Research demonstrating that reading literature can improve your empathy skills.  This was conducted as a scientific study, by giving each participant a few pages of a literary work to read, and then testing how they fared on “mood recognition” — identifying moods in pictures of people’s eyes. The researchers, a psychology professor and a graduate student from The New School, found that after reading literature for a few minutes, people performed better on the test.  The findings were published in the journal Science. 

What was interesting was seeing which books were classified as “literature” by the study. The literary selections included Anton Chekhov, Louise Erdrich, Wendell Berry, and Alice Munro, among others. The “non-literary” selections included Danielle Steele and Dashiell Hammett.

That science can be used to measure the effects of literary writing, even for a few minutes, is, to say the least, fascinating.

An idea for another study: measure the effects of reading literature via a hard copy of a book versus reading on Kindle. I wonder if the result will be the same.


There Was A Country, by Chinua Achebe

Last night, I started reading Chinua Achebe’s memoir, There Was A Country. Thirty pages into the book, I am marveling at the simplicity of his writing, at how matter-of-factly he describes the conflicts between Christianity and the religion of his ancestors, his education, and British colonialism in West Africa. He presents the colonialists in a very positive light, as committed educators rather than as oppressors. The voice is a voice of experience and wisdom, that of an old man calmly reflecting on his life and on the history of his country.

The Death of Reading?

I am one of those people who daily mourns what I  call “the death of reading”. I know that this is a dramatic statement, perhaps even melodramatic. But as someone who has slowly drifted towards “web surfing,” I feel qualified to testify to the death of reading as we once knew it. Indeed, I am nothing more than a mute witness to the end of a once revered activity.  Unresistingly, I have allowed myself to be pulled by the tide, and now I must swim with the tide.

But let me rail against this fate. Let me rail against the end of long, silent summer afternoons interrupted by nothing other than the slow turning of pages as one moved steadily through an old classic; let me rail against the end of overstuffed armchairs, the soft light of a reading lamp, a steaming cup of Earl Grey, and a Somerset Maugham novel to get through; let me remember with nostalgia a time when sitting on green college lawns and reading W.B. Yeats was an experience of beauty and truth.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the Internet. I appreciate it greatly.  It’s a great way to pass the time and a great source of information. I can read any poem I want any time I want thanks to the Internet. I can know when Paul Theroux’s new book is out and can read an excerpt from it without stirring out of my apartment. I can listen to authors speak about their works through podcasts that I download from the Internet. If anything, the Internet has brought distant worlds closer to me and has made them more accessible.

And there’s the rub. In bringing some things closer, it has pushed other things farther away. In making knowledge more accessible, it has also made it easier to get away with thinking, feeling, and doing less: When I know that I can command a poem by W.B. Yeats to appear on my screen at the click of a button, I have saved myself the trouble of experiencing that ache of longing, the ache to find a poem in a book, that specific poem in that specific book; I have spared myself the flustered, clumsy flipping of pages back and forth until – lo! — there it is again, with my undergraduate notations in the margins; there it is, after so long, like an old friend I haven’t seen in years but whom I have never forgotten.

To hold a book in one’s hands is to experience an author in a special way. It is to experience the labour that brought forth those pages. It is to hold a piece of another person’s life in your hands. It is to be faced with the incontrovertible truth that a person has, successfully or unsuccessfully, dedicated some years of his or her life to creating a body of work that could not have come into being without some suffering. It is to hold an ‘artifice of eternity’.

There is an eternity in which literature dwells, and there is this instantaneous instant of cyberspace. Have we traded one in for the other?


Eat Pray Love . . . Then Marry

I am now more than halfway through Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book, Committed. I chanced upon it by accident while I was browsing at a bookstore last weekend. I have been a great fan of Eat Pray Love and have been looking around for something else to read by the same author.

Well, Committed pretty much “peels the onion” as far as marriage is concerned. Grandly renouncing the rose-tinted spectacles of romance, the author leaves no stone unturned in her quest to completely demythologize the world’s oldest and most revered institution — all in her own inimitable style. I must say that I envy her sense of humor and quick wit — both of which made Eat Pray Love such a resounding success.

The gist of Committed is that marriage is more often a curse than a blessing, especially for women. It’s something many women do because they feel that they have to. It’s a compulsion rather than a choice, a compulsion driven by thousands of years of rationalizations, injunctions, and decrees, as well as cultural stereotypes that leave no role for women other than as wives and mothers.  At the same time, there are, she acknowledges, good reasons to marry and to stay married:  children, companionship, stability, the experience of being a mother, the need for family — but these are not reasons that have ever appealed to her (and, dare I add, to me either).

