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The Value of Reading Novels

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I'll be the first to admit that while I love reading fiction I'm not a consistent novel reader. I enjoy non-fiction loaded with facts, theories, and analysis. I don't always have the patience for narrative. Given the results of some new research, maybe I should reconsider that.

A new study claims that reading novels makes us nicer and more empathetic, psychologists at the New School for Social Research have found. Emanuele Castano, the study author, said that fiction "forces you as a reader to contribute your own interpretations, to reconstruct the mind of the character."
Canadian researchers have also found that reading fiction increases our ability to be empathetic to others.

• A 2010 York University study of 4- to 6-year-old children found that greater exposure to children's literature, but not children's television programs, correlated with children having a greater sense of empathy. The study authors concluded that "engagement with fictional narratives provides one with information about the social world," exposing children to worlds outside their own.
• A 2006 University of Toronto study found that avid readers of fiction were far more socially adept than avid readers of non-fiction: "Comprehending characters in a narrative fiction appears to parallel the comprehension of peers in the actual world, while the comprehension of expository non-fiction shares no such parallels." In addition, the researchers concluded that the ability of a reader to become absorbed in a story was related their ability to feel empathy.

Yet tragically, we've seen a decline of the humanities in America. Given how aggressive and violent our culture can be (have you noticed that the new DVD movies are overwhelmingly "action" films, a euphemism for "violence-filled," often with thousands of deaths per movie, often accompanied by one-liners and other inhumane commentary?), perhaps we should be encouraging more reading, novels in particular.

Award-winning novelist Philip Roth said:

The passion for specificity is at the heart of the task to which every American novelist has been enjoined since Herman Melville and his whale and Mark Twain and his river: to discover the most arresting, evocative verbal depiction of every last American thing. Concreteness...is fiction's lifeblood. From this physicalness the realistic novel derives its ruthless intimacy.

Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn illustrates Roth's point. The narrator is a young adolescent boy who at the start of the novel shares the pro-slavery views of the state he grew up in. Gradually, however, as he travels with the runaway slave Jim, he comes to moderate his views (long after the reader has) and eventually assists Jim. It is a moral tale disguised as a children's adventure story.

Novels, when done well, are about life, and introspection upon the depths of human experience. We can all gain from more reflection.

Novels can also focus our attention (and empathy) on a single character. Charles Dickens was a master novelist of sentimental novels, and while the protagonists triumphed over adversity and evil through his own and other good people's efforts, there was usually a waif who was not as lucky, who succumbed to the harshness of society. The most famous of these was Little Nell, the innocent young girl in The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) who faces the villainous Quilp, the ugliness of industrial England, and an otherwise kindly grandfather whose gambling addiction leads him to steal what few resources Little Nell has. As each new chapter of the novel emerged, readers speculated on Nell's fate, and as her condition drew more desperate, Dickens received many letters urging him to spare Little Nell. By the time of the chapter where Little Nell died arrived, Americans flocked to the docks to greet the ships arriving with the latest chapter and inquired whether Little Nell was still alive. Grown men wept when they read the chapter. While Dickens openly discouraged any statues of himself to be erected, there is one of him and the character of Little Nell in Clark Park in Philadelphia, and every year a child is chosen to crown the statue of Nell with a wreath of flowers.

Powerful novels demand that we slow down and process how we are creating and destroying in our lives. The rabbis taught that amidst so much destructive behavior we must stop and reflect upon the world we exist in.

When the Holy One created Adam, He took him for a tour of all the trees in the Garden of Eden, and He said to him: See how My works are so glorious and pleasant! All of this, I have created for you! Make sure that you do not ruin and destroy My world, for if you do, no one will be able to fix it after you are gone! (Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabba).

Reading can broaden our imagination and our sensitivity toward the human condition. Novels can even affect society. Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) helped personalize and simplify slavery to many Americans, provided an international boost to the abolitionist movement, and may literally have helped bring about the Civil War. John Steinbeck's 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath, publicized the plight of the people of Oklahoma who fled from the Dust Bowl and tried to find work in California. As a result, Congressional hearings were held on the conditions of migrant worker camps in California, and some labor laws were enacted to help these struggling Americans. Both novels increased the empathy of readers for the vulnerable and oppressed.

Many novels have endured for their timeless themes. Cervantes' Don Quixote has spurred countless retellings that pit romantic idealism versus cynicism, Victor Hugo's Les Misérables depicts the human capacity for transformation versus an implacable, harsh interpretation of the law, and many Russian novelists (for example, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Turgenev) explored complex philosophical and theological concepts throughout their works. Needless to say, all impart knowledge of history as well.

For those not motivated or disciplined to read, maybe join a book club or start a chevruta (learning partnership). We can all use some help in raising our level of empathy and moral imagination.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."