How Reading Makes Us More Human (2023)


A debate has erupted over whether reading fiction makes human beings more moral. But what if its real value consists in something even more fundamental?

Mary Cassatt, The Reading Lesson, 1901

A battle over books has erupted recently on the pages of The New York Times and Time. The opening salvo was Gregory Currie's essay, "Does Great Literature Make Us Better?" which asserts that the widely held belief that reading makes us more moral has little support. In response, Annie Murphy Paul weighed in with "Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer." Her argument is that "deep reading," the kind of reading great literature requires, is a distinctive cognitive activity that contributes to our ability to empathize with others; it therefore can, in fact, makes us "smarter and nicer," among other things. Yet these essays aren't so much coming to different conclusions as considering different questions.

(Video) Benefits Of Reading

To advance her thesis, Paul cites studies by Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, and Keith Oatley, a professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto. Taken together, their findings suggest that those "who often read fiction appear to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and view the world from their perspective." It's the kind of thing writer Joyce Carol Oates is talking about when she says, "Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another's skin, another's voice, another's soul."

Oatley and Mar's conclusions are supported, Paul argues, by recent studies in neuroscience, psychology, and cognitive science. This research shows that "deep reading -- slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity -- is a distinctive experience," a kind of reading that differs in kind and quality from "the mere decoding of words" that constitutes a good deal of what passes for reading today, particularly for too many of our students in too many of our schools (as I have previously written about here).

Paul concludes her essay with a reference to the literary critic Frank Kermode, who famously distinguishes between "carnal reading" -- characterized by the hurried, utilitarian information processing that constitutes the bulk of our daily reading diet -- and "spiritual reading," reading done with focused attention for pleasure, reflection, analysis, and growth. It is in this distinction that we find the real difference between the warring factions in what might be a chicken-or-egg scenario: Does great literature make people better, or are good people drawn to reading great literature?

(Video) #164 How to be more human with Tony Riddle

Currie is asking whether reading great literature makes readers more moral-- a topic taken up by Aristotle in Poetics (which makes an ethical apology for literature). Currie cites as counter-evidence the well-read, highly cultured Nazis. The problem with this (aside from falling into the trap of Godwin's Law) is that the Nazis were, in fact, acting in strict conformity to the dictates of a moral code, albeit the perverse code of the Third Reich. But Paul examines the connection of great literature not to our moral selves, but to our spiritual selves.

What good literature can do and does do -- far greater than any importation of morality -- is touch the human soul.

Reading is one of the few distinctively human activities that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. As many scholars have noted, and Paul too mentions in her piece, reading, unlike spoken language, does not come naturally to human beings. It must be taught. Because it goes beyond mere biology, there is something profoundly spiritual -- however one understands that word -- about the human ability, and impulse, to read. In fact, even the various senses in which we use the word captures this: to "read" means not only to decipher a given and learned set of symbols in a mechanistic way, but it also suggests that very human act of finding meaning, of "interpreting" in the sense of "reading" a person or situation. To read in this sense might be considered one of the most spiritual of all human activities.

It is "spiritual reading" -- not merely decoding -- that unleashes the power that good literature has to reach into our souls and, in so doing, draw and connect us to others. This is why the way we read can be even more important than what we read. In fact, reading good literature won't make a reader a better person any more than sitting in a church, synagogue or mosque will. But reading good books well just might.

It did for me. As I relayed in my literary and spiritual memoir, the books I have read over a lifetime have shaped my worldview, my beliefs, and my life as much as anything else. From Great Expectations I learned the power the stories we tell ourselves have to do either harm and good, to ourselves and to others; from Death of a Salesman I learned the dangers of a corrupt version of the American Dream; from Madame Bovary, I learned to embrace the real world rather than escaping into flights of fancy; from Gulliver's Travels I learned the profound limitations of my own finite perspective; and from Jane Eyre I learned how to be myself. These weren't mere intellectual or moral lessons, although they certainly may have begun as such. Rather, the stories from these books and so many others became part of my life story and then, gradually, part of my very soul.

As Eugene H. Peterson explains in Eat this Book, "Reading is an immense gift, but only if the words are assimilated, taken into the soul -- eaten, chewed, gnawed, received in unhurried delight." Peterson describes this ancient art of lectio divina, or spiritual reading, as "reading that enters our souls as food enters our stomachs, spreads through our blood, and becomes ... love and wisdom." More than the books themselves, it is the skills and the desire to read in this way which comprise the essential gift we must give our students and ourselves. But this won't happen by way of nature or by accident.

