Does reading really make us better people? Some questions on ethics and literature

by Patrick Fessenbecker 

photo by chalocuaz on Flickr.

In recent posts, both Robert Waxler and Maureen Hall have laid out some of the explanatory work behind what I take to be one of the central claims of the CLTL project: namely, that reading books – especially good books – helps one to be a better person. 

“Deep” reading, according to Waxler, allows us to “break free from our single lives…from the linear and local perspective of ordinary existence.”  For Hall, it is essential that this reading take place within a community: “Deep reading and discussion of a common text allows for opportunities where people can get to know themselves better and get better acquainted with the world in which they live. In turn, this participation holds the opportunity for increasing emotional intelligence which helps us to better live in this world.”

Hall and Waxler are in some good company here. Both in thinking of art as enabling individuals to break some of the limiting bounds of their egoism, and in thinking of the community of artistic reception as contributing to ethical life and personal happiness, they reiterate positions recognizable in the history of literary and aesthetic theory. George Eliot, for instance, in The Natural History of German Life, offers a view of reading that bears a close resemblance to Waxler’s view: as she puts it, “Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with out fellow men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.” 

And – just in case we were missing the ethical implications – she tells us “a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment.”   In other words, by enabling to see past ourselves, to see outside of our “linear and local perspectives,” literature enables to live a different and better kind of life: one that is in closer contact or “sympathy” with others, to use Eliot’s terms, than the life which our natural egoism would lead us to live otherwise. 


Despite its distinguished history, however, I am skeptical of this view.  After all, surely we aren’t prepared to defend reading literature as a necessary means to an ethical and fulfilling life:  perhaps someone will want to fight with me here, but it seems presumptuous to assume that an individual simply cannot live well unless she reads well. 

photo by jonno259 on FlickrNor, I want to argue, is it ultimately plausible to think of deep reading as a sufficient means to a moral life.  To claim that while deep reading isn’t the only way to a good life, it is certainly a reliable way, seems unfair to the skeptic.  On this view, if someone engages in a deep reading of a text that we have experienced in a rich and meaningful way – in case my predilections weren’t already obvious, let’s say the text is Middlemarch – and yet they don’t have a particularly rewarding experience, it looks like the only thing we can say in response is, “Well, you simply haven’t read deeply enough.”   And this seems insufficient to me, insofar as it ties correctness of interpretation to the effects of reading in the agent’s moral psychology.  I want to acknowledge the possibility that someone might read very accurately about Dorothea Brooke’s struggles and be a perfectly competent interpreter of the text without experiencing anything like the sort of rupture of egoism Eliot and Waxler appear to have in mind. 


Thus, I’d like to suggest, we’ve ended in a situation where reading is neither a necessary nor a sufficient cause of a moral life.  As is perhaps clear, this is some rather shaky philosophical ground: it’s unclear on what basis one would justify the continued use of literature and art more generally in moral education. 

It begins to seem that one might have to give up the notion of theorizing a logical link between good reading and good people, and instead rely on empirical information, noting correlations between reading habits and behavior, and justifying the study of literature on those grounds.  Just from a scholarly perspective, this is part of why the CLTL project is so interesting – it provides an opportunity for those of us who think about the relationship between ethics and literature to finally see a practical test of some of the hypotheses inherent in our (occasionally) somewhat airy and detached claims. 


Patrick Fessenbecker is a graduate student in the English Ph.D. program at The Johns Hopkins University.  He works on topics in nineteenth-century British and American literature, as well as philosophical questions in ethics and aesthetics. His essay, “Jane Austen on Love and Pedagogical Power,” is forthcoming in SEL, and he has presented research at a variety of conferences.  He deeply enjoys eating cheese.


6 thoughts on “Does reading really make us better people? Some questions on ethics and literature

  1. Hi Patrick. Thanks for weighing in on a different side of an issue we’ve been talking about quite a bit on this blog.

    I agree with you that it’s not so simple to infer that “good reading” (however one defines it) will bring about good, moral people. Individuals who perpetrate the severest crimes against humanity are often quite educated and well read. Encouraging children to read or giving books to prisoners is not a guaranteed ticket to the straight and narrow path.

