……From seeing rightly flows the stuff with which we weave webs of value. When human conversation and inner reflection, dialogues with others and dialogues with one’s own self shape our lives, these webs of value grow more complex and varied. Tellingly, for both Murdoch and Weil, reading also deepens and sharpens our capacity to attend to others. Weil suggested that reading books is akin to reading the world. It is not just that reading literature is a training ground for moral and emotional judgment, but that it also reminds us how we ought to be in the world. Just as a book grips us when we give ourselves over to it, so too does the world seize us when we open ourselves to it. Reading well, Weil believed, meant nothing less than seeing well.

In her remarkable book The Sovereignty of Good, Murdoch echoed Weil’s conviction. “The most essential and fundamental aspect of culture is the study of literature,” she declared, “since this is an education in how to picture and understand human situations.”

For scientific confirmation of this observation, Karetsky mentions a study that I’ve discussed about how literature sharpens our emotional intelligence. While admitting that the study would probably not impress Murdoch, he concludes that reading provides an important to engaging and to becoming productively numb:

Murdoch, who insisted it would “always be more important to know about Shakespeare than to know about any scientist,” would have smiled at these findings. But for those of us less certain about the uses of literature and demands of attention, they might serve as, well, a salutary shock. And not, it is to be hoped, the last one. As we attend and read, other shocks will ineluctably follow — how could they not? — and perhaps even momentary numbness.

In other words, read a novel and you may overcome compassion fatigue and care about Syrian refugees. Or whatever other pressing issue you commit yourself to.

By Robin Bates



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