Last July Diane spoke with Financial Times columnist Edward Luce about his book, "The Retreat of Western Liberalism." A year later, we have invited him back for an update.
A special March Readers’ Review: Diane and her guests discuss why fiction matters. A recent study indicates that fewer than half of all Americans are reading novels today. It suggests that those who do read fiction are better able to understand the emotions of others. A conversation about the social and personal benefits of reading fiction.
- Rebecca Mead Staff writer, "The New Yorker" and author, "My Life in Middlemarch."
- Mark Brazaitis Professor of English, West Virginia University; director, West Virginia Writers' Workshop; author, "Julia & Rodrigo."
- Monica Hesse Writer, "The Washington Post" and author, "Burn."
- David Kidd PhD candidate at The New School for Social Research in New York. He's also the lead author on "Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind."
Fiction Our Guests Are Reading
<li class="list-item l-pair-sm book"><div class="art-bd book-img"><a href="https://www.amazon.com/My-Struggle-Karl-Ove-Knausgaard/dp/0374534144?SubscriptionId=0EP44N4Z8Y93MBZ1ZC82&tag=dianerehm-20&linkCode=sp1&camp=2025&creative=165953&creativeASIN=0374534144" target="_blank"><img src="https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/51M-7O0YiWL._SL160_.jpg" alt="" /></a></div><!-- /art-bd --><div class="txt-bd book-bd"><div class="book-meta"><p class="book-title"><a class="book-link" href="https://www.amazon.com/My-Struggle-Karl-Ove-Knausgaard/dp/0374534144?SubscriptionId=0EP44N4Z8Y93MBZ1ZC82&tag=dianerehm-20&linkCode=sp1&camp=2025&creative=165953&creativeASIN=0374534144" target="_blank">My Struggle: Book 1</a></p><p class="book-author">By Karl Ove Knausgaard </p><p class="book-publisher">Farrar, Straus and Giroux</p></div><!-- book-meta --><p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/My-Struggle-Karl-Ove-Knausgaard/dp/0374534144?SubscriptionId=0EP44N4Z8Y93MBZ1ZC82&tag=dianerehm-20&linkCode=sp1&camp=2025&creative=165953&creativeASIN=0374534144" class="button-purchase" target="_blank">Buy</a></p></div><!-- /text-bd --></li><!-- /l-pair-sm --> <li class="list-item l-pair-sm book"><div class="art-bd book-img"><a href="https://www.amazon.com/River-Beyond-World-Novel/dp/0312169868?SubscriptionId=0EP44N4Z8Y93MBZ1ZC82&tag=dianerehm-20&linkCode=sp1&camp=2025&creative=165953&creativeASIN=0312169868" target="_blank"><img src="https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/41zVmzsYFML._SL160_.jpg" alt="" /></a></div><!-- /art-bd --><div class="txt-bd book-bd"><div class="book-meta"><p class="book-title"><a class="book-link" href="https://www.amazon.com/River-Beyond-World-Novel/dp/0312169868?SubscriptionId=0EP44N4Z8Y93MBZ1ZC82&tag=dianerehm-20&linkCode=sp1&camp=2025&creative=165953&creativeASIN=0312169868" target="_blank">The River Beyond the World: A Novel</a></p><p class="book-author">By Janet Peery </p><p class="book-publisher">Picador</p></div><!-- book-meta --><p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/River-Beyond-World-Novel/dp/0312169868?SubscriptionId=0EP44N4Z8Y93MBZ1ZC82&tag=dianerehm-20&linkCode=sp1&camp=2025&creative=165953&creativeASIN=0312169868" class="button-purchase" target="_blank">Buy</a></p></div><!-- /text-bd --></li><!-- /l-pair-sm --> <li class="list-item l-pair-sm book"><div class="art-bd book-img"><a href="https://www.amazon.com/Good-Lord-Bird-Novel/dp/1594486344?SubscriptionId=0EP44N4Z8Y93MBZ1ZC82&tag=dianerehm-20&linkCode=sp1&camp=2025&creative=165953&creativeASIN=1594486344" target="_blank"><img src="https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/51e5Rg9h6mL._SL160_.jpg" alt="" /></a></div><!-- /art-bd --><div class="txt-bd book-bd"><div class="book-meta"><p class="book-title"><a class="book-link" href="https://www.amazon.com/Good-Lord-Bird-Novel/dp/1594486344?SubscriptionId=0EP44N4Z8Y93MBZ1ZC82&tag=dianerehm-20&linkCode=sp1&camp=2025&creative=165953&creativeASIN=1594486344" target="_blank">The Good Lord Bird: A Novel</a></p><p class="book-author">By James McBride </p><p class="book-publisher">Riverhead Books</p></div><!-- book-meta --><p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/Good-Lord-Bird-Novel/dp/1594486344?SubscriptionId=0EP44N4Z8Y93MBZ1ZC82&tag=dianerehm-20&linkCode=sp1&camp=2025&creative=165953&creativeASIN=1594486344" class="button-purchase" target="_blank">Buy</a></p></div><!-- /text-bd --></li><!-- /l-pair-sm -->
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. This month, we're presenting a special "Readers' Review" program. A recent survey indicates that fewer than half of all Americans read fiction. And another suggests that those who do read works of literature are better able to empathize with others. Joining me in the studio for a conversation about what we read and why, Rebecca Mead of The New Yorker, Mark Brazaitis of West Virginia University and Monica Hesse of The Washington Post. I do invite you to join us, whether you're a reader of fiction or otherwise, please take part in the conversation.
