Moving into 2014. Books make us better.

books againI’ve often told my daughters, and the kids I coach, that nauseous feelings of anticipation are often the worst they’ll feel. When Miss T suddenly complains of aches before soccer practice, I tell her that once she’s there, she’ll be fine. And she ALWAYS is. Goldie is apprehensive about school on Monday mornings but at 3pm when I pick her up, she’s generally had a great day. When we realize, in the thick of the thing about which we were so nervous, that our world will not end, that we will not die, that we are, in fact, perfectly capable, we often laugh over the silly stress of our previous nerve-wracked anticipation.  What were we so afraid of? Failure, of course, under different guises. But we did not fail. We lived to tell. In other circles, this is referred to as ‘progress, not perfection.’  So it is with Daily Cup of Jo.

It’s been another three weeks of silence on my blog. The anticipation of sitting down to write when I didn’t think I had the time was enough to prevent me from actually sitting down to write. I must heed my own advice and laugh in the face of nervous expectation. Not every blog post can or will be perfect. Here we go – version 2014.

Over the holiday break I read Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. It felt like a gift – not only the time I had on the plane and at my in-laws house in Maryland to read it, but the experience of being engrossed in Tartt’s modern-day Dickensian world.  It is now safely among my favorite novels ever. (Read Stephen King’s entertaining review from New York Times.) The emotions I felt during and after picking up the book weren’t just grateful feelings of being entertained, though it’s hard to put into words how certain literature becomes transformative on different levels.

In the past year I’ve noticed attempts, scientific and then nearly futile, to grasp whether reading quality fiction makes us better people. Read the four articles I’ve linked to below and your head might explode. Is it every journalist’s duty to play the devil’s advocate, question everything, and dissect research to muddle the results of a study so as to be rendered incoherent? That last sentence was nearly incoherent.

Why do you sit down to read fiction? I love almost nothing better than to appreciate good writing that becomes a great story. So mostly I sit down to a book for enjoyment, though I’ll admit to reading certain novels because I think I should. I don’t want to be that person – particularly as someone who occasionally calls herself a writer – who hasn’t read the classics OR the latest tome from so-and-so. The fact that I am that person, in large degree, is beside the point. I’m trying. If I had more time…

The two new studies that prove reading fiction makes us more empathic people are useful. I tell my daughters to read more because it will make them better writers and a good writer finds a job easier out there in the world than someone who can’t construct a graceful sentence. But I’ve known clearly that reading does so much more. Historical fiction can educate us about place/time/people of which we weren’t already aware, or reminds us of facts we’ve forgotten. In addition to a dreary history text, Goldie learned about the Great Depression from Kit Kittredge: An American Girl and understood how families could suffer in ways she wasn’t previously aware. (Which doesn’t necessarily make her want Lululemon tights or Katsu-ya sushi any less, but still.) Dresden became real for me after reading Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. And what about the simple representation of the human condition in fiction? In settings and circumstances different from our own? Do I even begin to list the novels that slayed me? That made me aware of emotional depths I didn’t know existed? A few that come to mind:

A Tale of Two Cities AND Great Expectations (Dickens)

A Wrinkle in Time (L’Engle)

Siddhartha (Hesse)

Sons and Lovers (Lawrence)

Charlotte’s Web (White)

Pride and Prejudice (Austen)

To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee)

The Stranger (Camus)

Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury)

Sophie’s Choice (Styron)

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (Blume)

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (McCullers)

The list goes on.

And more recently:

The Kite Runner AND A Thousand Splendid Suns (Hosseini)

The Poisonwood Bible (Kingsolver)

American Pastoral (Roth)

A Visit From the Goon Squad (Egan)

Atonement AND Saturday (McEwan)

Olive Kitteridge (Strout)

Let the Great World Spin (McCann)

The Stone Diaries (Shields)

The Corrections (Franzen)

The Fault in Our Stars (Green)

The Things They Carried (O’Brien)

The Goldfinch (Tartt)

The list goes on.

And honestly, whether fiction is so much more effective in teaching empathy than non-fiction, I cannot say though the studies are confident. But plenty of non-fiction novels changed the way I looked at life:

Miracle at Carville (Betty Martin)

Night (Elie Wiesel)

Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank)

The Executioner’s Song (Mailer)

In Cold Blood (Capote)

Angela’s Ashes (McCourt)

Into Thin Air (Krakauer)

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Murakami)

Alive (Piers Paul Read)

The list goes on.

What Mark O’Connell alludes to in his article “Ten Novels to a Better You” I must suggest myself: regardless of the studies, I would hate to think of my life and who I’d be having NOT read great books. My days here in Los Angeles, spent mostly around school and sports, do not lend themselves to knowing a wide range of people. It’s why I think travel is so important. We must see how others live, even if it’s simply in the imagination of an author in the form of a book.

Sadly, leisure time, in my mind, brings up feelings of guilt. I should be doing something else, something more useful. To that, I’ll gladly refer to the new studies that indicate reading is significant for my growth as a caring, thoughtful member of society. Just as I should take the time every day to prepare healthy food for myself and my family, so too should I set aside an hour and feed my head and heart with a good book. It’s critical. My brain and soul could starve if I don’t get through Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens or Nabokov’s Lolita. I don’t want that to happen. Neither do you. 


Does Great Literature Make Us Better?” By Gregory Currie, New York Times, 6/1/13

For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov,” by Pam Belluck, New York Times, 10/3/13

Should Literature Be Useful?” By Lee Siegel, New Yorker, 11/6/13

Ten Novels to a Better You” by Mark O’Connell, Slate, 10/28/13


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  1. Anne says

    “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret”???…an all time favorite!!! I pull that title out more often than I would like to admit in conversations. People either burst out laughing with a look of great old school acknowledgement or look at me like I’m some Jesus chick with no clue what I’m talking about!

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