Ok, but how do books actually affect the worldview of young people?
Ask Alice is an online column produced by the #LoveOzYA team, and written by our Secretary, Alice Boer-Endacott, who has published several young adult fantasy novels and a non-fiction essay.
Ask Alice is designed to unpack all aspects of the Australian young adult literary scene, so if you’ve got a question, go ahead and Ask Alice!
Across the last couple of months, instead of your usual literary questions, the eagle-eyed among you might have been asking “where’s Alice?”
Well, I’m currently doing my PhD and had a rather major piece of submission (30,000 words!) that, in addition to a hectic work period, ate up all my capacity, leading to a little hiatus.
If your next question is, “what is the subject of Alice’s PhD?” then that’s an answer I can easily provide. My research looks to find proof of the way that books affect people’s identity by studying a readers’ community on Instagram.
The premise is one with which I think we would all instinctively and easily agree, but for which the conclusive and definitive proof is a bit more difficult to locate.
So with this in mind, you might now be asking, “ok, so what proof have you found?” funny you should ask, because that’s the focus of this month’s Ask Alice: how exactly do books affect the worldview of young people (Alice’s thesis edition)?
There is an abundance of claims which tout the benefits younger people can get from reading, and reading regularly. While there is some focus on the benefits reading novels can bring to students’ grades, what is more interesting to me is the benefits to people’s worldview and sense of empathy.
Studies have found conclusive proof that reading activates certain sections of the brain and that consuming narrative via books rather than other mediums, such as television, makes us kinder.
However, these findings still don’t quite explain why reading – and reading fiction – is so special. What exactly is it about reading that creates this expanded worldview, this greater capacity for empathy?
It’s one of the things I’m trying to unpack across my thesis. One of the theorists on whom I have heavily leaned in interpreting the data I’ve gathered is literary anthropologist Wolfgang Iser. In the grand tradition of academics who wrote a few decades ago, his writing, while fascinating, is quite dense to read. The two of his books which have most informed my work are The Act of Reading (1978) and The Fictive and Imaginary (1993).
In The Act of Reading Iser claims the process of reading is inherently transformative to the reader’s worldview. He outlines (across several chapters that I read very slowly across many, many weeks), that the act of reading (ha!) is unique because of the cognitive processes that it activates. For Iser, a reader is doing several things at once:
- understanding on a definitional level the meaning of the words on the page
- assembling a ‘meaning’ that extends beyond the literal definition of the words to understand the fictional scene being described
- evaluating what they are currently reading against both the previous sections of the novel and in relation to what they expect will happen next within the plot (this last bit is important, we’ll come back to it)
To provide a basic example, if a character reveals a past trauma they’ve previously kept hidden, such as the death of a childhood friend, their previously hostile and distant behaviour is suddenly very understandable. Equally, if a character is introduced who is too effusive, perhaps a good looking guy who lays the charm on thick to a female protagonist, we anticipate that maybe they will in fact turn out to be a bit of a cad (or other, far less pleasant descriptors). As the story continues and those expectations are either met or subverted, the reader implicitly engages in a process by which they reconsider what they have just read. Reading, for Iser, is thus an active, continuous process, which has a corollary effect on one’s perspective not only in terms of the ‘meaning’ of the text, but of our own self and worldview.
Iser articulates more closely that this occurs because, “in reading we think the thoughts of another person. Whatever these thoughts may be, they must to a greater or lesser degree represent an unfamiliar experience, containing elements which at any one moment must be partially inaccessible to us.”
Something that he went on to explore in his subsequent book, The Fictive and Imaginary, is that any novel’s ‘world’ is similar to our own but inherently something that does not exist in reality – thus rendering it fictive. This creates a sort-of limbo space that means readers are more likely to suspend a lot of the mental processes that drive them to accept or reject something out of hand in keeping with pre-existing biases or worldviews.
However, because there is so much mental activity going on during the act of reading (see that clever callback I just did?), readers are processing and evaluating what they ‘see.’ As a result, readers are more likely to consider ideas or perspectives that might challenge preconceived attitudes or notions. In the words of Iser in The Act of Reading, Iser said, “processing a text is bound to result in changes within the recipient, and these changes are not a matter of grammatical rules, but of experience.”
Iser’s claims about the way reading offers a way to experience another reality seem to be implicitly supported by comments made to me by the people I interviewed across my research. One of my lovely interviewees told me she reads because she wants to “understand there’s a life outside of me and I wanted to know it, and the only way I can do that is I read.”
So what does this mean for young people? Well, the above process is the same for any reader. However, younger readers have less life experience. Reading therefore gives them the opportunity to expand their world by a significantly larger margin than is offered to adult readers.
One of my other interviewees explicitly told me they learn life lessons from books: “there are some instances where I’m like: ‘Oh, I’ve learned that lesson already, but I haven’t personally.’ That’s been because I read it in a book somewhere.” For young people who are still navigating the world, that’s wildly powerful:
For someone who might not have had a lot of exposure to different cultural or racial groups, reading gives them insight into the variety of worldviews and experiences that populate the world beyond their own experience of racial-cultural homogeneity.
For someone who might come from a conservative background where LGBT+ rights aren’t really discussed (or might even be frowned upon), reading from the perspective of a gay character can break down preconceptions they might hold.
For someone who might be struggling to deal with a friendship that has changed or broken down, a story which explores that experience an offer them solace, and a way to navigate it.
Books are not just an escape from the mundanities of the everyday (although they’re that, too). For everyone, books are opportunities for us to experience something beyond ourselves. But for young people, these opportunities are even more powerful.
These possibilities arise because when reading is such an active, involved mental process. As Iser said in The Act of Reading, “we actually participate […] we are caught up in the very thing we are producing. This is why we often have the impression, as we read, that we are living another life.” The fact that we can live another life through what we read isn’t news to anyone. But the way our brains are constantly processing, evaluating, and integrating what we read on not just one but several levels, is something we don’t discuss very much. That active, multilayered process is what means we don’t just experience a world beyond ourselves, we consider how it might fit into what we know, and how we might alter what we know or believe on the basis of the knowledge we find within that fictive world. That’s the case for everyone. But for young people, whose brain development is inherently linked to social experiences, when readers’ brains respond to characters encountered in books with no distinction between fictional or real-world people, we can see a powerful opportunity in reading.
At my most reductive, the answer to the question of how do books actually affect the worldview of young people is, ‘because reading is a super cool process that happens at a neurological and social level; the brain simply doesn’t work in the same way when watching tv or film.’ But because I am a huge nerd, that answer isn’t quite detailed enough for me. So I’m writing an 80,000 word thesis on it.