Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Chicken and Egg

This past week I read an article on reading and personality. The article mentioned a study involving young adults reading passages from either the Harry Potter or Twilight series, and then giving them a certain number of social associative tests. The gist of their findings was that reading is not “escapist” as previously thought, but is able to provide a sense of social identification with the characters in the story, which translates to their social identity. It’s sort of a jumping off point for one’s own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Reading increased the empathy of readers.

My first reaction to such a study is a chicken-and-egg sort of thing. What comes first? Does the book foster a new interest? Or is the person drawn to the book because they already had an interest?

If I take myself as an example—from the time I was able to read (I got past Dr. Seuss at about 4 years old) I have gravitated towards books about witches, magic, ghosts, haunted houses and world religions. It’s not difficult to see that I’ve retained this interest throughout my life. In fact—a lot of my career, research, and personal life is tied in with these subjects. By the time I’m old, I’ll be a real life Mrs. Zimmerman, complete with purple murals on the walls, and doctoral degree relating to magic. (If you don’t know who she is, refer to John Bellairs’s book “The House With a Clock in its Walls”). But did the books influence me, or did I just gravitate towards them because it was about a subject I was interested in?

The answer is likely a mixture of both. I had a heavy duty imagination as a kid, and when I had an idea or story in my head about something, I would go cruising the library shelves for something that matched the image in my head. Sometimes I would get new ideas or gravitate towards new kinds of stories if I read something that didn’t quite match, but still held my attention. Additionally—whenever I read something fantastical and magical, I wanted it to be real, and I set about finding a method for making it real. I am reminded of Aleister Crowley’s comment on Cardinal Newman:

“In the Apologia pro Vita Sua, Cardinal Newman tells us, I suspect truthfully, that as a child he wished that The Arabian Nights were true. As we all know, he gratified his ambitions by accepting for reality the Freudian phantasm of hashed-up paganism with Semitic sauce which led him to the hat. But I went further. My senses and my rational judgment created a subconscious feeling of uneasiness that supernaturalism might not be true. This insulted my inmost consciousness of myself. But the reply was not to accept the false for the true, but to determine to make it true.” (Confessions, Ch. 5)

Returning to the study—it was a controlled experiment, where kids were given passages to read in one of the Harry Potter or Twilight books. They were then tested on their associations. What I would like to know is how many of those kids were already interested in the subject beforehand—and I’d like to see the final result numbers in light of that variable. Nonetheless, what’s rather interesting about the results is that the psychologists found that kids could be very healthy mentally while being lost in reading. There is a perception that reading too much makes a child a loner and unsocial. The study seems to demonstrate the opposite. The characters in the stories seem to provide some kind of mythical identity foundation. This may be the key even more than the particular subject matter.

Mythical identity is something easily lost in a secular world that scorns anything smacking of religiosity—or is so rigid in dogma that there is no room for anything but fear. That identity is a critical part of being human. The identity may be illusory, but so are all identities. The banker going to a Wall Street job every day isn’t doing anything less hallucinatory than the child who sees fairies in the woods. They are equally illusory; the only difference is whether or not society approves of the illusion.

I have heard that we are living under a corporate oligarchy that spurns imagination and education, because people are less likely to settle for being mindless, underpaid drones if they possess either. I’m sure that’s at least a little bit true, even if it’s overstated. Real freedom is being able to choose the life you want, not being forced to choose a life of endless work hours at a job you hate. If you have some imagination, you can avoid the latter situation, though it gets harder and harder in this economy.

To tie all this up with reading—I do agree that the more one reads, the more imagination develops, but I don’t think reading “influences” you unless something in what you’re reading resonates with you. The same is true of music, and probably art as well. Something that doesn’t resonate with you may serve to challenge your point of view, but that doesn’t happen often. If it does enough to disturb you or change you, then it is highly successful, and will likely become a classic over time.

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