    The benefit of the “deep reading” we’ve been talking about comes, I believe, in its ability to plant the seeds of self-reflection and change. A good book cannot instantly alter the morals and ethics of an individual, but it can get the wheels turning.

    Finally, we must be careful not to artificially construct a canon of “good literature.” I think you hit upon this in your paragraph that touches on Middlemarch. What we often call “good literature” are those texts which most profoundly and personallyaffect us–it is a mistake to universalize our sentiments and hold up these works as life-changing pieces. “Good literature,” then, is always relative to the person holding the book.

    (Also, it’s nice to see someone bringing up George Eliot! Nineteenth-century Brit Lit is my other area of interest.)

  2. Patrick: Thanks so much for your interesting and thoughtful post here. As you suggest, when we are thinking about “morality” in terms of literature, we are often thinking about the “moral imagination,” the ability to empathize with others, to walk in their shoes. I agree with you that literature is neither a necessary nor a sufficient cause of this kind of activity. But I do think that language shaped into narrative, together with the discussion about that narrative with other people, is one of the best methods we have to keep the human heart alive. ( Of course, the “human heart” might very well be an outmoded notion in this context– but that’s another issue.) Thanks again Patrick for a valuable post here.

  3. pat

    reading a book is an act of personal salvation albeitfor the few hours a person spends on a particular book. It neither makes him a better individual overight nor lasts beyond the particular timeframe..but yea those few hours are worth a lifetime’s grinding toil.

  4. Patrick,

    Thank you for your posting. You bring up some very interesting arguments about what deep reading (or any reading) of literature is capable of doing or not doing for people. Earlier in my career, when I was teaching high school English, students would regularly ask, “Why are we reading this?” This begs the larger question (one that is asked many times over) of why do we read literature….I see literature as a way to explore other realities. We can live lives that are rich in terms of experience, but we cannot experience all things. So I am suggesting that literature can enlarge people’s lives by making others’ experiences visible. A person who “sees” another’s plight and experiences it vicariously through the reading of literature does have the possibility of a richer life. And, my bias is that a life which is richer with experiences is a better life.

    However, I do agree with you that deep reading is certainly not the “only” way to a good life. There are many routes. I also agree with you that more empirical evidence needs to be collected and analyzed for CLTL–in terms of how an engagement with good literature and discussion affects the quality of lives.

    By the way, do you have a dissertation topic yet? This might be something that you would be willing to investiigate…


    Maureen Hall

  5. Great post!

    According to University of Connecticut professor Patrick Colm Hogan, a leading Humanities scholar in both postcolonial literature and cognitive science, “the cognitive theorist who is perhaps most directly relevant for understanding art and emotion is Keith Oatley” (141). Oatley heads the University of Toronto’s Department of Human Development and Applied Psychology and is one of the world’s most well respected theorists on the psychology of reading. One of Oatley’s central contentions is that cognitive science needs to address literature as fundamental to understanding human cognition.

    Fiction, argues Oatley (1999), “is a simulation that runs on minds of readers . . . [where] personal trusts can be explored that allow readers to experience emotions—their own emotions—and understand aspects of them that are obscure, in relation to contexts in which the emotions arise” (101). Mar and Oatley et al. (2006) furthered this thesis with empirical studies that demonstrate “comprehending characters in a narrative fiction appears to parallel the comprehension of peers in the actual world . . . Frequent readers may thus bolster or maintain their social abilities” (694).

    Like Patrick, I believe CLTL adds the practical methodology to a body of research on how narratives affect theirreaders.


    Mar, Raymond, Keith Oatley, Jacob Hirsch, Jennifer dela Paz, Jordan Peterson. “Bookworms versus Nerds:
    Exposure to Fiction Versus Non-Fiction, Divergent Associations with Social Ability, and the Simulation of
    Fictional Social Worlds.” Journal of Research in Personality 40 (2006): 694-712.

    Oatley, Keith. “Why Reading Fiction May Be Twice as True as Fact: Fiction as Cognitive and Emotional
    Simulation.” General Review of Psychology 3 (1999b): 101-17.

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