The book is a fascinating collection. Its three sections cover research on the new possibilities created by the computer of studying corpora of literary works, studies of effects of culture and background in people's engagement with literature, and analyses of personal engagement in reading. It includes papers by some of the most famous scholars who conduct empirical studies of literary texts, as well as by people who are just beginning their research lives. I shall concentrate in this post on a paper by Willie van Peer, and on the papers of two people who describe their PhD work.
Willie van Peer—one of the first to study psychological effects of literature—presents in his article a very confrontational proposal. One would expect, he says, that university students of the humanities, for instance in departments of literature, immersed as they are in works about humanity and the emotions would be more emotionally attuned than science students. But he reports a study by his PhD student Eirini Tsiknaki which showed the opposite. She measured students' emotional intelligence. There was high variance but, on average, the humanities students had lower emotional intelligence than the science students. Why should this be? Van Peer's proposal is to indict teaching in the humanities which he argues is of a kind that turns them into pursuits that are not of human understanding, but that are of technical analyses of details. Where do we find humanity, then? One place is in the empirical study of the arts, where people's emotional engagement with literature has become a matter of primary interest.
As part of her PhD thesis, Özen Odag (of Jacobs University, Bremen), studied men and women's readings of four literary extracts: fiction and non-fiction, focused on the inner world and on the outer world. Contrary to her expectation, Odag did not find that women were more engaged in fiction and men in non-fiction. Also, contrary to her expectation, men and women were equally involved with the extracts that dealt with the inner world. One prediction was fulfilled, however: men were more engaged than women in the extracts that dealt with the outer world.
Cecilia Therman (of the University of Helsinki) studied, in her PhD thesis, people's reading of a short story in which the narrator recounts a summer at a holiday cottage in which a favorite aunt had a mental breakdown. Therman argued that autobiographical remindings during reading indicated that the story touched people personally. Contrary to her expectation that remindings would tend to occur at particular kinds of situation in a text, she found, instead, that they were prompted by cue words, and were not closely related to comprehension of the text at the points at which they occurred.
Unlike some kinds of literary studies in which authors choose examples to confirm what they are staying, these studies, by people making new beginnings, produced more valuable answers, of a kind that disconfirmed their expectations.
Özen Odag (2008). Of men who read romance and women who read adventure stories ... An empirical reception study of the emotional engagement of men and women while reading narrative texts. In J. Auracher & W. van Peer (Eds.), New beginnings in literary studies (pp. 308-239). Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Cecilia Therman (2008). Remindings, understanding, and involvement: A close reading of the content and context of remindings. In J. Auracher & W. van Peer (Eds.), New beginnings in literary studies (pp. 352-371). Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Willie van Peer, W. (2008). The inhumanity of the humanities. In J. Auracher & W. van Peer (Eds.), New beginnings in literary studies (pp. 1-22). Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
The illustration, the cover of The New Yorker of today's date, is by Eric Drooker and is entitled: "In the world of books."