(Video) How Fiction Makes Us Better People

Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain,has studied "deep reading" in the context of the science of the brain. She describes the fragility of the brain's ability to read with the kind of sustained attention that allows literature to wield its shaping power over us:

The act of going beyond the text to analyze, infer and think new thoughts is the product of years of formation. It takes time, both in milliseconds and years, and effort to learn to read with deep, expanding comprehension and to execute all these processes as an adult expert reader. ... Because we literally and physiologically can read in multiple ways, how we read--and what we absorb from our reading -- will be influenced by both the content of our reading and the medium we use.

The power of "spiritual reading" is its ability to transcend the immediacy of the material, the moment, or even the moral choice at hand. This isn't the sort of phenomenon that lends itself to the quantifiable data Currie seeks, although Paul demonstrates is possible, to measure. Even so, such reading doesn't make us better so much as it makes us human.

How Reading Makes Us More Human (3)


Does reading make us more human? ›

Among other things, it makes us smart, it helps us understand things, it widens our horizons and it sends us on a rocket trip to the outer reaches of our imaginations. But now there's evidence that suggests reading also enhances our emotional intelligence and makes us more human.

Why does reading make us better humans? ›

According to neuroscientists, reading "rewires" those areas of the brain responsible for spoken language and vision. This improves our cognitive intelligence. Reading can improve the functioning of the brain area that filters the massive amount of visual information that we see every day.

How does literature make us more human? ›

Literature influences us and makes us understand the every walk of life. Narratives, in particular, inspire empathy and give people a new perspective on their lives and the lives of others.

How important is reading for us? ›

Reading is Essential and serves as a basic building block for learning, regardless of the school subject, be it language arts or even math. In daily life, the need to read things such as street signs or prescriptions proves reading is also an important life skill. 2. Reading Strengthens the Brainand improves memory.

What makes us human explain your answer? ›

Apart from our obvious intellectual capabilities that distinguish us as a species, humans have several unique physical, social, biological, and emotional traits.

What makes us human explain? ›

A fascinating attribute to being human is our level of self-awareness. More importantly our ability to be aware, that we are aware of basis sensory inputs. In layman's terms, we are able to reflect on our feelings and judgements with results in an emotional response (except if you're a psychopath).

How does reading help you improve your life as a student? ›

Reading is important because it develops your mind and gives you excessive knowledge and lessons of life. It helps you understand the world around you better. It keeps your mind active and enhances your creative ability. Communication Skills: Reading improves your vocabulary and develops your communication skills.

How does reading books transform human? ›

Over the years, doctors, scientists, and researchers have confirmed that reading is a stress-reducing activity that can lower your heart rate and blood pressure. It's been proven to improve people's memories, increase brain power, and even enhance empathic skills. Reading has even been linked to longer life spans.

How does reading bring people together? ›

Friendship being sustained by stories

Stories are the way we connect as human beings. They are so often our shorthand with other people. A shared love of the same book can bring a conversation with someone new alive. It can also be enough to start a friendship.

Why literature is very important to you as a student and a human being? ›

Literature allows a person to step back in time and learn about life on Earth from the ones who walked before us. We can gather a better understanding of culture and have a greater appreciation of them. We learn through the ways history is recorded, in the forms of manuscripts and through speech itself.

What is the most important of reading? ›

When you read, you exercise your comprehension abilities and your analytical abilities. It fires up your imagination and stimulates the memory centers of your mind. It helps recall information as well as stabilize your emotions. The importance of a reading habit is that it strengthens mental muscles.

What is power of reading? ›

The Power of Reading helps to develop inference and deduction and comprehension skills. It also involves children regularly writing in different genres and creates a more cohesive learning experience. • Literacy is at the heart of the curriculum and the texts facilitate a range of exciting cross curricular work.

What do you think that makes a human a human? ›

On the cognitive level, humans are vastly different from most species. We have self-awareness, spiritual curiosity and philosophical musings. We possess the capacity for mathematics, language, invention, mechanical adaptation and music.

What makes a human person truly human? ›

In understanding how can man be truly human, first is the reason for the human freedom and this freedom is the most important aspect of making human truly human. One of the most important problems with which we have to deal in our reflections on man, and one which constantly recurs, is the problem of man's freedom.

What makes a human being essay? ›

Humans have minds, emotions, the ability to communicate, to perceive, to empathize, their creative capacity, unique to their creation. It is to one's potential that they define what it means to be human to them. To be human is to have the freedom of whoever one wants to be but behind the bars of humanity.

What are the 10 importance of reading? ›

Reading is good for you because it improves your focus, memory, empathy, and communication skills. It can reduce stress, improve your mental health, and help you live longer. Reading also allows you to learn new things to help you succeed in your work and relationships. The best part?

How reading can change your life? ›

It helps us relate to other people and encourages us to be kind and considerate of other people's feelings. As it turns out, reading can actually help improve empathy. When people read stories about other people's lives, it helps them develop the skills to understand the world through another person's perspective.