MS. DIANE REHMGive us a call. 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Well, welcome to all of you.
MR. MARK BRAZAITISThank you for having us.
MS. REBECCA MEADExcited to be here.
REHMGood to see you all. First, before we begin our conversation here, we're joined, by phone, from New York, by David Kidd. He is a PhD candidate at The New School for Social Research. David, thanks for joining us.
MR. DAVID KIDDHi, Diane. And thank you.
REHMTell us about your study. What made you interested in understanding the effects of reading fiction?
KIDDYes. Well, I am training as a Social Psychologist and, as part of that training, I read a lot about stereotyping and dehumanization. And other cases in which we generally fail to recognize that other people are complex and have feelings. We don't see them as full people. And I started to want to study ways in which we do see people as full, rich human beings. And looked at the psychological literature and found that there were cases in which you could tell people, explicitly, to put themselves in other peoples' shoes and imagine how they're feeling.
KIDDAnd seeing how doing things like that increases empathy for even people who are quite different from one's self. But I was looking at these manipulations, and I'm also an avid reader of fiction, and I started to think, well, authors do the same thing. They just do a much better job of it, it seems. They really hold their readers' attention and get them to focus on characters for hours or days or weeks. And so I started to look at psychological accounts of reading and found that there was a lot of theory that reading fiction could indeed improve social ability. But there was little evidence.
KIDDSo, we decided to -- we being Emanuele Castano, my advisor, and I, decided to put these theories to a test. And so we devised an experiment in which we asked people to read fiction or non-fiction and found that readers of fiction, in this experiment, did better on a test of interpersonal sensitivity, or a theory of mind. And then we just continued to ask more questions.
REHMThat's interesting, but I gather you're not just talking about any fiction. You're talking about quote literary fiction. And, you know, there are an awful lot of people who would say to you, how are you going to define and separate fiction from the literary fiction?
KIDDThat's a great question, and we ended up making this distinction because after we conducted our first experiment, where we simply compared reading fiction to reading non-fiction, we were concerned whether or not reading any sort of fiction would have the same effect that we observed in our first study. And so we turned again to different critical theories of literature and looked at the psychology a little bit more. And realized that some fiction tends to present characters in more simple ways. There's a good person and a bad person.
KIDDAnd you're more interested in the plot. While other fiction, that we consider literary, doesn't present clear cut figures to the reader. And is often not very explicit in describing the characters, in terms of -- saying this is that person's personality. Instead, we see how they behave and we have to make inferences like we have to make in real life to understand what's going on in the text. And also, as in real life, literary fiction lends itself to multiple interpretations, so people can read the same work of literary fiction and come up with very different interpretations of what is going on.
REHMSure. I just wonder if you had any particular concerns about, you know, quantifying or qualifying the types of fiction. I understand when you're talking about a plot driven novel, as opposed to one with real character development. I've heard good literary fiction defined as character, character, character. Is that how you would define it?
KIDDYes. But, you're absolutely right to raise questions about the distinction. And we ourselves would not argue that these are clear categories. Authors like to play with genre and break rules and blur boundaries. Our goal is not to step in and say here is the line. In our research, what we try to do, instead of quantifying, directly, literary-ness, or something like that, is we try to look at how people generally think about fiction. So, we looked at bestsellers and considered those to be popular fiction. And then for literary fiction, we turned to major literary prizes, such as the National Book Award for fiction.
