How Fine Literature Makes Us Humaner (and Betterer)

Yesterday I got into some Facebook sparring with a good friend, whose “sin” was to cite a new novel as evidence that the world was getting worse. I was pretty dismissive. Fiction, Richard??? I told him.

Well, Robert Sapolosky just put me in my place. Sapolsky, a Stanford professor (and hilarious lecturer), is one of my favorite scientists.  At some later date I’ll discuss his “A Natural History of Peace” essay that demonstrates that even male baboons can be pacified (and that’s saying a lot given their NYC-taxi-driver-on-crystal-meth temperament). Anyway, check out his Op-Ed piece in yesterday’s LA Times about how fine literary fiction can develop theory of mind, a critical component of empathy. http://www.latimes.com/opinion/commentary/la-oe-sapolsky-theory-of-mind-20131229,0,2431766.story#ixzz2otWelVB8

Is there a work of literature that had a particularly strong impact on you, especially vis a vis how you see the world through someone else’s eyes? My first thought is The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy. It’s funny that I’ve picked Mayor as it is a typically tragic Hardy novel. Despite his good intentions, Michael Henchard (the main character) spirals downward. I hated the good-natured Donald Farfrae and preferred the doomed Henchard. I read the book during the summer before senior year in high school, and it gave me some inkling of how decisions in adulthood (which was fast approaching) could have life-altering, inevitable consequences.  Quite depressing stuff, but it stuck with me.

2 thoughts on “How Fine Literature Makes Us Humaner (and Betterer)

  1. For me, at about 13, Crime and Punishment was just stunning.For a good Catholic school girl, who had spent a fair amount of time reading heroic tales of saints, the concepts of guilt, forgiveness and redemption presented in such brilliant, compelling prose was simply amazing. I’ve read it quite a few times since then and it still casts its spell.

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  2. Henry,
    Miracle of miracles: I found your blog! Quite an ambitious enterprise, I’d say.

    Among books that have influenced me: Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy”, which brings to life the sociological determinants of American life. (Perhaps you’ve seen the brilliant filming — “A Place in the Sun” — of the second half of the work, but IMJ its first half is an essential prequel.

    John Dos Passos’ great “USA” trilogy is all but forgotten today. In a most creative manner, it paints a portrait of this country comprising ‘Newsreels’, ‘The Camera Eyes’, mini-bios of high profile people, etc. In his day (he died in 1970), Dos Passos ranked as one of the “big three” with Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Arguably, “USA” is the Great American Novel.

    Proust’s 7-volume opus “Remembrance of Things Past” (later correctly retranslated as “In Search of Times Lost”) influenced me enormously when we read it in CompLit. I know of no comparable dissection of society. Proust encouraged me to “go deeper” in my own fiction writing (and discouraged my pursuit of becoming a novelist).

    I wish you success — and perseverance — with this promising blog.

    Richard

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