Just imagine

A study came out recently that has a lot of my colleagues buzzing.

Here are two articles you might find interesting:



I wonder about the validity of relying too much on one study but based on my own understanding their conclusions make sense. In sum, their research indicates that people who read good quality fiction, demonstrate greater empathy than other people, all other variables held constant. It appears that the complex characters in better literature stimulate the imagination and foster identification with the protagonists.

Since I relate everything to my own training, I maintain that this would be especially true of the critical developmental period for most human beings between birth and age 21.  After all, we don’t manifest empathy temporarily.  In normal, healthy individuals affect is an established trait by age seven.

The Iliad and the Odyssey

Like most people, I read many of the classics by the time I finished high school.  Even though I was not an English major, I enjoyed literature and even took a course called “Prose and Poetry of the Romantic Era” as an elective while I was in college.  Since that time, I have overwhelmingly concentrated on reading professional material and non-fiction.  So, based on this study, I thank the gods that I read the great works before I hit grad school!  I might have been one mean-spirited witch, if I had not. 🙂

Goodnight Moon Margaret Wise Brown

Even though it is gratifying to give one’s mind a complete rest and read simple material from time to time — a great use for fashion magazines or things like Time or New York Magazine to catch up on gossip — for the most part, I prefer reading materials that really make me think or help me solve problems, be creative, etc. (and this helps ward off dementia).  I guess this falls into the familiar ‘get out of your comfort zone’ philosophy.  Who knows, reading Proust or String Theory may be mind candy for some people – those would be exercise for my brain.

Mother Goose Arthur Rackham

For children — and again this is because I think childhood is so determinative of adulthood — I recommend the old nursery rhymes, Aesops fables and the like, fairy tales from the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Anderson, instead of 98% of the so called children’s literature being sold in bookstores and online these days. I also love Margaret Wise Brown.  There is a place for Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss, but they pale by comparison to the material that my grandmother and her mother and grandmother read when they were children.

Grimms Fairy Tales Frances Olcott

OK, I know I am going to get blowback from fans of the Berenstein bears and the like — I have nothing against them but, since there are only so many hours in anyone’s day, those would not be my choices for children.

Aesops Fables Arthur Rackham

I also object strenuously to what Disney and his influence has done to much of the world’s great writing for children. My favorite pet peeve is the outright cartoonification of P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins.  If anyone has taken the time to read the original books, they know what I mean. I watched that movie with feelings of silent outrage about what was done to such a brilliant piece of art. No books ever written could better captivate and cultivate a child’s imagination and creativity than that series. They are masterpieces that even adults would need to read several times to appreciate and understand, but that children, who have not been spoiled by the mediocrity that passes for writing and illustration nowadays, grasp with intuitive immediacy.

Mary Poppins P.L. Travers

Likewise, Beatrix Potter’s books and those of A.A. Milne.  When you go to Amazon to give a child the original books about Winnie the Pooh just notice all the inferior renditions of those tender and moving stories that flowed from the mind of a genius.

The Complete Tales of Winnie the Pooh A. A. Milne

My ideal list would include the writing of Frances Hodgson Burnett and L. Frank Baum.

Beatrix Potter The Complete Tales

[Wait : before you say it, I am a singer and I appreciated the quality of Julie Andrews voice.  I am not a fan of that style of singing (just like I don’t care for Barbra Streisand’s style and selections but appreciate the exceptional instrument she has) but Julie Andrews is a delightful performer and I loved The Sound of Music and her acting in Torn Curtain with Paul Newman.  If I had never read the original Mary Poppins, I might even have tolerated the musical (although, strangely for a singer, I don’t like musicals for the most part – just here and there, but this is off-topic).]

Cloister and the Hearth

Which brings me to another of my philosophical causes: don’t waste your precious time. You have arguably, if you are lucky, 85 X 365 X 24 X 60 minutes on this planet.  Why waste too many of them reading nonsense (maybe even this blog? if you choose Homer, Stendahl, Reade or Manzoni over Byrnes, I applaud your discerning taste! OK, otherwise, I would love it if you read my blog whenever you want something simple, let’s say, for mental vacations).

I Promessi Sposi

Back to the articles and the study.  We can all use being more empathic!  Read the great fiction before you vote, please, and especially before you visit this site, so I can be sure you look as kindly as you can on my eccentricities.

Images: Amazon.com



20 Comments on “Just imagine”

  1. Beth- I read the articles with great interest (and a similar one I saw yesterday). Our stories are how we learn about each other- so no surprise to me that reading is linked to the development of empathy.

    And while I agree that the original books you talk about should absolutely be read and appreciated, I have to disagree re. the films.

    The ‘Dinsey-fication’ of classics can be problematic, but if one is able to appreciate the original sources (be they Mary Poppins, Winnie the Pooh or even the Grimms’ fairy tales) the films can become new iterations of classic themes and morals- and art forms in and of themselves.

    The ways in which we share our stories is constantly changing, and although I will ALWAYS be drawn- first and foremost- to the book, newer versions/formats can offer new wonders as they revisit the stories that have, rightfully, stood the test of time.

    ANYTHING that might lead us all toward a more empathic way of dealing with others cannot be undervalued.

    Great post!


  2. Well we agree on most of this, so let me emphasize our sympathy for one another, first and foremost.

    Because that particular film is so egregious let me clarify my position.

    I am not saying all films that express an earlier literary work (or even an earlier film on the same subject) are poor renditions. In fact, I have seen some amazing versions of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, in film and even in recent books.

    I would also point to the Godfather I and II that I think brilliantly recreate Mario Puzo’s novels and even exceed them.

    If you have not read the P.L. Travers books, then you cannot understand what a travesty that film is. It is like the difference between Chateau Lafitte and Kool Aid. I liked Kool Aid, but I have appreciated Chateau Lafitte and know the difference.

    I enjoy your blog and thank you sincerely for commenting and liking mine as often as you have.

    You make a good point that I failed to address and I appreciate that! 🙂


    • You have me there – I will have to look that one up. I would never rule out the possibility than another child’s Shakespeare is right around the corner! 🙂 (In fact, there was a Spot series about twenty years ago that is really great, come to think of it. Have to dig that out.)Thank you for commenting and liking this!


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  4. I know less than nothing about children’s literature. My parents had a complete set of the Great Books of the Western World (I know, lots of criticism of this series) and I remember reading from the selections constantly; not sure that counts for anything. And personally, I need some nonsense in my life. I read to escape from stress, so I’m guilty of reading lighter novels often, when not reading about plane crashes or photography techniques.


    • But you are an English teacher, so I know you read this stuff along the way. I haven’t read any good fiction in twenty years. I am straining to think of what I read last along those lines – nothing comes to mind – I never read fiction. I read a lot of politics and about WWII (which interests me the way plane crashes interest you) and baking (like photography for you). Somehow though you are highly empathic, so either the study doesn’t cover all cases OR you read enough of this stuff (and had a good heart and nice childhood) so you can be a counselor. In fact, I would say you epitomize this combo. Believe me, I read my share of simple minded material – everyone needs a break! :-). I just think kids can use more good reading and less time on computers or watching the tube. But that is just my purism — I know it is unrealistic. Thank you as always for making me think.


        • So! There you go. Exactly. You more than most people have had this apparent good affect-stimulating experience. And then, you went and became a counselor, really — who is more empathic than a good counselor?, so there is a further proof of this theory. I am not bragging when I say I haven’t read any fiction, good or bad. I feel guilty about it. I just tend to focus on my hobbies or work and should be more ‘catholic’ in my tastes, LOL. [That would have been a good post title, damn].


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