KIDDOr the Pen/O. Henry Prize for short fiction, with the ideas being that even though these boundaries might not be exactly clear, we can be confident that some of these texts are generally considered to be more literary than the others. And indeed, in one of our experiments, we actually asked our participants to tell us how literary they thought the text that they read was. And we found that, you know, our participants were not literary critics or, you know, graduate students in literature, were actually able to distinguish the different types of text.
KIDDSo, we're confident that readers, generally, have a sense of the difference between a novel we take to the beach and, you know, read to pass the time...
KIDDAnd a novel that we really reflect on.
REHMBut your final conclusion, if I can put it that way, though I gather this is in no way to be considered a conclusive study, is that people who read literary fiction become, perhaps, more empathetic to people around them who may be different from themselves. Is that a fair way to put it?
KIDDI think that that's fair. To be a little bit more specific, which I would like to be, really stick to the findings that we have so far, is what we really found was that people who read literary fiction, compared to people who were randomly assigned to read popular fiction or to read nothing at all, performed significantly better on a test of the ability to identify the emotions expressed by other people. So, it's not exactly empathy, because empathy requires that people are concerned about the other.
KIDDBut for most people in most situations, being able to identify how somebody feels is the first step to being able to empathize with how they feel. So, this is an even more basic building block of empathy.
REHMDavid Kidd. He's a PhD candidate at The New School for Social Research. David, is there any way our listeners can read about the research you've done?
KIDDYes. If they happen to have a subscription to the Journal of Science, it was published in October in that journal. But also, The New York Times ran an excellent story, in more plain language, describing our results. That story was written by Pam Belluck.
REHMAnd when would that have been? Do you recall?
KIDDThat was the first week of October, that was published.
REHMGood. Good. Well, I congratulate you on your study, and you've given us lots to think about. I thank you for joining us.
KIDDWell, thank you very much, and I am a long time fan of the show.
REHMThank you. I'm glad. And now, turning to you, Rebecca Mead, I'm wondering what you're reaction is to this.
MEADIt's such a fascinating idea, to try to measure the ways in which a novel might affect a reader. My book is about George Eliot and her great novel, "Middlemarch."
REHMOne of my favorites of all time.
MEADGood. Good. Good. As it should be. And it was definitely something that George Eliot thought a great deal about. The ways in which fiction can extend the sympathies of the reader, something she wrote explicitly about. She said that she thought art is the nearest thing to life. It's a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow man beyond the bounds of our personal lot. So, for her, very explicitly, her novels were about enhancing the sympathy of her readers.
REHMRebecca Mead. She's Staff Writer for The New Yorker, and she's the author of a book titled, "My Life in Middlemarch." Short break here. And when we come back, we'll hear from our other guests, Mark Brazaitis, Monica Hesse. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. For this month's Readers' Review we turn to a rather broad topic that is the value of fiction. You've just heard from David Mead -- sorry, David Kidd who is a PhD candidate at the New School for Social Research who has done a study, however limited, on the value of reading fiction -- literary fiction as opposed to page-turners.
REHMNow here in the studio, three guests, Monica Hesse, a writer at the Washington Post. She is the author of the young adult novel "Burn." Mark Brazaitis is professor of English at West Virginia University. His latest novel is titled "Julia and Rodrigo." Rebecca Mead is a staff writer for the New Yorker. Her book titled "My Life in Middlemarch." Turning to you, Monica Hesse, what was your reaction to what you heard from David Kidd?
MS. MONICA HESSEWell, I think it's a fascinating study but if you would allow me to raise a spirited defense of popular fiction, and maybe because I write it myself. I think that even among the things that we consider page-turners, there's just such a vast array of talent and quality. I believe I read in the study that one of the books they considered a page-turner was "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn which you couldn't get on a subway without seeing 20 women reading in the past year.
MS. MONICA HESSEBut I also think that it has tremendous marks of literary fiction. As a writer I think that the author puts together sentences in lovely and surprising ways. And moreover, it's a novel that's narrated by a sociopath and a philanderer. So I might be a little surprised if you walked out of that novel and suddenly had more empathy for humans. I walked out of that novel and didn't want to speak to humans for weeks.
REHMReally. I mean, that's how it affected you.
HESSEIt's a novel that gives you great pause when considering what might be going on in the inner workings of your fellow man because the main characters are so unlikeable, which is part of what makes it successful that you have no empathy for them. And yet you want to continue reading about them anyway.
REHMMark Brazaitis, what's your take?
BRAZAITISI want to believe in the study because it speaks to how I write or why I write and why I teach. When I went to Guatemala, I experienced so many fascinating, wonderful, strange things that I wanted to bring them home here. And I knew the best way to do that was through fiction. So I wrote a book about it, "Julian Rodrigo."
