Separating fact from fiction: does reading really make us smarter?

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“I wish I read more.” – Everyone 

I spent the bulk of this past weekend reading through a recent bestseller. Despite being steeped in historical, artistic and architectural facts, it was not what would commonly be considered an enriching, thoughtful novel.

It was a vapid, blunt yarn. It was a shallow, derivative adventure story.

It was the latest Dan Brown novel, Origin.

This story, the fifth in Brown’s “Robert Langdon” series, outsold every other hardcover in the past week, including multiple debuts. That means that thoughtful, creative, brand-new tomes released by esteemed historians like Walter Isaacson sold fewer copies this week on their release than an adventure novel that came out nearly a month ago, on Oct. 3.

We, as a society, tend to associate books with intelligence. We connote the consumption of the written word with the value of being ‘smarter,’ the same way that past generations have attributed deficient eyesight with the same feature.

Obviously, there are books that can make us smarter. We learn from textbooks and biographies about all sorts of things in our world. Books are multivalent sources of knowledge and entertainment, history and adventure.

But it’s the way that we esteem these things that raises questions. They’re bound bundles of words, yet we perceive them as essential, cultural vessels of brilliance. You carry a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses under your arm, and people will perceive in you a sort of intelligence – or maybe just pretentiousness – that has almost nothing to do with the ability to run your eyes across a page and consume words. In the modern world, reading is a mandatory skill that is programmed into children at very young ages.

Simply put, is non-fiction more valuable than fiction? Does it make you smarter?

“No,” Mandy Brouse, one of the co-owners of Words Worth Books in Waterloo, said. “I think that reading itself is the extreme value.”

“I guess there’s many different types of intelligence, and there’s definitely a lot of academic studies that have been done on reading and the benefits of reading – ranging anywhere from your traditional IQ testing to emotional intelligence and what that means,” Brouse continued.

“So we do have academic studies that back those claims up. But I also think that, from my own experience, reading books growing up, and with my own academic background, I feel that reading is probably one of the bigger reasons why I am the person I am today,” she stated. “I think reading is one of the most important activities I have in my life.”

“The most important books are the ones that are the exact right books to put in people’s hands, that they need at the time,” she added.

While ploughing through Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone isn’t likely to turn someone into a scholar, there are values that are associated with the simple practice of reading itself. And there are communities that grow out of the simple engagement with it, even with aspiring writers themselves.

I spoke with Vanessa Ricci-Thode, president of the Canadian Author’s Association Waterloo-Wellington Branch. On top of this role, she is also the Municipal Liaison for NaNoWriMo in Kitchener-Waterloo, an international event where authors – aspiring and acclaimed – attempt to write the first draft of an entire novel within the month of November.

As someone who has been heavily involved in working with and encouraging writers, Ricci-Thode had a bit of insight into the importance of the written word:

“Stories are important,” she said. “They teach us about the world, they teach us about each other. Even fiction, there’s a lot you can learn in fiction and I think there’s a lot of value in it because of that.”

“Fiction specifically allows you to play with reality a little bit and get out stories that you wouldn’t normally hear. It gives you the chance to see through other peoples’ eyes and to walk through other people’s shoes. I think it’s really valuable to cultivate empathy.”

This value relates deeply to something else Brouse brought up: an organization she has become involved with launching in Waterloo focused on the more therapeutic, healthful aspects of reading:

“Shelf Life is a series of workshops that is on the topic of creative bibliotherapy,” Brouse said. “Which is something that has only been active in and around Toronto and the UK. And it’s something that I’m hoping to bring more into Waterloo.”

“It’s essentially using books and readings from books in a way that facilitates a group therapy situation – but involving fiction and non-fiction. It touches upon a lot of the existential feelings that many people have,” Brouse added. “It talks about the universalizing feelings of, say, grief or fear, anxiety; stuff we’ve all experienced at one point in our lives.”

This is done through workshops that have run in Waterloo at the Delton Glebe Counselling Centre, with the next scheduled for Nov. 6.

“This particular series that we’re in right now is on the topic of fear and the resiliency that can come about when we have experiences of fear in our lives, and the tools that we can use – and the tools coming from books, fiction, essays, non-fiction, poetry. That kind of that thing,” Brouse said.

“And [not just] what authors have to teach us about that, but also what each of us have to tell each other about those topics and how fear has impacted our individual lives – and how that might be universalized in a group therapy situation.”

Whether or not intelligence is based on the amount that one person reads, a person can become smarter in one way or another by reading. In case that was your purpose in reading this article, I asked my interviewees specifically their recommended ‘smartening’ titles in fiction.

For Ricci-Thode, it was about imbibing an example and an understanding through characters and stories.

“For me, I tend to read – in fiction – I read mostly science fiction and fantasy. And the book that I would recommend right now is called The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. It’s a really smart book.”

And what makes it smart?

“The way it really explores human nature. It’s an apocalyptic novel but it’s a very hopeful book and it just really gets into human nature, human psychology – some of the ugly things that we do but some of the really beautiful things that people do as well.”

When asked, Brouse had a different kind of answer, reflecting on how the format can be used to convey theories and ideas more overtly amongst the stories themselves. Her pick was The Course of Love by Alain de Botton.

“He is a philosopher. But he has gone into the foray of fiction here. And what it is, it’s a story that is fictionalized – about a couple going through a breakup and trying to understand their marriage – but [it’s] very practical; a lot of people would recognize a lot of aspects of themselves,” Brouse admitted.

“Then the narrator himself breaks in with some of these philosophical reflections on the nature of love and relationships,” she said.

“Not in this pristine, objective, standoffish kind of way – but in a real way with real insight. And so I thought it was a really good book at the time.”

Books may or may not make us intelligent, but there are certainly productive factors associated with reading in the modern world.

With such an unavoidable interconnectedness in this world, and such synergy between technologies that actually encourage us to scroll through our Twitter feeds while we watch television, the ability to switch off and focus on one thing can help to improve our concentration and our patience.

There’s a reason why we all wish that we read more, and that’s because we all strive to be better than we are by pouring our hearts into pursuits that develop other, unexplored components of ourselves.

Where we lack in empathy, in understanding, in patience, we want to expand.

Intelligence is not simply understanding economics, or math, or the sciences. Intelligence is comprised of our rounded perceptions, our grasp of language – every prescriptive component that we can apply to ourselves and our lives.

Just like a book, intelligence can be one of a thousand different things.

You may not become smarter by reading, especially by reading fiction. But – put simply – you may become better. 

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