Before we get into the meat of today’s podcast, I want to acknowledge a message I got from a listener this week about last week’s podcast. I got a lot of response to my thoughts on honorifics, and it’s great to know I struck a chord.
But one listener, Michael, had a bit of a quibble with me, and I think it’s worth mentioning. Michael grew up in the South, where calling people by the right title is a big deal. And so his thoughts are definitely worth considering.
In your most recent episode, on honorifics and appellations, you described the “(Miss or Mister) [First Name]” construction as dragging down someone who should otherwise be respected.
I have to respectfully disagree.
In my experience, he says, it’s quite the opposite. The construction is used for elders who desire informality. The inclusion of the honorific–even if it’s diminutive compared to others–raises the floor-level of respect. It may not raise the ceiling of respect, but, in honor of their status as elder, full informality is disallowed.
And, yeah, there might be some truth to that. So, maybe it’s somebody you know really well, so it would seem natural to call them by their first name, but you want to show them respect, so you tack “Miss” or “Mr.” on, so it’s not completely informal. I totally get that. I completely understand that. I think that’s a completely valid point.
But what I told Michael, is that I can only speak from experience. I worked at a school for a while, and in a kindergarten class I was referred to as “Miss Elizabeth” – and it was a definite marker that I was not as respectable as the teacher. And having worked in many a church Sunday School and VBS as both a teenager and an adult, I have seen entirely too many teenagers and young adults referred to as “Miss Ashley” while the “adults” in the room were “Mrs. Smith” to agree that it is a sign of respect for elders. It’s always been a matter of patting young people on the head in my experience.
So this is interesting because what we have are very different experiences with similar titles, and Michael and I emailed a bit, and he wondered if maybe this was a gendered thing, and that might be a good observation, too.
So if you have any thoughts, I invite you to shoot me a note or a tweet. This is an interesting conversation to me and I’m wondering if any of you have experiences that speak to this.
But we’ll leave that alone for the time being and get to the work of this week – which is make believe.
The early rhetoricians had some pretty specific ideas on what you should be reading. Cicero, Quintilian, and Isocrates all encouraged people to read, or at least familiarize themselves with, rhetoric. And by rhetoric they meant public oratory. That was how you became a good orator yourself. And they wrote books to help you become an orator. And that’s the kind of thing you should read. You should always be educating yourself and fine-tuning your craft in an effort to become the ideal citizen.
But not everybody was so obsessed with the state. Most rhetoricians were. But there were a few other ideas floating around out there.
There was a text called On the Sublime that appeared sometime in the first century that was much less about statecraft and more about, well, literary criticism. The text is usually attributed to Longinus, but the authorship is actually not truly known. The piece, unlike many of the works of rhetorical theory from the classical age, is a work on aesthetics and the effects of good writing. It provides examples of “good” and “bad” writing from the previous 1000 years, focusing specifically on what it calls the “sublime.”
On the Sublime is a collection of literary exemplars, with about 50 authors spanning 1,000 years. Along with the expected examples from Homer and other figures of Greek culture, Longinus refers to a passage from Genesis, which is quite unusual for the 1st century. As students of rhetoric it is sometimes easy to forget that while, yes, democracy is being invented and modern politics is hatching, the rich heritage of Western literature is being born at this time as well. The epic poems that are still being read now came out of Greek culture, and the narratives at the heart of Judaism and Christianity are being woven and spread throughout the Mediterranean at this point, as well.
The author lauds and condemns certain literary works as examples of good or bad writing. This critic claims, “the first and most important source of sublimity [is] the power of forming great conceptions.” The concept of the sublime is generally accepted to refer to a style of writing that elevates itself “above the ordinary”. The author describes five sources of sublimity: “great thoughts, strong emotions, certain figures of thought and speech, noble diction, and dignified word arrangement”. When one achieves sublimity, one will experience loss or rationality, identification with the creative process of the artist, and a deep, pleasurable and exultative emotional response. The author writes that literature could model a soul, and that a soul could pour itself out into a work of art. So On the Sublime is not just a textual inquiry, but a work of ethics.