BRAZAITISWhen I became acquainted, unfortunately, with mental illness I wanted to bring that home -- that experience home, to show people how complex it is, to really have them delve into the complexities and get away from the stereotypes. So I wrote a book called the "Incurable." So I really want to believe that this study is true, that reading literary fiction does make us more sensitive to who we are as human beings.
REHMWhat about this line between fiction and literary fiction?
BRAZAITISOh, that's a big and long debate. I don't think we're ever going to settle that. It's a very arbitrary line. I think reading is something we all ought to be doing, no matter what we're reading. Of course that's a little selfish being an author and all, but I think it's a difficult line to draw. And different people are going to draw it differently.
MEADWell, I'm so interested in the way in which the study was received and reported on. The way that the New York Times described it was that reading fiction might be a way of bettering your social skills, perhaps, you know, to help you out if you're going on a date or you're going on a job interview. And I find that a very sort of dispiriting way to think about reading literature, that it should be something that we do because it's good for us so that it's improving, like eating your vegetables. It's not so -- it's not pleasurable but you have to do it and it'll make you a better person.
MEADThat seems to be such a sad indication of where we are with fiction reading that we have to make a case for like it's going to the gym or something.
REHMAll right. So if you were making the case out of your own heart for reading fiction, literary or otherwise, how would you do it?
MEADWell, I would say, you know, I've written a whole book about reading and rereading "Middlemarch." And that's a book that I think, if it were possible for a book to make you a better person, "Middlemarch" would be the book that might make you a better person. I can't say whether it's made me one or not because I don't know how I would be without it. But I do think that reading a great novel can give you a way to understand the world. It can give you insight into not just the characters on the page, but that you can take that insight and transfer it to the people that you meet in your own life, or transfer it to yourself.
MEADSo I don't know what the mechanism is. I don't know whether it's because, you know, you understand characters better because of the elliptical way that they're described or something like that, or whether you're responding to the grandeur and the beauty of the sentences, what it is. But, you know, I mean, I'd make a -- I would be willing to suggest that "Middlemarch" might help you be a better...
HESSEWell, I think that what Rebecca has offered as a reason to read books in general and "Middlemarch" in particular is so important. But I think it's equally important to think about if we're viewing reading as a diet, then we do need vegetables in a diet. But we don't only read -- we read for a myriad of reasons. Sometimes we read for comfort. Sometimes we read for -- as a substitute for Prozac. Sometimes we read because we're looking to be enlightened or learn about something new.
HESSEAnd I think that there's just a -- I think it's wonderful to read literary fiction if it makes you a more empathetic person. But sometimes the diet that you need is a little bit of junk food or is a starchy comedy or something like that. And so I think that it's important to think about the fact that we read for all sorts of different reasons. And all of those reasons are valuable.
BRAZAITISI have my books with strawberries not vegetables. Absolutely we read for all kinds of reasons. But I'm not even sure we necessarily read to become more engaged in the human experience. I think most of us read because we want to turn the pages. We want to know what happens next. I think all good books, whether they're literary or nonliterary popular do that. They make us want to keep turning the pages. And some of the greatest literary books are page-turners. It's a fundamental experience to want to listen to a story or to read a story.
REHMAll right. Here's our first email. It's from Brad who says, "I read lots of nonfiction but I just can't get excited about fiction. Please help." And I was recently with a gentleman who we were in -- about to go into a book discussion. And he simply said, I don't read fiction period. I don't read fiction. What is it about not reading fiction? Is there a male component, a female component? What do you think, Monica?
HESSEWell, I think that there might be a gender component, and I don't have studies to research this. But when I was doing an article a few months back about young boys and trying to get boys engaged in reading, I spoke with several editors and publishers and teachers who all said the same thing, which is boys are being assigned to read books like "Little House on the Prairie" by their female teachers. Because when the female teachers were young they loved "Little House on the Prairie." But boys want to read about airplanes or baseball or statistics.
HESSEAnd so there might be a bit of a gender difference. And I don't know that that's -- I don't know that we need to hold reading fiction right off the bat as a gold standard. I'm a big believer in opening a book of any kind and meeting you where you're at.
BRAZAITISI would say to Brad and other men, well come talk to me and listen to me read. Come listen to others read their -- a world in fiction that isn't possible through nonfiction. I found that as an author when I wrote "The Incurables," it wouldn't have happened the same way in nonfiction. There are things that are aspects of life that you can get to more deeply, more profoundly in fiction that you can't get to in nonfiction. Because in nonfiction of course you have to adhere to certain factual requirements, whereas in fiction you can dive very, very deep into your own experiences and the experiences, lives you know and imagine.
