Monday, December 22, 2014

Deep Reading

In his new book, The risk of reading, Robert Waxler argues that deep reading of the kind in which we engage when we read a novel, is not just a pass-time. It’s important. It enables us not only to understand the world, but to understand ourselves. Waxler is professor of English literature who, with a friend who was a judge, Robert Kane, started a program called Changing Lives Through Literature. The program, discussed in OnFiction in 2008 (click here) enables young offenders to be sentenced to probation rather than jail on condition that they attend a seminar on literature. With Jean Trounstein, Waxler wrote a book on the project called Finding a voice: The practice of changing lives through literature

In the first chapter of his new book, Waxler proposes that the risk we take when we engage with a novel is that we may find ourselves changing as we read. We may find ourselves reflecting on our life, and the lives of others. We may find ourselves setting off on a path towards a more democratic, more humane society. Waxler is also concerned with another risk, which is that the modern digital world lures us away from deep reading. The digital world, he says, is a world of images, seductive and immediate. They divert us from language. Without language, and in particular without narrative language, we can never understand the meaning of our lives, or the meaning of life in general. 

This is a serious argument. How can we evaluate it? It is true that new technologies can alter our engagement with ourselves and with language. Johannes Gutenberg’s introduction of the printing press to Europe, around 1440, was a first step towards universal literacy that everyone now agrees is the basis of education. In medieval times, when books had to be hand-copied, deep reading was available only to the very few, probably mostly monks. Literacy and printing made way for the novel, which flourished in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.The novel enabled many more people to read deeply. 

Many have, like Waxler, worried that the digital age means the end of the novel. I am not sure that this is happening. The main print-medium that has suffered from television and digital media has been the newspaper. Each year more fiction and non-fiction books are published than ever before. One could argue that because the digital world now makes book-shopping so much easier, and book-carrying so much lighter, that more people might read novels. But, of course, one knows what Waxler is worrying about. The internet gives us access to a world of snippets, small pieces of information. Might these come to occupy our attention? Reading a novel is a process of engagement in which the attention is directed to a single work over a long period. It enables not just use of pieces of information, but reflection.

Following his first chapter, Waxler has nine chapters in each of which he discusses a book that you might like to read, to open yourself to the kind of risk of deep reading that he has in mind. They include the Biblical creation story, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of darkness, Ernest Hemingway’s The old man and the sea, and Julian Barnes’s The sense of an ending. I found myself engaged by his discussions of them. Following these chapters, Waxler has a closing chapter in which he reiterates his opening arguments and makes a plea. Keep on reading deeply, and keep on reading novels.

I don’t know Waxler, so to find out a bit more about him, I looked him up on that medium of digital snippets, the internet. One of the sites was “Rate my professors.” The I found that a student says: “Dr. Waxler is a great professor. His passion for literature in a book, not Ipad, is inspirational. His class is not only good for one's academic development, but also for one's soul.” 

Waxler’s new book enables us to take one of his classes. In the book his concern is for our souls.

Trounstine, J. R. & Waxler, R. (2005). Finding a voice: The practice of changing lives through literature. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Waxler, R. P. (2014). The risk of reading: How literature helps us understand ourselves and the world. New York: Bloomsbury.

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Monday, December 15, 2014

Research Bulletin: Do Women Prefer to Read about Female Characters?

There is a lay belief that men and women have different preferences when it come to fiction, specifically that each may prefer to read a story with a protagonist that shares their gender. Do women really prefer stories that feature women, and men prefer stories that feature men? In 2010, Dr. Marisa Bortolussi, Dr. Peter Dixon, and Dr. Paul Sopcak published a study investigating this very question. Dr. Bortolussi is a professor of modern languages who frequently collaborates with Dr. Dixon, a professor of psychology, on questions related to the psychology of fiction. This team of researchers from the University of Alberta produced a clever study in which 4 story excerpts were chosen, 2 with a male protagonist and 2 with a female protagonist, and these were altered to produce version that changed the gender of the main character. Participants then read either the original version or the altered version with the flipped gender, for all 4 excerpts. In this way, the actual story content was held constant across participants and the only thing that changed was the gender of the main character. The researchers also used two separate samples, one from Canada and one from Germany. What they found was that both men and women seemed to prefer the stories that featured male protagonists, regardless of whether the gender had been flipped or was as originally presented. Moreover, these results were observed for the Canadian participants and the German ones, indicating that this effect is not tied to one particular culture. By utilizing several different excerpts and samples from two different cultures, this study demonstrates that the effects observed are not likely to be tied to one particular type of story or one cultural context. This is another interesting example of how our lay beliefs about reading and reading preferences can benefit from scientific investigation and how collaborations between disciplines can often yield some very interesting studies. 

Bortolussi, M., Dixon, P., & Sopčák, P. (2010). Gender and reading. Poetics, 38, 299-318.

