31st May 2012
How to Take Over the World with Books and Science
Researchers have found that when you immerse yourself in a work of fiction, your thoughts and feelings begin to alter to match those of the characters you most identify with. Listen to the The Body Odd‘s distillation of their discoveries:
“Geoff Kaufman and his co-author Lisa Libby of Ohio State University suspected that when people read a fictional story they vicariously experience their favourite character’s emotions, thoughts and beliefs in a process that’s been dubbed “experience-taking.”… experience-taking can lead to real changes in the lives of readers.”
They go on to explain that this impact can be very beneficial for the reader, encouraging them to become more tolerant (hey, To Kill a Mockingbird!) and more kindly disposed towards serial killers (what up, American Psycho?).
Once again, science and literature have combined to give us a theoretical utopia of thought control and this aspiring despot is ready to answer the non-existent call.
Firstly, Dr Kauffman’s research makes it clear that I have been severely diluting my influences through unchecked book-binging. All this time I thought I was combining quantity and quality, I was actually watering down my own personality.
How can you take on the reckless passion of Jo March when you’re also absorbing the fatalism of Billy Pilgrim? Beloved’s grim resolve is all well and good (or tragic and haunting, I don’t even know any more) but combine it with the self-serving nature of Oskar Matzerath and it all gets a little Girl, Interrupted up in here.
So is it time to start limiting future generations to a pre-approved selection of books, possibly chosen by yours truly? In the way that only scientists, with their bionic arms and sinister accents can do, the Dr Kauffman of my fevered imagination is clearly (not even slightly) implying that this is the only way to shape the moral landscape of tender minds currently marinating themselves in Shades of Grey and Game of Thrones.
Sorry to the fans whose hackles just rose, but we’re in a different world now; novels are pulling on your synapses like the Mars Bar bell ringers, so let’s not pretend both those series aren’t heavily rapey and generally dubious.
Dr Kauffman has already established his For Books’ Sake credentials by admitting (not admitting) that this research was conducted as a bid to win the hearts and minds of all right thinking women and revolutionaries. His favourite fictional character is Anna Karenina:
“My identification with her might have inspired my research… It’s the connection with a female character and understanding her struggles and difficulty in adapting to life and society. Looking back, I think a lot of my favourites are strong, complex female characters struggling in society.”
So, bearing in mind the good doctor’s preference for strong female characters, what should we allow future generations to access? In this utopia/regime I have dreamt up, and would be totally willing to bring in should enough foot soldiers step forward, what should be prescribed reading? Well, obviously it’s an all-women list, so let’s start with these suggestions:
Because it’s a great book. And my glorious muse, Dr Kauffman, likes it. Do I need to elaborate on the whole Atticus Finch thing? The brave old lady with her smack habit and her steely eyes? Scout mocking the golden syrup kid (for pouring it on his roast dinner), only to be told he can eat the table cloth if he wants?
Obviously there won’t be room for juries and law courts in the new world and all transgressions will be decided upon by a revolving panel of guest of judges. But surely it can’t hurt for future generations to know about the persecution of Tom Robinson and the hideous double standards prevalent in the old world they barely escaped?
Because Anne Shirley was the original fiery red head and she has a lovely love who supports her in her career and she gets to be a writer and have lots of babies and have red hair.
All of which are valid choices and a thousand times more so back when Anne was Lady of Shalott-ing around in a punt and using her imagination like a full-on For Books’ Sake beast.
The new world will take the positives from this study and concentrate upon giving self-esteem and courage and humour and stuff. And obviously there are a multitude of other books which we’d need to generally guarantee that people didn’t shamble into an abyss of shite. But there is one downbeat title that needs be included:
Because rape is messed up. And while you’d think people would just get that, apparently they don’t. This is a book about violation and redemption, taking an askance view at people’s preconceptions of the victim and perpetrator (one of the most interesting things about this story is the concept of Earth Goddess as Invader) and the potential to harm others we all carry within us. All of which seem like things we should at least attempt to understand; as opposed to welcoming rape into the cannon of lazy humour and reading Martin Amis novels.
Well there we have it. Scout, Anne Shirley, Evelyn/Eve and Dr Kauffman. So waddaya say? Maybe it’s time for us to head down to Beulah Land? (Disclaimer: Beulah Land is the name of the underground, all-female world in Passion of the New Eve. And your destiny.) Or if you’re not yet onboard with the new world order, which characters did you particularly identify with when you were growing up?