All of us have heard the explanations for what ails Washington — among them, lopsided, even cynical, redistricting, big money spent by ideologues and their organizations, an inexperienced president prone to disengagement, a Republican Party that turned far right with the idea of putting behind the calamities on its watch, an unnecessary and mismanaged war plus a deep recession.
Remedies? Here’s one, offered just partly in jest. Our leaders and their helpers could spend less time with polling data and more with the likes of Anton Chekhov, Philip Roth, Alice Munro, Charles Dickens, James Conrad and Jane Austen.
Perhaps you also noticed the recent news stories about a study conducted by two social psychologists at the New School for Social Research in New York City. The researchers found reading literary fiction enhances empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence, all traits seemingly in short supply in the nation’s capital, and at the Statehouse, for that matter.
Literary fiction delivers something that popular fiction and serious nonfiction do not. It is more about life experience, readers invited to use their imaginations, entertained yet challenged to fill in the gaps concerning characters, to wonder about their choices and motivations, to examine ambiguities and complexities.
A study out of Ohio State University last year pointed to a similar effect, readers of fiction tending to identify with characters, with their thoughts, emotions and beliefs. This “experience-taking” may provoke real changes in outlook, say, thinking less in stereotypes.
Most distinctive about the New School study is the immediate impact of literary fiction. Pam Belluck of the New York Times put it well, noting that even a little reading in this vein may make for a better date or job interview, your antenna sharpened, and thus your capacity to navigate and succeed in social situations.
This isn’t an argument for lumping Chekhov into the category of self-improvement books. Yet the release of the study was deliciously timed, coming shortly after the start of the government shutdown. It complemented something else that shed light on careening Washington, that famous commencement address of David Foster Wallace, delivered eight years ago at Kenyon College in Gambier.
The novelist and essayist suffered from severe depression. He committed suicide in 2008. If his work could be overdone and messy at times, he had a way of discerning the essence of things, bringing a rare and revealing perspective on ourselves. He was in fine form at Kenyon, the address worth revisiting from time to time.
Wallace began by reminding his audience that “the most obvious and important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” He had in mind how “everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.” This “natural, basic self-centeredness” is the same for all of us. It is how we are “hard-wired.”
It is “our default-setting.”
Encounter someone driving too slow, and he is in my way. The same goes for the clerk who snaps. Wallace noted that it is easy to proceed in your default-setting. It won’t pose an obstacle to making money or accumulating power.
Yet, as he added, that slow driver may carry the scars of a devastating auto accident, or the ill-tempered clerk may have been up all night with a husband dying of cancer. Probably not? You just don’t know, and that is an invitation to step away from seeing and interpreting everything through “the lens of self.”
For Wallace, an education is about learning “how to exercise some control over how and what you think. … being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.” In many ways, it is about adjusting your default-setting. He suggested that “well-adjusted” is “not an accidental term.”
Wallace wasn’t lecturing about moral virtue. He highlighted the choice, the hard work of looking at things differently, of being “just a little less arrogant,” having “a critical awareness about myself and my certainties.”
Take the Wallace talk and the studies from the New School and Ohio State, and you have the elements of an argument for the importance of reading literature, or keeping up in English class. We applaud science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and for good reason. Yet it helps to know something about ourselves, or what literary fiction teaches, insights into how we tick.
Imagine a Washington liberated occasionally from its default-setting, or fueled by Chekhov, adversaries, especially those defiant ones among Republicans, acknowledging alternative arguments, bridging differences, knowing that in real life, few, if any, get things all their own way.
Avoid the childishness of the debt ceiling fight and the government shutdown? That would be progress. Even better would be the emotional intelligence required to reach a deal on immigration reform, or to craft a balanced approach to long-term deficits, combining spending reductions with new revenues, while avoiding harm to the poor and vulnerable.
Let’s have a reading assignment. How about starting with Chekhov’s 1891 novella, The Duel?
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514, or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.