Friday, January 10, 2014

Losing Our Way

I think I'll reel for a long time after what Latayne wrote on Monday: that reading a novel can leave a "shadow" in the brain that is detectable in neural scans. She's right: We did suspect all along, but to learn that the effect has been spotted by researchers! If they'd photographed angels, I'd feel hardly less wonder.

Did you ask yourself, reading this revelation, if that shadow on the brain created any noticeable effect on the reader's daily life? It turns out, there is an effect, and researchers David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano have noticed: People who read a certain kind of book - the kind we tend to like best here at Novel Matters - exhibit heightened powers of empathy, the ability to enter into another person's experience and emotion - not to feel for them, but with them.

But not just any book delivers the potion. You won't find it in non-fiction (surprised?) and you won't find it in every kind of fiction, either. David Comer Kidd observed, "Some writing is what you call 'writerly', you fill in the gaps and participate, and some is 'readerly', and you're entertained. We tend to see 'readerly' more in genre fiction like adventure, romance and thrillers, where the author dictates your experience as a reader. Literary* [writerly] fiction lets you go into a new environment and you have to find your own way."

It makes sense, doesn't it? A relationship with a character that forces you to "find your way" would make good practice for a real human relationship that demands the same. Another researcher, Philip Davies, took it a bit further: "The thing about novels is that they give you a view of an inner world that's not on show. Often what you learn from novels is to be a bit baffled."

None of which will simplify your life. But that may not be the point.

I'll bet you've read some books that have led you into the woods a bit - in a good way. Got any experiences to share? Please do tell. We always love to read what you have to say. 

*See that? He used the "L" word. 


Patti Hill said...

I'm being "shadowed" by a story I read for my book club, a National Book Award finalist, literary. I'm still processing what the book will mean to me. I couldn't put it down. The female protagonist was admirable in some senses, vulnerable yet maddening passive in others, and brutally aggressive, nearly impossible for me to relate to. And yet, I can't get her out of my mind. The reading experience was uncomfortable, but I believe I "walked" with someone I should know and understand. I've never felt this way after a readerly book.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

I avoid readerly novels as much as possible. They are altogether unsatisfying to me. I suppose that's because the shadow isn't there. I finish reading and think, "Eh. I'm no better or worse for that." I like the shadow, even though it often wrecks me.

You know, I don't gravitate to non-fiction. When I read it, it's because I'm researching or because a friend of mine wrote one. I've learned some great things from non-fiction. Even had life changing moment from reading them. But, still, I don't tend to wander the non-fiction shelves at the book store. I suppose it's just easy for me to think that it's their life and feel like a spectator, not a participant. Interesting.

Anonymous said...

What an interesting topic to consider. The Snow Child is the kind of book that leaves a shadow. I read it months ago but sometimes still think about it. Blue eyes by Toni Morrison is another.

Latayne C Scott said...

So satisfying to me that Debbie and Katy have mined the novelish depths of the research.

A novel I've read (actually listened to) that has stuck with me (maybe because it was 20 hours long!!!) was The Meaning of Night. My daughter in law said the book had the same effect on her.

Kathleen Popa said...

Patti, you didn't tell us what book it was! It sounds like I need to know.

Susie, I agree. I love fiction, but I do wander the non-fiction shelves. But yes, it takes a story to make me a participant.

Anonymous, Why so shy? Please introduce yourself. I loved The Snow Child as well. Haven't read Blue Eyes - yet.

Latayne, The Meaning of Night sounds wonderful. And what an intriguing title!