Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Does reading improve character?

I am what might be fairly described as a voracious and eclectic reader. I'm always reading at least one book and occasionally two. But does all that reading make me a better person?

This came to mind because of an article by Laura Miller that I read in Salon.com today. It's title was "Does reading great books make you a better person?"

Miller was, in fact, writing about a new book by William Deresiewicz, A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship and the Things That Really Matter. Deresiewicz's theory, which is made clear by the title of his book, is that great books can make you a better person. Miller disagrees, saying that she knows many well-read people who are real jerks. Personally, I'm on the fence here. I'm not sure who has the better argument.

I am in a unique position to judge the Jane Austen theory though, because, in the past year, I read all six of her famous books. I don't know if they made me a better person. They did increase my understanding of certain human emotions and frailties and perhaps, in that sense, they did improve my character. But was that strictly because of the books. or was it because I happened to be at a stage in my life where I could appreciate their wisdom?

Good writing has many positive effects on its readers. Even bad writing can be positive in that it helps us to appreciate even more the good writing that we encounter. But can any writing actually improve character? I don't know the answer to that, but I think I'll keep reading just in case it does!

And one thing that I think I'll read is that Deresiewicz book. It sounds really interesting.

4 comments:

  1. I think that reading affects character. Whether it is for better or worse depends on the material read.
    The quote, "Character is what you are when no one is looking," is one of my favorite quotes.

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  2. That is a great quote, Anonymous, and a favorite of mine, too. I think your point has merit - that reading does affect us and whether for better or worse depends on our choices of what we read. I think the author of that book about Jane Austen's work was making the point that "great" writers can help us improve our character. I hope that's true. I need all the help I can get!

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  3. I agree it's what you read not if you read. I know that some books have made me at least understand another perspective and others have shifted my whole belief paradigm. I hope it was for the better!

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  4. Well said, Anonymous. I could say exactly the same thing, as could, I think, most avid readers.

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