By Corrie Goldman
The Humanities at Stanford
Those long summer days spent reading by the pool might not be so lazy after all.
Readers of literary works by the likes of Samuel Beckett, Stéphane Mallarmé and Geoffrey Chaucer are getting lots of exercise from these personal trainers for the brain.
New research by Stanford’s Joshua Landy , associate professor of French and Italian, illustrates how authors throughout the ages have sought to improve mental skills like rational thinking and abstract thought by leading their readers through a gantlet of mental gymnastics.
In contrast to the common practice of mining fictional works for moral messages and information, Landy’s theory of fiction, outlined in his new book, " How to Do Things with Fictions ," presents a new reason for reading in an age when the patience to tackle challenging pieces of writing has dwindled tremendously.
Reading fiction "does not make us better people in the moral sense, whether by teaching us lessons, making us more empathetic or training us to handle morally complex situations," said Landy.
However, for those interested in fine-tuning their intellectual capacities, Landy said literary works of fiction can offer "a new set of methods for becoming a better maker of arguments, a better redeemer of one’s own existence, a person of stronger faith or a person with a quieter mind."
Landy’s new "formative fiction" theory advises against a utilitarian search for meaning or information that results in an "I got what I need and I can move on" attitude. His theory implies that readers will get much more out of a text by lingering over passages, contemplating ideas between reading sessions and re-reading passages after some reflection.
According to Landy, the formative fiction approach makes complex texts more accessible to non-academic readers.
"Once you realize that some of the arguments are simply not supposed to work at all, Plato’s dialogues become less forbidding," Landy said. Readers still have to invest effort, but "you aren’t always asking yourself ’what does it mean?’ and ’why don’t I understand?’"
In profiling the clearest and most exciting cases of literary works that train the brain,
Landy found that Plato, the Gospel of St. Mark, Mallarmé and Beckett demonstrate most powerfully how formal devices can be used in the service of mental transformation.
With Plato, for example, "it’s the ability to make and assess arguments" and with Mallarmé, says Landy, the desired skill is "the ability to believe and disbelieve at the same time." Meanwhile, with the Gospel of St. Mark, it’s "the ability to think and speak figuratively."
Landy’s research led him to conclude that Plato intentionally allowed his character Socrates to make flawed arguments.
Landy pointed out that in the Gorgias, a stretch of tortured logic leads Socrates to the curious conclusion that "if you want to harm a criminal, the best thing you can do is to make sure he escapes punishment."
In the same dialogue, Socrates also says that no one respects orators, that tyrants never get what they want and that punishment is always good for us. He also says that good politicians will always be popular. By having his character succumb to some very obvious fallacies, Plato invites the audience to detect and correct them, thus sharpening their analytical skills.
As for the parables in the Gospel of St. Mark, Landy rejects the popular belief that they are there to help Jesus make himself understood. Quite the contrary, they are designed to "keep outsiders out" and to bring those with advanced metaphoric interpretation skills "even further in," Landy suggests.
Written to reach a select group of readers and listeners, the parables of Jesus "aim not to deliver information about the Kingdom of God – amazingly, even the disciples do not understand them – but to inculcate a new way of speaking, a new way of thinking, and thus a new way of living," Landy noted.
To get the most out of the text today, Landy said, readers "should try to talk and think in metaphors, just as Jesus is doing," rather than look for hidden meanings.