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“Should Literature Be Useful?”


“Americans have always felt uncomfortable about any cultural activity that does not lead to concrete results.” Lee Siegel comments in an article titled Should Literature Be Useful? in the New Yorker. He responds to two recent studies have concluded that serious literary fiction makes people more empathetic. Reading fiction is good, according to the studies, because it makes you a more effective social agent. I’m not in the jurisdiction to judge whether this claim is valid or not, but fiction has elevated my cultural awareness. My current read, A Dry White Season by André Brink, is a powerful indictment of the racial injustice in 1970s South Africa. It is a chilling glimpse into the inner sanctum of the South African ruling class. The last book I read, Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon, evokes a city that has been magnet for spies because of Turkey’s neutral pose. It was one of those places where Germans and Russians and British could actually meet in somebody’s drawing room—all during the war. It was, in essence, all a kind of Casablanca. But in the novel that time is coming to an end. Fiction’s usefulness to me is its freedom—it unfolds through your imagination in interconnected layers of meaning that is unique in individuals.


2 Responses

  1. I wonder less about the study results than about the claim that Americans are uncomfortable about a “cultural activity” that does not produce results, given the amount of crap television we watch!

  2. I read for fun, sometimes for obligation but I do agree that reading fiction or nonfiction too, educates you and makes you think. Maybe fiction does that better because people will criticize or ignore nonfiction that doesn’t support their own biases. But I think any time you listen to someone else, you learn something. But it’s also fine, to, you know, read crap mysteries now and then- or watch TV!

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