Thoreau thought easy reading was bad for you. Did he miss the point? (Walden 72)

Thoreau was a book snob. No light reading for him. Here he goes after “easy reading”; below we’ll look at how weepy novels may have fostered a humanitarian revolution. Thoreau:

“Most men are satisfied if they read or hear read, and perchance have been convicted by the wisdom of one good book, the Bible, and for the rest of their lives vegetate and dissipate their faculties in what is called easy reading. …All this they read with saucer eyes, and erect and primitive curiosity, and with unwearied gizzard, whose corrugations even yet need no sharpening, just as some little four-year-old bencher his two-cent gilt-covered edition of Cinderella — without any improvement, that I can see, in the pronunciation, or accent, or emphasis, or any more skill in extracting or inserting the moral. The result is dulness of sight, a stagnation of the vital circulations, and a general deliquium and sloughing off of all the intellectual faculties. This sort of gingerbread is baked daily and more sedulously than pure wheat or rye-and-Indian in almost every oven, and finds a surer market.”

Reading his comments as generously as possible, I think he’s not so much perturbed by people who read some trashy books as he is by people who read nothing else, who pass the time agreeably by reading what amounts to the same book over and over again under different titles. You can’t put the book down, but a week later you can’t say just what happened in it. It fades like a dream… maybe like this forgotten bestseller advertised in the August 9, 1854, New York Tribune:

NYTrib 1854-08-09a

Henry didn’t have this particular critically-acclaimed novel in mind when he wrote Walden, though I have reason to believe it came to his attention at least briefly a little later. More about that below.

But more to the point, here’s another perspective:

In his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker shows how, contrary to popular perception, human violence has indeed declined dramatically over the centuries, even in recent decades. There are many reasons for this, but one possibility is relevant here.

Pinker notes that the Humanitarian Revolution of the eighteenth century (when long accepted cruelties such as slavery and torture began to be questioned) coincided with a dramatic increase in literacy. Reading, Pinker says, “is a technology for perspective-taking… It’s not a big leap to suppose that the habit of reading other people’s words could put one in the habit of entering other people’s minds, including their pleasures and pains. Slipping even for a moment into the perspective of someone who is turning black in a pillory or desperately pushing burning faggots away from her body or convulsing under the two hundredth stroke of the lash may give a person second thoughts as to whether these cruelties should ever be visited upon anyone.” (p. 175)

And this (hypothetical) effect may not be limited to factual writing. “Realistic fiction, for its part, may expand readers’ circle of empathy by seducing them into thinking and feeling like people very different from themselves. Literature students are taught that the 18th century was a turning point in the history of the novel. It became a form of mass entertainment, and by the end of the century almost a hundred new novels were published in England and France every year.” (pp. 175-76)

Moreover, this was the heyday of the epistolary novel, in which the protagonist narrates his or her own story. “Grown men burst into tears while experiencing the forbidden loves, intolerable arranged marriages, and cruel twists of fate in the lives of undistinguished women (including servants) with whom they had nothing in common.” (p. 176) The clergy denounced these books and argued that they undermined divine and human authority. And maybe the books did just that.

It’s still an open question whether novels were one of the causes of the Humanitarian Revolution. Pinker argues that the hypothesis looks plausible and that the sequence of events is in the right order (growing literacy and popularity of novels preceding humanitarian reforms), a pattern that continues to the present day. But so far, research on reading and empathy has shown mixed results.

According to a New York Times blog, a study published in Science in 2013 found that “people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence” after reading literary fiction, but not after reading popular fiction. The difference appears to be that some kinds of fiction take you inside the character’s heads, and other kinds of fiction not so much.

“Aha!” imaginary Henry says.

But they also found no improvement in these areas after reading serious nonfiction.

“Oh,” imaginary Henry says.

Well, Henry, I suppose the interpersonal stuff isn’t necessarily your strong suit anyway — hey, wanna read some Jane Austen?

…Oh, and more about Fashion and Famine, the novel whose ad appears above (in part — the glowing quotes go on for several more inches). In the same column, near the bottom of the page, is the following little ad:

NYTrib 1854-08-09b

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

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