MEADI think we tend to have, you know, a very utilitarian view of reading, particularly in America, I must say. But -- so I think a lot of readers feel that they're wasting time if they're reading fiction, whereas if they're reading nonfiction they're doing something useful, they're learning something real. And I think our education system encourages that too. I mean, literature is increasingly set in the context of, you know, historical studies or social studies.
MEADAnd so reading for its own sake, for its own joy, for its own pleasure is something that is regarded as a bit frivolous and not -- you know, and not a good thing -- not a good way to spend your time. It's a very utilitarian view of fiction. It makes me a bit sad.
REHMAll right. We've got lots of callers who'd like to be part of this conversation. Let's start with Greg who's in Rockford, Ill. Hi, Greg. Go right ahead.
GREGGood morning, Diane.
GREGI fundamentally disagree with many of these points. First of all, I don't think there's any gender bias here. If there is then it is just that bias. But what we are doing in our contemporary world is equating emotions with truth. And I don't think that's necessarily accurate because we have to understand there's a big difference between feeling good versus being good. And I honestly believe -- I don't read contemporary fiction because the general portrayals of human character are so deplorable that they are not inspirational.
GREGNow when I think of character -- or when I think of fiction, I think the last real fiction book I read was Dominique Lapierre's book "The City of Joy," a phenomenal book in fiction. But I think of Dickens, (word?) Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Zola. These are books that really inspire improvement. Now if we look at emotions and consider empathy and compassion, what we have to understand is compassion is loved and formed by thought, not just by emotions.
GREGBecause the golden rule, for example, is ultimately proven on a basis of a change in character because knowing they love someone and encourage them and forgive them, ultimately the principle of love also has to be balanced by the principle of truth for there to be improvement in our lives.
REHMAll right, sir. Thanks for your call. Mark.
BRAZAITISWell, I think -- I grew up admiring the work of Leo Tolstoy. And of course he went through a major crisis considering the value of his own literary work, whether there was a -- or should be a moral component to it. And I, as a writer and teacher, have looked very closely at his life and have used it to reflect on what I am doing. And I think a moral component influences everything I do as a writer and teacher, not necessarily overtly but it's certainly there. Ethical issues are a part of what I discuss with my students and what I write about.
BRAZAITISSo I think also that there are tons of books, many, many great novels out today that you can get your hands on that will fulfill the kind of experience you had with "The City of Joy."
HESSEDo think it's also important to remember that when we consider these great novels, the Tolstoys and Dickens, they were the popular works of their time.
HESSEDickens was published serially in newspapers and people would eagerly buy the next edition to find out what was going to happen next. So I think that we do ourselves a disservice if we look at only the past as great works.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Going to take a caller in Tacoma Park, Md. Hi there, Megan. You're on the air.
MEGANHi. Thanks. I'm a reading teacher and taught high school English for striving and struggling readers and my course was a short stories course. And all but one of my students in this particular year were young men. And every year I would read John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" out loud to the class over the course of a couple of weeks.
MEGANAnd when I got to the end of the story where George shoots Lenny, one of the young men who was a junior and barely literate slammed his hands down on the table and jumped up and started pacing the room and said, my god, I didn't know a book could do that. And he was just floored, you know, that he could be taken on that journey. And I just wanted to share that, that I have definitely seen reading or being read to be a transformational experience for kids.
MEGANAnd as far as the debate between popular fiction and great works of literature goes, you know, as reading teacher I would just say read. You know, if somebody's starving you feed them. If they need to learn how to read they need to read.
REHMThat's a great way to put it. Does the appreciation of the written word begin at a very young age? Is it instilled at a very young age? Or I take myself as an example. I did not read, as a child. I read to my children each day but I didn't read as a child, did not come to fiction, nonfiction until I was in my twenties. So it can happen.
MEADThat's fascinating to hear because so many devoted readers do remember themselves, you know, with a book under the covers or whatever.
MEADThis story that the teacher tells is very, very moving and, you know, that it would take being read aloud to in high school to learn that a book can do to you what a movie can do to you or what music can do to you. Of course a book can do that to you. I mean, what we were talking about earlier, you know, with Dickens being serialized and everybody being excited to read him, the same was true of "Middlemarch." People were dying to read the next episode of "Middlemarch" when that was coming out.