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Monday, December 8, 2014

Research Bulletin: Reading Enjoyment and Academic Achievement

Students are asked to do a lot of reading, in the form of both storybooks as they learn to read as well as textbooks as they progress through the education system. There are many who feel that reading outside of this context, reading done on the student’s own time, may be an important factor in intrinsically-motivated learning. In other words, those who read for leisure may be most motivated to learn about the world and therefore likely to do well in school and subsequently do better in life. Recently, Dr. Suzanne Mol and Dr. Jelle Jolles investigated leisure reading among a large sample of Dutch adolescents. Over a thousand twelve and thirteen year-olds were polled with respect to their leisure reading habits, their enjoyment of reading, and their tendency to engage in mental imagery while reading, along with their grades in key courses. What they found was that relatively few of the children reported reading for leisure, about 20% of students in a lower academic track and about 33% in the higher academic track. Replicating past research, girls were more likely to engage in leisure reading than boys. What was interesting was that almost without fail, those that reported reading for leisure also reported visual imagery while they read, seeing what was happening in the story in their “mind’s eye.” Another interesting finding was that among those who did not report reading for leisure, a self-reported enjoyment of reading predicted better academic achievement. This association was consistently observed across groups, except for boys in the lower academic track. This latter difference highlights the importance of examining individual differences when investigating how reading predicts academic achievement. A great strength of this study is its large sample size and the relatively homogenous nature of this sample (i.e., all children of about the same age with mostly the same educational experiences), making it easier to detect associations among the variables of interest. Finding a way to foster a love for reading may be an important avenue for potentially improving academic achievement early on in a child’s life. 

Mol, S. E. & Jolles, J. (2014). Reading enjoyment amongst non-leisure readers can affect achievement in secondary school. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, article 1214.

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Monday, December 1, 2014

Research Bulletin: Resisting Imagination

Imagination is a big part of fiction. Narratives provide us with a scaffold for structured imagining, often about people and places we wouldn’t have thought to contemplate on our own. But there are things that we often find difficult to imagine, such as the idea that morally reprehensible events are actually justifiable. This phenomenon, that some things are harder to imagine than others or that people seem unwilling or even unable to imagine certain things, is known as ‘imaginative resistance’ within philosophy. Dr. Shen-yi Liao, Dr. Nina Strohminger, and Dr. Chandra Sekhar Sripada conducted a set of empirical studies to examine this phenomenon. What they found was that people who found the morality of a Greek myth difficult to accept personally, also found it difficult to imagine, and struggled to agree with this morality being true even within the fictional world created. In other words, there was evidence that imaginative resistance does exist outside of the discussions philosophers have among themselves. One twist, however, was that people who were more familiar with Greek myths had less trouble imagining the morality portrayed within this myth. A second study largely confirmed these results. This paper is a good example of how empirical research into fiction can originate in all sorts of different disciplines, and an interdisciplinary approach to this topic is likely to benefit our attempts to better understand stories and our imagined experiences within them. 

Liao, S., Strohminger, N., & Sripada, C. S. (2014). Empirically investigating imaginative resistance. British Journal of Aesthetics, 54, 339-355.

Most impressively, Dr. Liao and his colleagues have made the data freely available to those interested.

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Monday, November 24, 2014

A storied life

Boyhood is an unusual film by Richard Linklater. It’s about a boy growing up from age six to age eighteen. It is a fiction film, but the scenes were shot at intervals over a 12-year period with the same principal characters, played by the same principal actors. The focus of the film is on a boy whose name is Mason. He has an older sister, Samantha, and parents who love their children but are divorced.

In the film's first half the scenes are not linked by a plot. They are about events, in almost haphazard order, of a kind that might happen to a young American boy as he grows up. So we see Mason with his mother and sister, the two children being looked after by their father when it is his turn for custody, Mason at school, Mason having to adapt to his mother’s new partner, and so on. Only in its second part does the film take on a structure that is easily recognizable as a narrative and—the film maker has this right—the narrative starts in Mason’s adolescence. It’s only in adolescence that people start to experience themselves in terms of a narrative in which they are the protagonist. The research on which this idea is based is by Dan McAdams (e.g. 1988). He proposed that people take on an identity by constructing a life story. Before adolescence, although children can remember events in their lives, and although they can talk of themselves in terms of their likes and dislikes, their cognitive systems have not yet developed so that they can relate remembered events to preferences and plans in a narrative sequence. 

McAdams and McLean (2013) have proposed that people choose and develop their life-stories principally in conversations with others. In the film’s second half, we see Mason making choices, and relating them to himself and others in conversations. The choices people make generally involve selections from themes that are easily available in a culture. In American culture such themes include choosing a sexual partner and being successful in a career of some sort. Also, of course, people can choose counter-cultural themes such as being a druggie, being hard-done-by, being a drop-out. In the film, we are aware of such counter-cultural themes in the background. But Mason doesn’t choose from them.
Mason starts the narrative sequence of his life when he is given a camera and takes up photography. It’s his first step towards developing a purpose in life. We see him becoming fascinated by photographs and working in a darkroom. He has started on his story of becoming a photographer. He has chosen the inviting theme of becoming a famous artist.

It is rare that a fiction film depicts so successfully a piece of psychological research. In this case, the film and the research by McAdams develop an important idea in the psychology of fiction.

McAdams, D. P. (1988). Power, intimacy, and the life story: Personological inquiries into identity. New York: Guilford.

McAdams, D. P., & McLean, K. C. (2013). Narrative identity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22, 233-238.
 
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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Smell of Books

Many of us who love books love everything about them, including that wonderful scent that accompanies a brand new novel. There seems to be nothing quite like it! But what is that smell, exactly?
Over at Compound Interest, they have created a fantastic visualization explaining what is responsible for the smell of new books, as well as why old books smell the way that they do. You can read the full post here, and download a copy of their infographic here.
Just goes to show that the science of books isn't limited to the realm of psychological science. Of course, the interdisciplinary question is what thoughts and emotions the smell of new books elicits in readers, what sorts of readers experience these effects, and why they occur.

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