Does reading make you smarter?


Assistant Professor, Georgetown University

Reading has myriad effects, but it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how it influences each person and harder still to translate this impact in terms of quantifiable gains

In a meeting at the university where I teach, a colleague bemoaned that, after years of research in Writing Studies, no one had yet found a sure path to turn students into good writers. It may not be a magic solution but the answer to the problem is out there: it is reading! The correlation between an avid reader and a proficient writer is well known to parents who encourage their children to read from early on and to schoolteachers who strive to instill in their students a love for literature. But if the reading-writing connection appears to be a truism, it is trickier to assess the broader impact of literature in our lives. Does literature make us good and, conversely, is it good for us?

Are we happier after finally finishing The Magic Mountain? Will all murderers repent once they read the uplifting ending of Crime and Punishment? Will we become smarter by going through the Collected Poems of TS Eliot?

Defenders of literature usually attempt to justify it in one of two ways. Some follow a utilitarian approach and contend that reading does us good, makes us more intelligent and teaches us things we would have otherwise never known. Others prefer an ethical-moral argument and conceive of literature as a path to turning readers into better human beings. Let us revisit these positions in our attempt to determine why literature matters.

Literature is good for you

I recently started an undergraduate class that focused on Brazilian novels in English translation by asking students why they read literature. Their improvised answers amounted to a catalogue of the most salient points on the “literature-is-good-for-you” side of the debate. Unsurprisingly, students were unanimous in saying that reading literature was crucial for their education (after all, they were sitting in a literature class and were most likely eager to be in the good graces of the professor).

Many students believed that reading would give them a better command of the language and improve their competence as writers. Several commented that the textual analysis and interpretation skills they acquired by reading and discussing works of literature would be useful in other fields of study and in their future professional lives. A few also mentioned that literature offered them insights into other cultures and epochs, in this particular case, 19th and 20th-century Brazilian society. In short, students thought that literature was good for them in that it honed their interpretive, argumentative and critical thinking skills and broadened their knowledge.

At a time when literature is forced to compete with other forms of entertainment, arguments such as the ones my students vocalised have become common currency. Literature advocates stress that, in reading, we combine pleasure with learning and therefore make the most of the time allotted to relaxation in our busy schedules. But if literature is nothing more than a way to acquire skills and knowledge, could it not be replaced, say, by documentaries or by educational videogames?

Another widespread argument made in defence of literature points to its ability to turn readers into better human beings. Those who espouse this view postulate the existence of an intrinsic – though rather mysterious – link between enjoying good poetry or classical novels and making the right moral decisions.

Yet, the apology of literature on ethical and moral grounds has been contested at least since Ancient Greece. To be sure, for Aristotle, literature, and especially tragedy, made us morally better, in that it purged us of negative emotions and impulses in a process known as catharsis. However, Plato, Aristotle’s teacher, was of a different opinion. He thought that poets and the fake images of reality they spun in their texts were noxious to society, so much so that he unceremoniously banished them from his ideal city.

What does literature have to say for itself on this matter? How have writers depicted the effects of their craft? Seen through the eyes of its own creators, literature has been judged rather harshly.

For instance, in Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th-century opus magnum, literature neither makes you good nor is it good for you. In fact, Quixote goes mad from reading too many of the chivalric novels popular at the time and from trying to emulate the deeds described in these writings. More than two centuries later, Gustave Flaubert’s most famous heroine, Emma Bovary, is driven to adultery and later suicide, partly due to the negative influence of romantic novels, where she read about handsome lovers and a glamorous lifestyle that contrasted starkly with the dullness of her own existence.

Reading has myriad effects

But if literature does not necessarily make you good and is certainly not the only form of entertainment that is good for you, what is it really for? Does literature still matter and, if so, why?

The problem with most arguments in the debate about reading is that they posit literature as an instrument used to achieve a certain goal: either the good of the individual (it is good for you) or the good of society (it makes you good). Leaving aside the issue of deciding whether what makes you good is not, ultimately, good for you, a more fundamental question arises: why does literature need to be defended at all?

The anxiety to justify literature is symptomatic of our age, when all activities should have an easily identifiable objective. The difficulty with literature, as well as with music or the fine arts, is that it has no recognisable purpose or, in Immanuel Kant’s elegant formulation, it embodies “purposiveness without purpose”. Reading certainly has myriad effects, but it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how it influences each person and harder still to translate this impact in terms of quantifiable gains.

Literature breaks the continuum of the everyday and makes us stop and think. The linguistic experimentation that is the hallmark of the literary estranges us from the most commonplace of tools, our language, while the fictional elements of novels, plays and poems offer us a glimpse into a reality that is not our own. In doing so, reading affords us an essentially human of experience: the realisation that what is does not necessarily need to be, that things can be different and that another world is possible. The struggle with or the embrace of a work of literature shapes our hopes and fears, dreams and ambitions. Literature matters, ultimately, because it makes us who we are.


