Can reading make us a better person?

WEA tutor, Dr Sam Waterman discussed this question in relation to Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People (recently adapted by the BBC) in a recent member’s lecture.

Dr Sam Waterman explored exactly this question in a recent lecture, drawing from the Sally Rooney book Normal People which explored the theme through its characters Connor and Marianne.

There are many reasons to read, from pleasure and opportunity to developing our knowledge and bettering ourselves. So answering this question is just not simple.

Reading widely allows us to widen our experiences, encounter difference and develop an empathy for others. It can fine tune our emotional intelligence and increase our self-awareness and provide an imaginative space to evaluate the actions and characteristics of others.

But it can also be a way to escape, or to develop misconceptions that art mirrors life. Some use their literary knowledge as a marker of their social status – a kind of snobbery. Some become ‘cold connoisseurs’, knowing it all and closed to alternatives.

Normal people?
This hugely successful, critically acclaimed novel has been transformed and loved by many in a recent BBC dramatization. It explores the role of books and the study of literature in the lives of Connell and Marianne, and particularly how they shape their relationship.

In one of their earliest interactions Connell (a highly intelligent and popular working class boy) finds himself discussing feminist writer Dorothy Lessing’s book with Marianne (middle class, equally intelligent). It’s clear that books are important to both as objects of desire, interest and sensitivity.

Indeed Marianne encourages Connell to go on to study English Literature at the prestigious Trinity University, Dublin, because of his passion for books. Connell reflects on the difference this might make to his life, imagining seducing women with his knowledge and flitting across capitals in high class venues, in comparison to staying close by, connected, in his hometown. This would mean moving away from his comfort and his current value set.

Rooney brings the ethics of reading front and centre of Connor and Marianne’s life at Trinity. The reader sees Connor getting wrapped up in the drama of characters’ lives, studying their intimacy. Yet initially he seems not to draw from it into his own life, despite analyzing his relationship choices based on them. For example, sleeping with Marianne then taking a more popular girl to the ball.

Later, he does look to learn from his study of books and to become a better kind of person. He becomes responsible for the impact he has on Marianne, and starts contributing, supporting her.
Marianne’s other boyfriend, Lukas, is also used by Rooney to explore the option for reading and study of the arts to create the polar opposite – a lack of sensitivity. 

Lukas subjecting Marianne to his sadistic artistic gaze, and simply writing off creative choices of others (‘It fails for me’) demonstrates this perfectly. None of that study has helped him develop a sense of right from wrong, or that there are multiple interpretations – shades of grey – that are possible.

But does reading translate to ethical behaviour in real life?

That is up to us – it’s a personal responsibility. But some books, including Rooney’s, seem to invite an ‘ethical’ approach to reading more than others. 

Yet, in today’s text-based social media, blog and email filled world our skills developed as a novel reader might be more relevant than ever, given that so many of our relationships take place through writing.  

Sam Waterman will be running a course on Fictions of Empire (Ref: C3746271) from April 19th, which will look at early 20th century fictions about imperial Britain alongside their later 20th century film adaptations. Authors will include Rider Haggard, E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf. Click here to learn more or book.

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