So there have been people encouraging us to read literature for a really long time.
Now, I know there are benefits to reading non-fiction. But I have to admit my impatience with people who have their own impatience with people who read anything other than non-fiction. Non-fiction has its place. It’s useful and we can learn a lot from it. But to pretend that fiction, or poetry, is any less instructive is willfully ignorant.
In fact, a comprehensive study, conducted by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, and published in a 2013 edition of Science journal, showed evidence that reading literature directly helps to develop Theory of Mind in adults. As stated in the study:
“We submit that fiction affects ToM processes because it forces us to engage in mind-reading and character construction….The worlds of fiction…pose fewer risks than the real world, and they present opportunities to consider the experiences of others without facing the potentially threatening consequences of that engagement.”
Engaging with fiction isn’t just getting lost in our own heads. It’s literally learning how to engage with other people. A well-written fiction book can help us, as they say now, learn to people!
At the Princeton Social Neuroscience Lab, psychologist Diana Tamir has demonstrated that people who often read fiction have better social cognition. In other words, they’re more skilled at working out what other people are thinking and feeling.
We get better at figuring out how to interact with people when we can internally practice in these fictitious worlds we mentally create when we read. As we watch our favorite protagonists navigate the rocky terrain of social interaction, we learn how to do it ourselves.
According to Claudia Hammond of the BBC,
People who read novels appear to be better than average at reading other people’s emotions, but does that necessarily make them better people? To test this, researchers used a method many a psychology student has tried at some point, where you “accidentally” drop a bunch of pens on the floor and then see who offers to help you gather them up. Before the pen-drop took place participants were given a mood questionnaire interspersed with questions measuring empathy. Then they read a short story and answered a series of questions about to the extent they had felt transported while reading the story. Did they have a vivid mental picture of the characters? Did they want to learn more about the characters after they’d finished the story?
The experimenters then said they needed to fetch something from another room and, oops, dropped six pens on the way out. It worked: the people who felt the most transported by the story and expressed the most empathy for the characters were more likely to help retrieve the pens.
She further states,
So the research shows that perhaps reading fiction does make people behave better. Certainly some institutions consider the effects of reading to be so significant that they now include modules on literature. At the University of California Irvine, for example, Johanna Shapiro from the Department of Family Medicine firmly believes that reading fiction results in better doctors and has led the establishment of a humanities programme to train medical students.
In short, reading fiction helps with emotional intelligence. High emotional intelligence has a bevy of benefits. It makes you a better leader. It strengthens your communication skills. It reduces anxiety and stress and can help you diffuse conflicts more effectively. It can improve your relationships and help you deal with, and even overcome the challenges of normal life. Emotional intelligence is a key factor to success and good mental health. And reading fiction can improve your emotional intelligence. I’d say that’s a pretty big bonus.
According to Nick Williams,
Fiction presents a reader with problems (and sometimes solutions) to issues that might elude them otherwise, reading fiction has been connected to an increased capacity to think laterally, which is the ability to use creative thinking to solve practical problems.
These lateral thinking skills make a big difference in how you approach the world and its problems. They are key to that proverbial “thinking outside the box” skill that supposedly everybody is looking for. For example, if you live at an intersection that is really busy and cars speed through it all the time, it might be dangerous. The clear thing to do is to be careful at that intersection and be especially cautious when backing out or crossing the street. A lateral thinker might decide to petition the city for some stop signs. Reading fiction improves that kind of creative thinking because you see people engaged in problem-solution thinking throughout the whole book. And what makes a book interesting is whether the protagonist is creative in their problem solving.
But there are simpler, more immediate benefits, as well. Reading fiction makes you a better conversationalist and improves your vocabulary. I see this in my own home all the time. As you know, I have an 11-year-old in the house. She is an avid reader. And it shows. She knows exactly how to say what she wants to say. She knows precisely the word she is looking for. She talks about sounds emanating from places. She describes being inundated with information. And it’s not a matter of using the biggest word possible at any given moment. It’s about using the most precise word possible at any given moment. She has a big cache of words to choose from, so she can choose the one that is most appropriate and descriptive to say what she wants to say. And I can guarantee that’s not coming from playing Minecraft. A big vocabulary isn’t a matter of using big words to show off or to make yourself look good – a big vocabulary is about saying the right thing at the right time. It is about precision. It is about being as descriptive as possible with as few words as you can. And I see that in action every day.