MEADAnd so it's not -- you know, the great works, you know, "Of Mice and Men" or "Middlemarch" are not hard, impenetrable, difficult, inaccessible things. They are works that can speak to anybody anywhere.
REHMI fully agree. And I wonder thought whether reading "Middlemarch" at different points in your life you extracted from it very different things.
MEADAbsolutely. I mean, when I first read it at 17 I identified with the heroin Dorothea Brook who is a yearning adolescent woman wanting a more significant existence, because I did. And then later when I read it in my twenties, it seemed to be all about marriage and love because I was in love and wanting to get married. In my thirties I read it again. It was all about the career choices that the Dr. Tertius Lydgate makes and mistakes that he makes, because I was in the middle of my career. And those things came into more relief.
MEADSo, I mean, you tend to see in a book what you are bringing to it at that stage of your life, and the way that it speaks to you and throughout different stages of your life can change. And that's sort of in a way the measure of a great book, that you can go back to it. And every time you go back to it, it has something new to say to you.
REHMRebecca Mead. She's a staff writer for the New Yorker. She's the author of "My Life in Middlemarch," which it's clearly time for me to read again. And short break here. When we come back, more of your comments, questions. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about the value of reading fiction, whether you're talking about literary fiction, popular fiction -- simply the value of reading fiction, without trying to draw a line or define. I've got some great emails here. I'm gonna go through them rather quickly. The first from Joyce says, we read non-fiction to learn. We read fiction to grow A second, from Robert, says fiction, fear, some of us are afraid of new or different worlds. What a great email. And one, let's see, from Jeff, says, for boys, try Jim Harrison, Cormac McCarthy, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemmingway. If you can't get boys interested in fiction, try some of these.
REHMAnd finally, please compare reading to viewing either the written page or listening to audio books. Take whatever one of those emails you'd like. Go ahead, Moncia.
HESSEWell, I'll start with the email about reading versus audio books. And I have listened to audio books. In fact, I just did a cross country drive last night, and was listening to books on tape, but the pleasure, I think, in reading a book yourself, is that it's such an intimate experience. And you can take the pacing that you want. And you can read the sentences over that you want. And you can, as Rebecca was saying earlier, experience different things each time you read, because you can decide that a paragraph speaks to you now that didn't earlier. So, I think there's tremendous value in hearing a story and experiencing a story via an audio book.
HESSEBut, I think that it's a much more intimate and personal experience to sit down with a book yourself.
REHMHow about you, Mark?
BRAZAITISI love words in whatever form they come to me, so, I'm happy to listen and I'm happy to read. I love the email about the fear of new or different worlds. I think we live in a very complex country, a very complex world, and one of the ways we get to know that world is through reading. And, perhaps, it's a kind of obligation to engage in that way, to understand people in places we can't travel to to meet personally. So, I think bravo for the email writer to admit some fear in approaching those worlds, but I think it's absolutely necessary that we become acquainted with them, because if we're going to survive and prosper as a democracy, we need to know each other.
BRAZAITISWe need to understand each other. We need to figure out how to work on this together.
REHMMove outside our own realm.
BRAZAITISLet's move outside our own realm. Absolutely.
REHMHow about you, Rebecca? Which email responds to you?
MEADWell, I'm thinking about the person that said we read non-fiction to learn and fiction to grow. And it's a nice distinction. The idea of growth, though, you know, brings me back to the original study and this question of empathy. And the idea that we become more empathetic by reading seems a little bit self congratulatory, that we're patting ourselves on the back for becoming better people because we're reading literary non-fic -- we're reading literary fiction. The point of empathy is to extend ourselves out to care about other people, not to become, you know, improve ourselves through our reading.
MEADSo, I think it's important to think about the ways in which a work of fiction helps us understand others, not just understand ourselves, too.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Vivian. She's on Long Island, New York. Hi there. Go right ahead.
VIVIANHi Diane. I'm addicted to your show.
REHMOh, thank you.
VIVIANI have to say this is a wonderful conversation, and I agree with Mark that these are artificial lines between different types of fiction, and that all of the -- everything we read has an effect and can help you grow. And I -- my comment is regarding historical fiction. I find that in reading historical fiction, your empathy, it goes beyond empathy for individuals, but for different cultures and different times, and different morays, perhaps. And so, reading for pleasure is absolutely the most important thing. You won't do it if you don't enjoy it. But, you do grow, no matter what you're reading.
