Despite our fondest intuitions and most cherished of cultural notions—manifested for decades in aspirational “Great Books” courses and reading lists—there is no “compelling evidence,” wrote University of York professor of philosophy Gregory Currie at the New York Times in 2013, “that suggests that people are morally or socially better for reading Tolstoy.” Or anything else for that matter.
On the contrary, responded Annie Murphy Paul at Time, “there is such evidence,” and she cites earlier psychology studies that show a link between reading fiction and empathy. Later that same year, social psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano published a study in Science titled “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind”—or, in other words, improves empathy. The study is enthusiastically picked up by Scientific American, and picked apart by Slate. In short order, Neuroscience gets in the game, and there’s talk of children’s brains “lighting up” like Christmas in response to Harry Potter and other books. The Guardian’s “Teacher Network” column finds in this science confirmation for what educators already suspected.
Like Currie, Lee Siegel at The New Yorker casts doubt on these supposedly celebratory findings. Should we require that books prove their utility, that they make us “better” in the way that, say, dietary supplements do? Is empathy really a moral quality, or simply an ability that allows the unscrupulous to better manipulate others?
This recent tempest of social science and skepticism notwithstanding, novelists have long argued that their craft requires, and fosters, better understanding of other people—or in the famous words of Kafka, which Siegel quotes dismissively, literature is “an axe to break the frozen sea inside us.” Foremost among such artists is Leo Tolstoy, who—says Alain de Botton in his School of Life video above—“was a believer in the novel not as a source of entertainment, but as a tool for psychological education and reform. It was in his eyes the supreme medium by which we can get to know others—especially those who, from the outside, might seem unappealing—and thereby expand our humanity and tolerance.”
Were Tolstoy a lesser writer, a theory like this might have produced unreadably didactic books unlikely to find much of an audience. His great literary skill makes his books engrossingly entertaining despite these intentions. Nonetheless, De Botton shows us the ways in which novels like Anna Karenina (find it in our collection of Free eBooks and Free Audio Books) teach ethical concepts like “sympathy and forgiveness.” And whether you read Tolstoy expressly to become a better person, or find personal improvement a side-effect of reading Tolstoy, I don’t think we need social scientific arguments to read Tolstoy. Indeed, though great novels may teach us many things we did not know about human complexity, their value can reside as much in the questions they ask—and that we ask of them—as in the supposed answers they provide about humanity.