Between the Assassinations/ Aravind Adiga

9780330450546I will begin with a confession: I have not read White Tiger, the novel that catapulted Aravind Adiga to international fame and made him the cynosure of the literati. I am usually terribly behind the times when it comes to new releases, often picking them up no earlier than a couple of years after the initial hue and cry has died down, leaving me free to experience the work without the suffocating crush of public opinion. So I am not coming to his next work, a collection of stories called Between the Assassinations, with any unusual biases, either for or against, although I am aware of one strand of critical response that views White Tiger as decidedly unIndian. In fact, the response to Adiga’s novel parallels the Indian response to Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire: that both the film and the novel offer just another Western stereotype of India as the home of the wretched of the earth. In the West, however, the novel (and SlumDog) was praised for portraying not a stereotype but rather “a different aspect of India.” ((One interesting review of White Tiger is by Amitava Kumar — check it out in The Hindu’s book review page.)

My most immediate gripe about Between the Assassinations is that its title bears very little relation to what is between its covers (a point also made by a reviewer for The Financial Times).  The “assassinations” the title refers to are the assassinations of Indira Gandhi in 1984 and of her son Rajiv in 1991.  Neither the assassinations themselves nor events related to the assassinations  feature in the book. Instead, there is just a passing reference to Mrs. Gandhi in one of the chapters and a brief lament about how the country has gone to hell following her demise. Perhaps that is a pedantic objection. But it points to a flaw in the overall execution of the work and suggests a lack or absence of a thematic unity to the stories themselves.

What I will grant to Adiga is that he has a real talent for spinning a yarn, for foregrounding marginal social elements and giving them centre stage,  for sketching scenes rich in local colour,  and for creating attention-grabbing dialogue — and all in a simple, even if vulgarly comedic, style.  Book piracy, ubiquitous in all corners of India through the piles of pirated books sold on the footpath, comes to life through the story of Xerox, the bookseller; the rage of the lower castes is depicted through the eyes of Shankara, who fantasizes about exploding a bomb in the classroom of a local Jesuit-run school; there is the story of D’Mello, the cane-wielding assistant headmaster; Gururaj, the journalist who goes mad; and several other tales featuring a cast of characters who inhabit the margins of Indian society: lepers, amputees, drug peddlers, drunks, half-castes, lower caste Hoykas, pornographers, labourers, house servants, communists, gurkhas, and Muslim refugees.  Its motley collection of characters does not fail to entertain.

In many ways, Adiga’s humorous sketches of the struggles of the lower classes and castes recall the tales spun by V.S. Naipaul decades ago in early volumes such as Miguel Street and A House for Mr. Biswas, the main difference being that Adiga has exchanged Port of Spain, Trinidad, and its gallery of impractical, eccentric dreamers for the coastal town of Kittur, located between Goa and Calicut on India’s southwest coast. And through the bewildering hysteria and chaos of a life lived on the margins, a picture emerges across Adiga’s 12 tales of the desperate struggles of the poor, the illiterate, the destitute, the oppressed, the fanatical, and delusional residents of Kittur against a backdrop of discrimination, caste wars, religious division, and general oppression. Hindus, Muslims, Brahmins, Kshatryias, Hoykas, and Catholics struggle in comic ways to exist side by side in this small town, resenting and hating one another, but getting by all the same.

One reviewer has commented about White Tiger that “it reads at a tremendous clip.” The same can be said about Between the Assassinations. The stories are packed with action, intrigue, plotting, and event. They protest loudly and stridently the inequities of caste, class, and power in contemporary Indian society. But I emerged from the experience  with my head in a whirl, not sure what to make of the loud cacophony that remained with me in the end.


In the Margins

I liked Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation tremendously and was delighted to chance upon another book by her at a 0140145494.01._SX140_SY225_SCLZZZZZZZ_used bookstore in Bangalore some years ago. Finding a used copy of  Exit into History, Hoffman’s memoir of travel through “the new Eastern Europe,”  struck me as an unlikely coincidence — Jewish American autobiography is not something you expect to find other people reading over on this side of the world, but perhaps it had been left behind by a foreign sojourner in India’s IT capital. The copy I picked up had some intrusive underlining and marginal commentary, but the most interesting comment was the one I found around the following passage in the book’s section on Czechoslovakia:

“In one of the most famous essays of his dissident days, Havel asked his countrymen to live “as if” they were free — that is, to act in the spirit of internal freedom, despite their external constraints. But the regime practiced a grotesque inversion of this injunction: the citizens of Czechoslovakia were required to believe and pretend they were free, when they were effectively enslaved; that is, they were supposed to live a lie — and an imperative to live a lie sucks sense out of all activity.”

The previous owner of the book had marked a vertical line against this passage in the margin and had scrawled “my marriage.”

This  gave me pause. I found myself trying to imagine who this person was, whether a man or a woman, what had prompted him or her to made this connection between the citizens of a post-Communist regime and his or her marriage (a fascinating connection, I thought); I wondered whether this person was divorced or still in an oppressive marriage and “living a lie.” It was an intense moment, this unexpected revelation from an earlier reader of the very book I was holding in my hands. Used books draw me for that very reason: through them, you are in conversation not only with the book and its author, but also with the book’s earlier reader(s).