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Great literature has nothing to do with the feel-good factor

Research conducted recently at the University of Liverpool has come up with tangible evidence that good literature, as opposed to bad or boring, has a beneficial effect upon the reader.

Those who love Shakespeare, Dickens or Burns ought therefore to be whooping with joy, pumping their fists in the face of more philistine readers and shouting, "I told you so!" Why, then, do I find myself unmoved, and even aggrieved?

First, the science. Academics have used brain imaging to track the response to reading fine literature, such as King Lear, and have discovered that, compared with what happens when reading less "challenging" language, the electrical activity in the brain is not only more marked, but its effect lasts longer, as if the synapses have been given a pep talk, and are now on full alert for further interesting words and ideas.

With poetry in particular, the part of the brain that deals with what they call "autobiographical memory" apparently goes into overdrive. Following this revelation, the researchers conclude that poetry is better for us than self-help books, given that it prompts us to reflect more deeply and meaningfully on our own lives. Thus the Liverpool team concludes, "this is the argument for serious language in serious literature for serious human situations, instead of self-help books or the easy reads that merely reinforce predictable opinions and conventional self-images." In short, if we're trying to make sense of life, the classics are more useful than airport bestsellers and psychobabble.

Well, nobody is going to argue with the idea that serious literature is important. Nor can one quibble at it getting such a publicity boost, especially when the evidence is scientific and not subjective. Any reminders of literature's value can only be good. Where I baulk, though, is at the notion that literature should be seen as useful. Since when? Unless you're reading only to widen your vocabulary, great fiction, poetry or plays have not been written to help readers navigate personal dilemmas. Macbeth was not a cautionary tale about how to handle a manipulative wife, nor Oliver Twist a reminder to give your offspring decent portions and a bit of pocket money to keep them out of trouble.

At the risk of stating the exceedingly obvious, such works are written because the writer wanted to express an emotion, describe a scene, explore a situation. Great books are written because the author is compelled to set pen to paper, sometimes not even knowing exactly what their subject will turn out to be. (Interestingly, works specifically commissioned to address a particular topic are often far less convincing than those that arise spontaneously, fired solely by the writer's imagination.)

As for language, it is like music. Of course one feels better for reading great literature. Originality, subtlety and profundity are the hallmarks of fine writing, meaning that all of us will find our interest piqued by a distinctive, felicitous or thought-provoking choice of words, syntax and rhythm. That element of surprise is part of what makes the classics and their characters timeless. They feel evergreen, perennially fresh, as if committed to paper only the day before.

But while part of the pleasure of good books is pausing to digest their images and ideas, and perhaps in so doing to unconsciously or actively relate them to our own experiences, to consider this one of the main reasons for reading seems disturbingly solipsistic. It reflects a worryingly self-centred outlook to suggest we view the best the canon can offer as a private dispensary of wisdom or cheer, as therapy tailored directly to our needs. Read Crime And Punishment, or Wuthering Heights, or Of Mice And Men, and see if that makes you feel better.

Some books and plays, in fact, are so harrowing, their view of the world so bleak, it's a measure of the writer's brilliance that we feel compelled to read to the end. Really, the only assurance that comes with great writing, be it comic or tragic, or somewhere in between, is that while you're immersed in it you'll forget everything else, and that includes your problems.

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