VIVIANAnd you have to have dessert, as well as the vegetables. And I like -- I love reading Isabel Allende and I like to read Adriana Trigiani, just for fun, and I've learned from reading Adriana Trigiani, although it's a much longer kind of literature. So, I think we have to be open to all types of reading, and introduce our children to that...
REHMAnd indeed, both of those writers you mentioned have been on the program and talking with them is equally wonderful. Do you want to comment?
HESSEWell, I'm glad she brought up historical fiction. I'm actually in the middle of writing a historical fiction myself, and it is a completely different experience to be approaching a world that already existed and trying to draw colorful characters within it, as opposed to other writing...
REHMTell us about it.
HESSEIt's going to be another young adult novel, set in southern Amsterdam during the German occupation of World War 2. And spending time in the Holocaust Museum, doing research, and the Library of Congress, has given me an entirely different appreciation for The Netherlands at that time, beyond the world of Anne Frank, which I think is the world that most of us are familiar with. So, I'll support that reader, and say that as a writer, historical fiction has opened my eyes in ways that other works haven't.
REHMWonderful. Let's go now to Cleveland, Ohio. Hi Deborah.
DEBORAHThank you so much for taking my call. I have a comment and a question. I have two sons. One is an avid reader, one is not so much. But my older son aspires to be a writer, largely inspired by reading Rick Riordan's series, that really sort of lit the fire to him to become a reader. And so, I think that fiction is a wonderful entry to reading, maybe, some other larger, more literary works. But it definitely kind of set the hook. My other question is -- I'm sorry that the gentleman who did the study is not on, but my younger son is diagnosed with Asperger's, and one of the things that is a challenge is reading emotion and having empathy.
DEBORAHAnd so, it's curious to me that through reading, that might be a way to strengthen those skills. And it's very exciting to me that that might be a field of study, or to enrich what we do with him for a behavior standpoint.
REHMWhat do you think, Mark?
BRAZAITISWell, just to note, first on the historical fiction side, I began my own novel, Julian Rodrigo, (sp?) in a contemporary way, 15 years ago. But 15 years later, it was published, so now it's historical fiction about the Guatemalan Civil War. I think, again, I can't speak more to the benefits of reading. It is a little self serving, of course, because we are authors, but just in terms of my ability and my students' ability to understand the world, reading is such a crucial avenue to get at knowing, at connecting, at meeting the world. I work for the Appalachian Prison Book Project that sends books, free of charge, to prisoners in Appalachia.
BRAZAITISAnd we believe, and I believe this absolutely, that any kind of written word is potentially a life line toward self improvement, toward getting back on your feet and getting out there, whether it's literary fiction or whether it's popular fiction, whether it's non-fiction.
REHMWhat do you think?
MEADMy son, too, who's eight, loves those Rick Riordan books, and they have, you know, way in which authors, who write for children, have this tremendous power to capture young minds and to draw them into the world of reading. And, you know, in response to your -- the caller who says her son wants to become a writer, the way to do that is to read and read and read.
REHMAbsolutely. Thanks for your call. Let's go to Rob in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Hi Rob. You're on the air.
ROBThank you. It's a privilege to be on. Great show. So, I'm in my 40s. I didn't really start reading for pleasure until I was in my 20s and out of college. And I read a lot of the classics back then, and now I kind of try to devour anything I can, mostly recommendations from my wife, who's always been a great reader. But lately, I've really been interested -- I'm a pacifist, and kind of have my distaste for war, based on big social memes, but reading novels about very personal experiences, my most favorite newer ones were "The Yellow Birds" and "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk."
ROBIt seemed they put a very personal inner voice into the effects of war, and just spoke to me as a non-military person who never had that experience.
MEADYeah, "The Yellow Birds" was an incredible book. Yes. Yes.
BRAZAITISAnd I think it would be great if all our politicians read those books, because it would inform their larger view of whether to go to war or not.
REHMYeah. Yeah. Thanks for your call, Nate. And now, to Nan. She's on Long Island, New York. Couple of callers today. Go right ahead, please.
NANYes. It disturbs me that no one has brought this up, no caller has either. It's as if there isn't literature that's not fiction. Well, what do we call the Declaration of Independence, or The Gettysburg Address? You had Doris Kearns Goodwin on a month or so ago...
NAN...to read "Team of Rivals." And doesn't that give insight? I just finished a book called "A Country of Vast Designs," by Robert Murray. I don't know if he's ever been on your show. The insights one gets from a book like that -- why is it necessary to have it be fiction to be literature?
REHMAll right. Thanks for your call. The difference between fiction/non-fiction. Rebecca.
