Monday, November 18, 2019

Considering The World As Others See It




The modern novel as an art form gained a toe-hold the early 1700's, with novels like Robinson Crusoe reaching a mass audience. They advanced gradually as a source of entertainment through that century as works like Pamela and Tom Jones became popular. But the novel really found its stride when writers like Jane Austen picked up their pens in the early decades of the 19th century, reaching a climax in the Victorian era with authors like Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, and the Bronte sisters, not to mention Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Flaubert and Balzac, Hawthorne and Melville. Looking back, one can hardly imagine a greater artistic flowering, yet the novel was widely regarded as a "rot." Not the necessarily the works of the authors I've mentioned, which were begrudgingly considered to have merit, but novels in general, the kinds the masses were consuming, especially young women. They were condemned as, at best, a waste of time, and at worst the gateway to mental illness. Well-intended parents were known to forbid their daughter novels while the girls predictably sought to hide their "dirty" habit.

Most parents today would be thrilled if their children were "addicted" to novels. We can think of few things more wholesome and educational. In contrast to our Victorian counterparts, we even lecture our children on the importance of reading books, any books, indeed anything, except, of course, the reading they really want to do, which is the rot found on the internet.

Scientists now tell us that we're right and the Victorians were wrong. Reading novels is good for us. Novel reading is an important socializing influence in that fiction readers have been found to be better able to understand and empathize with their fellow humans. Although we're wrong in the sense that all reading is not equal, at least when it comes to acquiring these social and emotional benefits: those who read genre fiction or non-fiction showed no improved capabilities in this area. It must be literacy fiction, which tends to focus more on the psychology of it's characters, rather than just exciting plots or the conveyance of facts and opinions (not to suggest that these sorts of reading are not valuable in other ways).

Preschool aged children, of course, do not read novels, but their dramatic play serves the same function as reading literary fiction does for adults. As they try on new costumes, they are trying on new personas, which helps them explore and better understand other people's minds, one of the most important skills we can have as social animals. Fiction, theater, or dramatic play allows us to consider the world as others see it, to put ourselves in shoes that are not our own. It's one of the ways we come to understand one another and is an avenue toward considering how the world could be different, which is always the first step in changing it. And ultimately, it's only through a better understanding others that we come to better understand ourselves.

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