Category Archives: philosophy

Does reading fiction make you a better person?

This is a "thought bubble". It is an...

This is a “thought bubble”. It is an illustration depicting thought. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I instinctively answer yes to this question and that got me thinking!  Do I have any basis for this view?

I thought it was obvious.  The biggy for me is

Empathy: if I think of how many people’s heads I’ve been in and how many eyes I’ve looked at the world through; that must mean I am more tolerant and empathic?

Knowledge:  I must have learnt some things from reading as long as the authors did their research properly and haven’t just made it up.  Even if they have, they must have got some of the experiential stuff right (what it feels like to gut a fish, riding a motor bike, first love etc).

Tolerance:  Seeing things from a wide range of viewpoints must make you tolerant.

But what about reading books that underline your prejudices and give justification to the unjustifiable.  I have read a few things that I fundamentally disagreed with but which because they are written down and well structured almost had me convinced.  Print carries weight.

I was prompted by an article on the BBC which stated that people who read books are better learners.  So I thought I’d have a quick look around at what evidence based findings were available.  Studies I could find focussed on measuring the impact of reading on intelligence and educational outcomes.  Tolerance and empathy are harder to measure.  It’s not like we have a world of history where all the percieved baddies are illiterate.  Far from it in fact.  It would appear that very few world leaders have had little education, irrespective of whether they were good or bad!

The study What Reading Does for the Mind showed two main findings of the benefits of reading in children.

  1. Early acquisition of reading opened doors to further learning (positive feedback and building the ability to think)
  2. All children benefit from reading, whatever their level of achievement.

This article The Powers of Reading is quite interesting, if a little politically motivated!

So, there’s a library of stuff out there, which lean towards the positive benefits on the individual but I would say a there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that it isn’t a guarantee that it will make you good.  (Good is a hard concept to tie down too).  I would like to think that I am far better for the books I’ve read and I think BIBs in particular must be even better for you, because you aren’t reinforcing your viewpoint with books you have chosen.


Books and my core beliefs

Thinking RFID

Thinking RFID That”s not me by the way! (Photo credit: @boetter)

With my years of reading behind me, I smugly feel quite well read. I can normally find something I’ve read that applies and enriches what I am experiencing. so whilst contemplating this post I thought it would be easy to reel off a whole host of sage thoughts.

So I sat and thought, and thought. What about…no. Oh yeah…no. So I left it alone for a while. Unconciously tackling the problem. Only to find when I returned to it I drew a blank.

This made me think about what are my central beliefs and where did they come from? What are some of the beliefs I regularly use in daily life?

So here goes (I feel a bit vulnerable about this)

The truth will always come out, so don’t lie – that’s from Eastenders (a TV Programme – “You ain’t my muvva!”)

Do unto others as you would have done to you – that’s roughly from the Bible (a book!)

People will always get you back – that’s from a training course on Managing People

You get what you give – that’s from quite a few songs.

Be yourself wherever you are, people are just like you – that’s from my Dad.

We have more in common with strangers than differences – that may well be from reading, but I’m not sure of the source.

We’re not here for very long so wring out every bit of enjoyment from whatever situation you find yourself in – that, sadly, I’ve learnt myself from losing people and seeing people in pain.

Not really many books here are there? I think that is because media like TV and music and poetry are are distilled, they need to grab you instantly, so their messages are rapid burn to get your attention, easier to understand and remember. However, messages within books are much more slow burn, they creep into you gradually, layer upon layer of different books subtly building into a belief system. These form more nebulous or meta-beliefs like

humanism, tolerance, respect, honesty, self awareness, empathy

These are at the core of me (I hope) and in the same way they go in gradually by osmosis, they come out in subtler ways too.

I do have some things I’ve learnt from books, but they are much more focussed on the details.

Cover of "Penelope's Hat"

Cover of Penelope’s Hat

walk with a straight backPenelope’s HatRonald Frame (this is the same as stand tall, it’s helped me get through some difficult situations at least looking confident, but as my friend told me it’s not much good if you’re considering suicide)

you’re not raising children, you’re raising adults – Raising Boys – Steve Biddulph ( fantastic and easy to read parentling, strongly recommended, but this particular quote really sticks with me and I constantly use it and tell other parents too).

So it’s hard to reveal the impact of books on you and your core beliefs. I do feel I have been created by books (I just hope I’ve thought about them enough to become the best person I can).


The Tipping Point


Do you stay up later than you really should reading to finish a book?  Sometimes this is because you’re so near the end that five more minutes isn’t going to make a lot of difference.  However, sometimes and more frequently I find this is because I’ve reached a point in the story where I just can’t put the book down.  I call this the tipping point.  The point at which a change is inevitable and you have a hunch it’s about to occur, in this case the story end is in sight and you just have to know what it’s going to be, you can’t imagine how the author is going to resolve the various plot lines into some coherent whole (they had better or you’re going to be disappointed).

A Golden Retriever going over a teeter-totter ...

A Golden Retriever going over a teeter-totter at an agility competition. Edited (cropped) by Pharaoh Hound (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is normally the mark of a good book.  Unfortunately authors need to assess the proximity of the tipping point to the end of the novel.  If it’s too far then I stay up way too late and suffer the next day at work (although this does feel very indulgent).  If it’s too near the end then you’re left wanting a bit more and not sure how all the pieces got left.

Some books don’t seem to have them at all, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad.  In fact I’d say some of my favourite books discard the usual conventions and make up their own genre and structures (e.g The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold, The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffeneger).  But they provide a different kind of reading experience.

I thought I’d be at the tipping point with The Postmistress – Sarah Blake, but I don’t think it’s got one.  But I think I’ve reached the point where I will stay up late to finish it.  I’ll give it an overall rating then.

Never Say Never


How often have you heard readers say things like

I never…re-read a book
…read fiction
…read historical books
…read old books
…read on the toilet
…use the library

I’ll confess mine from the list later.

These strong statements come from some of the meekest people I know.  I think possibly this is the only time they would ever use the word “never” to another person.  It’s surprising, and when you challenge them they seem unaware of the strong view they’ve just expressed.  But contradict them and you will be treated as if you have personally affronted them.  Beware!

I think this may be because reading is a very intimate and personal experience.  The book is only half of the story.  Whenever you read you bring yourself to the book and your reading style, your experiences and your outcomes are entirely unique.  Therefore when you discuss reading you are really revealing a little of yourself, it’s a risk.  The private intimate nature of reading means you can be entirely selfish, have it your way, do it your way, read what you like and no one need know or comment on it.

Engraving of a Reading Group.

Engraving of a Reading Group. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But when asked for your opinion, it is not surprising then that, you make the most dictatorial statements!  And if someone doesn’t agree, then they are personally attacking you!   It is strange then to think that discussing reading is viewed as such a good and safe topic of conversation.

We’re all individuals, and I increasingly come to the conclusion that we cannot know how anything feels to anyone else and should not guess.  I don’t even know if the blue of the sky today as I perceived it, was the same blue to you.  So we are individuals trying to make bridges, we are separate and are constantly reminded of that fact by our inner voices.  But frequently in books we come across something that chimes a common note with how our own brain works, someone else thinks like that too (hopefully this doesn’t happen when you’re reading Dexter).  This is a very intimate relationship with each book you read, and it is unique, no one else will feel exactly the same reading the book as you.

So, meek and not so meek readers, are you prepared to take a risk and give of yourself?  What are your “nevers”?

Mine in the list above are…

I never read non-fiction (I’m a bit embarrassed by that)

I never re-read books (There a so many new experiences waiting)

Go on, share yours.