According to investigators at the Stanford University, reading fiction books improves neural functions by putting the brain through a workout. What authors basically do is have their readers perform a type of mental gymnastics that improves rational thinking and abstract thought.
Joshua Landy, an associate professor of French and Italian at Stanford, led the research team that studied the effects of reading fiction on the human mind. He says that the benefits of reading challenging books go well beyond seeking messages and information regarding morality.
The general trend in today's over-technological society is to avoid reading important pieces of literature that raise important problems, and can therefore be a bit challenging to comprehend in their entirety. This theory is revealed in Landy's book, “How to Do Things with Fictions.”
According to the expert, reading is not necessarily important for improving the sense of morality in people, or for teaching readers lessons about life, or for making them more empathic. It is also not necessarily the best tool to teach us about how to negotiate morally-complex situations.
What reading does, Landy says, is enable people to fine-tune and control their intellectual capacities, by providing “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.”
Called formative fiction theory, the new set of ideas fights against the common practice of mining books for some semblance of a meaning, and then moving on. Most readers, Landy says, display an “I got what I need and I can move on” attitude, which can be damaging.
Paying extra attention to certain passages, contemplating the ideas that were just read during breaks, and re-reading some of the material, in order to understand it better, should be the ideals that readers should actually strive for.
In the case of Plato, for example, readers tend to exercise their abilities to construct and assess arguments. “Once you realize that some of the arguments are simply not supposed to work at all, Plato's dialogues become less forbidding,” Landy explains.
This happens partially because Plato intentionally allowed Socrates, the main character in his writing, to make flawed arguments in the first place. By inviting the readers to detect the flaws in the lines of the reasoning he makes, Plato basically forces the reader to sharpen their analytical skills.