MEADWell, I would just say that this definition of literature as fiction is something that has evolved. I mean, you know, 150 years ago, when George Eliot was writing, literature was poetry, and fiction was a lesser form. I mean, literature wasn't only poetry, but fiction was definitely a lesser form than poetry. And so, for her, writing her novels was kind of a diversion from more serious work of poetry that she also did. So, we have this evolving view of what counts as the most serious form of literature. Fiction seems to be it right now.
BRAZAITISAnd I don't think we're discounting the great works, such as The Declaration of Independence. We're just talking about the value of literary fiction, which is different. If Doris Kearns Goodwin couldn't delve into the inner thoughts of Lincoln or his cabinet, whereas a fiction writer writing a historical novel could tell us what Lincoln was thinking at every single moment. That's the creative license we have as fiction writers.
HESSEI agree with you, Mark.
BRAZAITISFor once in my life.
REHMAll right. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go, now, to Nate in Traverse City, Michigan. Hi, you're on the air.
NATEHi. Good morning. Thanks for taking the call.
NATEI just want to kind of pick up the torch of historical fiction. My original comment was going to be about to not discount folks like James Michener, via "The Source," or "The Covenant," or "Poland" or "Texas" or "Hawaii," or you can go on and on. You pick up James Clavell and read "The Tai-Pan" and "Noble House." All of those books. And they open a window. They're a platform, so to speak, into a culture and a time that, for me personally, has really compelled me to go further and pick up non-fiction works about those places and those time periods.
NATEAnd both in the school setting, the University setting and on my own time. I'm thankfully at a point where I can read what I want. And I probably go 70 percent fiction, 30 percent non-fiction, but I was back on all of those books, most of them fiction. It's been a solid foundation for what I want to do now.
HESSEWell, two points. I think, first, I think that it's important to consider that all fiction would be historical fiction in 15 or 20 years, as Mark learned when he began a book that wasn't published for a decade later. So, we are currently now, are writing the great historical fiction of our future. The caller also mentioned in a university setting and in a school setting, which I think is another interesting thing, because we continually hear about young people, and are young people going to continue to read? And what's going to be the future for reading?
HESSEThere was a Pugh study that came out about a year ago, that said that the heaviest readers, right now, was the demographic of 16 to 29. And the demographic that was reading the fewest amount of novels, every year, was the demographic 65 and older, which was not what I would have expected. And is -- was very heartening, though, to think about the future of literature.
REHMThe other question I would have regarding reading fiction is the introduction of iPads and Kindles and the like. And to what extent you think that's making the access to fiction, or reading in general, more accessible, more intimidating than holding a book. How do you see it, Rebecca?
MEADWell, on one hand, I'm thrilled by the existence of the Kindle, because it means that people can download "Middlemarch" for free. They don't have to pay for it, which is wonderful, but I'm also worried about the ways in which reading something on a device where you can also check your Twitter and your email is just impossibly distracting. I know that I cannot read properly if I'm also trying to check other things at the same time. And so, I mean, I still have a great attachment to the printed page, because it takes me away from those kinds of diversions.
REHMWhat about you, Mark?
BRAZAITISWell, I'm sentimental. I love the physical book. I love the way it feels. I love the way it smells. As a writer, I want readers to be able to get at my words any way they can, so I'm all in favor of just about anything. Write it on the walls. Go for it.
REHMAnd to you, Monica.
HESSEI read almost exclusively on my Kindle these days.
HESSEAnd I agree with Rebecca's earlier point, that it can take you away, but sometimes, I think that the ways that it takes you away lead you on really unexpected journeys, because you can click on a word and go figure out what it means or where it came from. Or say, here's this reference to The Battle of the Netherlands. What was that? So, I think that it's a more distracting experience, but I think it simultaneously can be a more enriching experience if you can figure out a way to have the right balance.
REHMAnd quickly, other than your own, give our listeners one fiction recommendation that you would offer at this moment and we'll put it on our website. Rebecca?
MEADI am just finishing volume two of "My Struggle," by Karl Ove Knausgaard. It's astonishing. I've read volume one, volume two. Volume three is about to come out. Amazing, amazing, amazing. I urge everyone to read it.
BRAZAITIS"The River Beyond the World," by Janet Peery.
REHMAnd to you, Monica.
HESSEI just finished "The Good Lord Bird," by James McBride, which was a National Book Award winner, but is simultaneously hysterically funny.
REHMMonica Hesse, Mark Brazaitis, Rebecca Mead. Their recommendations will be on our website. Thank you so much.
MEADThank you for having us.
REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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