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Why We Read Classic Novels

From: John W.
Sent on: Saturday, June 8, 2013 8:35 PM

Here's a fascinating clip from a New York Times article in March, 2012, on the value of reading great literature:

"The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto . . . [proposes] that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that 'runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.' Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings."

This same writer also wrote in another essay that great literature works on us neurologically by "...creating a mental representation that draws on the same brain regions that would be active if the scene were unfolding in real life."  A fascinating concept: fiction can perform the same function for us as history does, per Woodrow Wilson: it makes us "artificially old", giving us types and numbers of experiences that no person could experience in real life.


We've all heard the arguments from English teachers for reading serious fiction: it takes you into unexplored worlds, it can help you understand other people better, it portrays universal human feelings, etc.  All true, but too abstract to answer the common sense question of a teenager: what can we learn from characters who are, after all, just made-up in the author's head? The science cited above proves that skillfully written words have a similar biological impact on our brains, and hence our perceptions, as real life experiences.  ALL OF OUR HOURS OF READING TIME ARE WORTH IT!!!

I'm halfway through The Woman In White, and the suspense is building.  Soon I will be so consumed by this book that nothing else will matter - it's already hard to put down!





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