Claire King

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You Are What You Meet

Posted on: May 17th, 2012 by Claire - 2 Comments

This week there were various articles published reporting the results of a survey which suggests that we ‘become similar to’ the characters that we read about in books.*

This spawned a series of remarks such as “So this makes me a bonnet-wearing, blood-sucking, 30-something, single, serial-killing hobbit sharing my summer holidays backpacking through Thailand with three other children and a dog called Timmy.”

Yes, the idea itself is intriguing, but can quickly be dumbed down so much as to be ridiculous, and to allow conclusions like the above.

The attention grabbing headline, though, You are what you read is interesting: a play on words linking consumption of literature to consumption of food. The parallel is useful because the same rules apply. When we eat a prawn we do not become a prawn. When we eat cheese, we do not become cheese. When we eat radishes we do not become radishes or indeed ‘like’ radishes. But we do take on some of the constituent parts; we nourish ourselves with the energy, the calcium, the fats and vitamins and proteins.

Nourishing…another word that is often used to describe reading matter, with its antonym being ‘trashy’. We often class reading matter into things that are ‘good for you’ to read, and others we describe as trashy in the manner of junk food – often tasty but largely unhealthy.

As a society we are quick to draw conclusions about what fits where. Graphic novels – nourishing or trashy? Science Fiction? What about ‘Women’s Fiction’?

I think that whatever literature we consume, from The Beano to Dostoyevsky, there is usually some goodness in it for us. We may find some characters inspiring or aspirational, where we lack role models around us. We may learn from their actions. We might feel a sense of injustice on their behalf or be compelled into hopefulness. Perhaps we will find the humour in their situation which helps us to find the humour in our own. This, I think, is the essence of reading. Not that we become the characters themselves, but that we experience them and their stories and learn from that experience.

Just as though we had met them in real life.

Here is an excellent article on the neuroscience of reading fiction which takes that thought further, suggesting that our brains assimilate the books we read as though we had actually had those experiences ourselves.

 

* Here is the MSNBC take on it and Here is the Daily Mail’s take on it

 

2 Responses

  1. Mm. Isn’t it more likely we might choose to read about characters who are already similar to us? So, we may choose to read a series about a detective who we relate to (and might secretly want to be!),to reflect on how we would behave in their shoes, in the situations they face. Something to think about anyway!

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