How does reading make us smarter? ›

Studies indicate that reading regularly enhances brain functions. It allows you to think better, respond more efficiently to problems, make you a better speaker, and expand your knowledge and vocabulary. The culminating result is that you become smarter.

Why is reading an important life skill? ›

A recent study shows that reading books with your young child does more than help them learn words and develop language skills. It also helps them learn to pay attention, set goals and control themselves. These important life skills – part of what's known as executive function – start to develop in early childhood.

Why is reading important facts? ›

Reading is important because it helps improve your life. Benefits include that: books help our cognitive development, prevent cognitive decline, make us more empathetic, and improve confidence.

Is reading a good habit How? ›

Reading improves memory and cognitive ability — which means it's a healthy habit that can help kids in and outside the classroom. Along with that improved brain power comes an improved vocabulary. Reading to your child is a wonderful way to build your child's language, social and emotions skills.

What happens to us when we read? ›

When you read letters on a page, the left occipito-temporal cortex of your brain immediately links each written word to its spoken equivalent. One part of your brain analyzes the word's meaning, while another part makes it possible to automatically recognize words.

How do you read and influence people? ›

Here are my six tips for reading people and relating to them for maximum influence.
  1. Understand the 'three chairs of personality. ' ...
  2. Empathize. To connect on a deeper level, talk to their second chair next. ...
  3. Be vulnerable. ...
  4. Focus on voice and body language. ...
  5. Address objections. ...
  6. Roleplay using psychodrama.
5 Mar 2020

How can reading impact our society? ›

Time and time again, research has shown that people who read books are better informed than people who do not and are consequently better able to hold their own in society. They are more aware of their surroundings and can envisage themselves more easily in other people's place.

Does reading books make people more or less social? ›

In addition to learning empathy, books provide an endless supply of social interaction examples from which to learn. Scenes full of character dialogue show children effective – and ineffective – ways to handle conflict in a variety of situations.

How and why does literature reflect human life? ›

Whether it be poetry or prose, literature provides insight, knowledge or wisdom, and emotion towards the person who partakes it entirely. Life is manifested in the form of literature. Without literature, life ceases to exist. It is an embodiment of words based on human tragedies, desires, and feelings.

What does literature mean to you as a human being? ›

Different cultures have their own stories, their own literature that they shared not only amongst themselves but with the world. Literature became a way that humans can communicate with one another—they can share ideas, personal anecdotes, and even lessons to be learned. It is form of knowledge.

What can literature teach us about human nature? ›

Literature entertains and educates us. It can teach us about the past, help us understand the present and empower us to create the future. Read with this insight, Pride and Prejudice, as all great works of literature, offers us all the knowledge required to promote individual accomplishment and human welfare.

Why reading is the key to success? ›

It is a great motivation for an individual to do better in life. The more one individual reads, the more his understanding and comprehending skills improve. Better a reader, the easier it becomes for him to complete an assigned work. The habit of reading goes parallelly with the attainment of knowledge.

What are the 7 benefits of reading? ›

Here are seven important benefits of reading aloud with children:
  • Develops stronger vocabulary. ...
  • Builds connections between the spoken and written word. ...
  • Provides enjoyment. ...
  • Increases attention span. ...
  • Strengthens cognition. ...
  • Provides a safe way of exploring strong emotions. ...
  • Promotes bonding.
3 Mar 2015

Does reading lead to success? ›

Generally speaking, reading books in and of itself can not make you successful. However, reading enhances the chances of success. Reading allows you to learn from others' mistakes and success. It also makes you creative, imaginative, and smart among other things; helping you achieve success faster.

Are people who read more happier? ›

The researchers found that people who read or listened to audiobooks gained no increase in happiness compared to those who didn't. Nor were they less anxious.

How does reading influence a person? ›

It helps us relate to other people and encourages us to be kind and considerate of other people's feelings. As it turns out, reading can actually help improve empathy. When people read stories about other people's lives, it helps them develop the skills to understand the world through another person's perspective.

How does reading change your life? ›

Reading increases your own creativity, sometimes sparking other ideas in your life. Reading can make you feel not so alone, especially a memoir of someone who's been through the same thing you have. Reading builds connections with other people, even if the only other person is that author.

Why reading is so good for the brain? ›

Reading consistently strengthens connections in the brain, improves memory and concentration, and may even help you live longer. Reading can also reduce stress levels and prevent age-related cognitive decline. To read more, set aside time every day to pick up a book, whether it's during your commute or before bed.

What are the 3 main importance of reading? ›

Reading is important because it makes you more empathetic, and knowledgeable and stimulates your imagination. A study conducted by the University of Sussex showed that reading reduces stress by 68%. It helps in reducing tension and relaxing muscles which in turn helps people sleep better and stay healthy.


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