“…not all reading improves social cognition. One study found that after controlling for demographic factors, personality traits and exposure to non-fiction and other fiction genres, only exposure to Romance significantly predicted ToM performance (Fong et al., 2013). In another series of studies, though high-quality ‘literary’ fiction consistently improved social cognition, lower-quality fiction and non-fiction did not (Kidd and Castano, 2013). Indeed, people who regularly read non-fiction do not have better social abilities and may have worse social abilities than more infrequent readers of non-fiction (Mar et al., 2006, 2009). However, at least one study found that people randomly assigned to read either literary fiction or literary non-fiction did not differ in empathy change pre- to post-reading; only when taking participants’ openness into account did the expected difference between fiction and non-fiction emerge (Djikic et al., 2013).”
Developmental research further suggests that quality and genre may not be the only features that moderate reading’s ability to improve social cognition; content, and the kinds of cognitive demands that a piece makes on readers, may also play an important role. In one experiment, children who read books that required them to construct their own social interpretations performed better on social-cognition tasks than children exposed to stories that explicitly provided such metacognitive language (Peskin and Astington, 2004). In a similar vein, adults assigned to read fiction over a 1-week period demonstrated positive changes in empathy only when they reported high emotional transportation into the story (Bal and Veltkamp, 2013), suggesting that immersion into and simulation of the mental and emotional lives of the characters may be the mechanism of change.
So maybe it’s a bit necessary to do a bit of gatekeeping to get the benefits from fiction. I know that’s really unpopular. For one thing, literary gatekeeping has all too often been used to keep writers of color, women, and LGBTQ writers out of the canon and out of popular literature. When we say what is “good” or what is “appropriate” what we all too often mean is what is “white,” “heteronormative,” and “male.” But at the same time, there are qualitative differences in writing – some people are better at character development, psychology, world-building, plot-development, or prose than others. And when you read those writers, you get more of the benefits out of reading fiction. Is it fair? No, probably not. But that’s what the science tells us.
But I want to go back to where we started. To the sublime. We can go on for hours about what studies show us about what fiction can do for us as a tool – but the truth is, not everything has to be a tool. The idea that everything has to be either profitable, or a tool to make us profitable is a nasty bit of capitalism that has snuck into far too many people’s philosophies, and it is toxic. It’s right up there with the idea that you need to be constantly working. You do not exist to create profit. As my friend Jason reminds me frequently, you are not what you produce.
And your hobbies and your spare time doesn’t have to be devoted to making you a better profit-maker. You can take a moment to enjoy something purely because it is enjoyable. Don’t let late capitalism ruin literally every moment of your life.
So the sublime is worth thinking about. Fiction is worth reading because it transports us. A good book, however YOU define that, makes us feel something. We get excited or happy or sad or moved, or hell, even turned on! And that’s worth something. And having an emotional response to a book is enjoyable – even if it’s a good cry. When something moves you emotionally – when something makes you gasp or laugh or even just smile – it was worth your time. Because you deserve to feel things. You deserve to experience the full range of your emotions.
Fiction has all manner of benefits we can point to that makes us “better.” And those are certainly worth pointing out. But I think one of the most laudable things about it is that it lets us enjoy ourselves. And in a world that is increasingly driven by profit and monetization a few minutes where we are just enjoying ourselves is invaluable. And in some ways, is a quiet act of rebellion. Every time you take that time to just enjoy yourself, not to become a better leader or money-maker or corporate citizen or entrepreneur or whatever, you are quietly saying, “Not today, neo-liberalism!”
So take some time to read. And not theory or history or leadership – read something sublime. Get all up in your feels. Stick it to the man. And, if it happens that you better yourself while you’re doing it – I guess that’s okay, too.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.