Friday, January 19, 2007

Strangers and Fiction

The Bible is the No 1. most shoplifted book, which leads me to wonder why ‘Thou shalt not nick from Border’s’ is not one of the ten commandments, especially since the original author has the most to lose. To be fair, it is sort of covered by number seven, Thou shalt not steal, as shoplifting is technically a form of theft, unless of course you are a student when it becomes a moral responsibility. Not many students steal The Bible though so it’s hard to credit its No. 1 status. I would have thought the most shoplifted book would be The Da Vinci Code or something by Genet. Not that it crossed my mind before today.
You’d have to have stolen your bible first, in order to read that you have just broken one of the commandments. Imagine the embarrassment on getting to that page. You seek guidance on how to best live your life and the very first step you take in that direction leads you to break one of God’s holy laws. Not the best start. Still, if you are Catholic, you can always pop off to the nearest priest and get it off your chest. If you do this, make sure that the priest understands that you do not wish him to physically remove the burden from your chest. Priests don’t see a lot of action and these misunderstandings are quite common. A priest is going to be hard pressed to devise a suitable punishment for you as absolutions all involve reading something from the book you have just stolen which wouldn’t really be appropriate. He will probably just tell you not to do it again, which is fine because once you have a bible, you are not likely to want to another one. It’s not as if there are new editions coming out all the time.
I discovered this handy fact in an article from Psychology Today which is actually about how people who read fiction exhibit higher levels of sociability. Here’s an excerpt,
‘Reading fiction, it turns out, is a surprisingly social process. A study at the Journal of Research in Personality showed that frequent readers of narrative fiction scored higher on tests of empathy and social acumen than did readers of expository non-fiction. A follow-up study showed that fiction could actually hone these skills: People assigned to read a ‘New Yorker’ short story did better on a subsequent social-reasoning task than did those who read an essay from the same magazine.’
This makes perfect sense as it’s quite difficult to attack someone with a book in one hand, unless of course you use the book as a weapon. You might want to finish the chapter before engaging in a brawl in which case the other person may well have lost interest in the argument and picked up a book of their own in the meantime. The article doesn’t go into detail about whether what kind of fiction you are reading has a bearing on the sophistication of your social discourse. It’s difficult to imagine that readers of Stephen King would display the same levels of empathy as, say Jane Austen devotees. It is more likely that King fans would want to exorcise you from their house than serve you tea and try to work out whether or not you are good enough to marry one of their daughters.
Lisa Zunshine (seriously), an English professor at the University of Kentucky, suggests that reading fiction helps us to hone the powers of detection we use in everyday life to gauge situations and work out what motivates the people we interact with. By getting into the heads of characters in books and trying to understand what they are doing and why, we practise scenarios that can be applied to real life. Some people take this quite literally, like this reader,
‘Victoria Long of Stockton, California, read Anna Karenina while going through a rough patch with her husband. Thinking of leaving him, she was drawn to the story of Anna running off with her lover. But Anna's eventual suicide, Long says, made her think of the ways that she was taking her life. "It made me realize that I should be happy with my husband, who loves me as much as Anna's husband, but fought for me instead of letting me go.’
It is a slightly risky strategy and we can be grateful that Victoria didn’t throw herself in front of a train. Probably best not to try this with In Cold Blood or anything by Martina Cole. I can’t help thinking that if more people read fiction, we might enjoy more erudite social intercourse, or at the very least, fewer musicals by Andrew Lloyd Webber…

Barbie Photo from


Fringe Poet said...

Based on this, I should be an excellent communicator. Could you please explain this to my family.

That's so pants said...

Not a problem - Dear family fringe poet - please note that the high volume of quality fiction she reads automatically gives fringe poet a superior sociability. Failure to recognise this on your part can only mean that you, yourselves have a low capacity for empathy. I suggest you stop sniping and start reading. Thank you. I hope this helps FP.

Ms Baroque said...

I love the paragraph abut Anna Karenina. amd though you are right - probably best not to try with In Cold Blood etc - this is of course how the mass of people experience stories (or what you could call "story"). That's why chick lit does so well. They are looking - somewhere on the scale of conscious intent - for something that speaks directly to their situation. Their whole experience of the story is filtered through their experience of it, or its relevance to their own dilemma.

(By the way, I'd equally say that in romance, westerns etc, people are looking for an escape, true enough, but they're asking themselves, "what would I do in this situation?" It's the flip side of the same coin, as we have to bend any story just a little to fit our own shape.)

I have friends who watch movies completely uncritically, just get subsumed into the story, and when you speak to them afterwards it turns out they've completely misconstrued the whole thing because all they took from it was the bit that related to their own situation. There's nothing you can do with this. They just say, "Oh you know, I don't watch movies the way you do..." and they're right. Such a friend interpreted the grubby little fracas in, for instance, the recent film Breaking and Entering as being about a doomed affair, because she had just been dumped. (When, weeks later, it turned out that the guy had been seeing someone else and lying to her, it becaue more like Breaking and Entering, but I didn't tell her that.)

And so it goes...

That's so pants said...

Long live the unsynthesised manifold.