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Marcel Currin: Novel approach to a better world

By Marcel Currin

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Reading novels is one way to make you a better person.
Reading novels is one way to make you a better person.

AfteR dinner our 6-year-old said: "So, Mum, what's the plan?"

My wife said: "The plan is for you to get into your pyjamas and into bed."

He replied: "No Mum. What's the plan to make everyone in the world happy?"

A single plan to make everyone happy. How sweet. If only it were that simple.

I suppose we could start by reading more books. My favourite new nugget of information lately is that reading novels makes you a better person.

I've seen a couple of articles about this online, all stemming back to an original piece on Time.com by Annie Murphy Paul.

Her article, "Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter And Nicer", cites a bunch of different studies by cognitive scientists, psychologists and neuroscientists to support this idea that the act of reading fiction equips us to better appreciate other people's perspectives.

As someone who barely knows what cognitive scientists actually do, I'm not going to argue. Especially because I like their findings. Of course I do. I'm a reader.

I counted up the books that are currently on my bedside table. There are three novels, two poetry books, a pile of comics, a movie magazine and two non-fiction books. I'm juggling my way through all of them at various speeds.

But Annie Murphy Paul's article makes me think I need to stop flitting between genres for a bit and settle down with one good, solid novel.

To immerse yourself in a book is an experience quite distinct from many of the other ways that we absorb information. We live in an age of short video clips, fast clicks and hyperlinks. Our modern reading environment is rife with scrolling and swiping opportunities.

In contrast, what they call "deep reading" requires an uninterrupted page. It could probably even be an e-book page, so long as the reading is "slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity".

To achieve that, you would need to turn off the internet for a while and stop leaping from one thing to the next.

Okay, so I'm immersed in a book. I'm soaked up to my eyeballs in emotional and moral complexity. That sounds lovely. But how does it make me a better person?

By all accounts my brain gets exercise from reading about the emotional situations and moral dilemmas in the novel.

Being propelled into the heads of fictional characters increases my real-life capacity for empathy.

I can think of a few people who could do with more capacity for empathy. Life would be a lot more pleasant if more of us were able to appreciate other perspectives.

I don't mean we have to agree with everyone. It would just be better if we could strive for thoughtful dialogue instead of getting stuck in that awful default setting where everything is framed as "them" versus "us".

There are enough bad guys in the world without us inventing new ones every time we disagree with someone.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett describes it as the "tendency to caricature one's opponent".

By way of antidote, he offers four steps to arguing intelligently.

First, you should try to re-express the other person's position so well that they say: "Thanks, I wish I'd thought of putting it that way."

Next, you should say which parts of their argument you agree with. Then you should mention anything you have learned from them. Only then are you permitted to say a word of rebuttal or criticism.

If that all seems too hard then maybe we should just read more novels.

Failing that, we could perhaps try my son's plan for making the world a happier place, which is to smile warmly at the next person you see and hope that they pass it along.

Marcel Currin is a Tauranga writer and poet.

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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