From Stanford: (HT: DT)
BY CORRIE GOLDMAN
The Humanities at Stanford
Those long summer days spent reading by the pool might not be so lazy after all.
Readers of literary works by the likes of Samuel Beckett, Stéphane Mallarmé and Geoffrey Chaucer are getting lots of exercise from these personal trainers for the brain.
New research by Stanford’s Joshua Landy, associate professor of French and Italian, illustrates how authors throughout the ages have sought to improve mental skills like rational thinking and abstract thought by leading their readers through a gantlet of mental gymnastics.
In contrast to the common practice of mining fictional works for moral messages and information, Landy’s theory of fiction, outlined in his new book, “How to Do Things with Fictions,” presents a new reason for reading in an age when the patience to tackle challenging pieces of writing has dwindled tremendously.
Reading fiction “does not make us better people in the moral sense, whether by teaching us lessons, making us more empathetic or training us to handle morally complex situations,” said Landy.
However, for those interested in fine-tuning their intellectual capacities, Landy said literary works of fiction can offer “a new set of methods for becoming a better maker of arguments, a better redeemer of one’s own existence, a person of stronger faith or a person with a quieter mind.”
Landy’s new “formative fiction” theory advises against a utilitarian search for meaning or information that results in an “I got what I need and I can move on” attitude. His theory implies that readers will get much more out of a text by lingering over passages, contemplating ideas between reading sessions and re-reading passages after some reflection.
According to Landy, the formative fiction approach makes complex texts more accessible to non-academic readers.
“Once you realize that some of the arguments are simply not supposed to work at all, Plato’s dialogues become less forbidding,” Landy said. Readers still have to invest effort, but “you aren’t always asking yourself ‘what does it mean?’ and ‘why don’t I understand?'”