Albert Krauss (aitengri) April 17, 2013 at 11:12 am

I’m so sorry to have to rain bitter tears of resentment on this rather inane and shallow articulation of a major challenge to our culture, our civilization. Come on, your title asks if ” .. reading makes you smarter”, and then you go on to equate “reading” with the reading of “literature”, citing a number of classic titles and assorted opinions ancient and modern about the moral effects and/or “value” of this “literature”.

But not once do you examine the actual function of reading as funnel for understanding, as internal dialog between the stream of incoming syntax and the existential internal reality of the solo intelligence processing that stream. Of course, good folks, and Ms.Vieira, reading certainly will make you “smarter”, in the way any evolutionary process leads to movement along an ascending scale of complexity and/or competency. Even the “moral stress” derived from the assorted perspectives of world literature serves to toughen the core intellectual capability.

Read on, kids. Otherwise you’ll really dumb down and become fodder for the military and workforce slave pens.

The greatest gift my mother gave me, besides my life, was a love of books. All kinds of books.
I could not even guess how many thousands I have read in my 68 years. All of them opened my mind to possibilities and ideas and as my vocabulary grew, so did my understanding of life and this world we inhabit. In high school, we read the Elizabethan novels in an English class. I was a science fiction addict from age 12. I still have some of the paperbacks when they only cost $0.25.

I buy books for my one daughter because she inherited my love of reading, Her son seems to be getting addicted also and I will be happy to aid that addiction with selected novels and books about ecology and history. I am even trying my hand at writing and have a SF novel with my agent even now. So, YES, reading is educational. Or, at least, it can be.

Socrates is said to have stated that writing was the beginning of the end. I am beginning to understand this point of view. The colloquial space is biological. Text of any form creates a manufactured space.


There is a lot of literature (!) supporting the idea that writing, specifically Western European “to be” noun-and-verb writing brought on this civilization, read left brain, male, hierarchy untouched by human contact. Bring back oral in-person storytelling with all those facial expressions and waving arms.

    Oh for the breath of fresh air that you provide! Thanks.

    The dominance of the word brings forth dominance of the person by symbolic means. Left behind by left brain, dominator culture is the rich tapestry of communication that comes alive in personal contact. Studies show repeatedly, or for TV people the show Lie To Me, that a great deal of information is being passed between participants that, not only outweighs the content of the words exchanged, but that the participants are seemingly totally unaware of. Of course this is a nonsensical statement. Just because information is not present in word dominated, left brain recall is not the same as not received.

    Hypnotist demonstrate this at will. Once an experience enters verbal consciousness, aided by the hypnotist, it is “recovered” (strange idea since it has been there all along).

    “Body language,” “gut feelings,” or the local favorite “vibes,” probably represent a greater bandwidth for human communication, more capacity, than all word based forms of communication. Text, like this, is the absolute narrowest bandwidth of human communication, but one that dominates because it is possible to turn it into an industrial product that allows the fortunate few to Manufacture Consent (with acknowledgement to Chomsky and Herman’s great work).

    This is the greatest reason why participatory democracy is so different than “representative democracy” (quotes for contempt) and large scale organization is so resistant to democratic values. When we get together to actually listen to each other (if we can manage to get the ringing in our heads put there by mass media) the communication is biological, real if you will. Text, and its outrageous offspring the mass media, is a narrow band means of communication. It is also a persistent pollutant of the minds of people. Issues dealt with face to face tend to get resolved. Issues dealt with through “representative democracy” and mass media infotainment, tend to persist as profit centers indefinitely.


And let’s not overlook the delicious irony of expressing such dissent with the written word. Life would appear to be a set of nested paradoxes.

Oh, yes! Such fun.

Reply to both of you. Paradox as fun. Liberation through laughter.

I am fond of droning on about how the real change has been from the Iron Age to the Age of Irony. In the first of these Ages things made more and more sense until Progress drizzled out into loose ended fantasies and the Ironic sense began to dominate. Oxymorons drifted into the language like black mold. Seemingly common sense statements came to elicit a smile or more, as in, “Hi I’m from the government. I’m here to help you.” The fragile edifice of logic and assumption so carefully built up during the nineteenth century crumbled under the assault of mass trauma of world wars and extreme inequality. Now, like some Matrix gone on tilt, this century is producing stark madness. I have so many favorites. One that frequently comes to mind is the ill named war of aggression at first called Operation Iraqi Liberation, and the unfortunately apt acronym OIL, which some unusually alert apparatchik in the Bush dynasty quickly changed to the more familiar Operation Iraqi Freedom. Truth is heard primarily from the likes of Dormouse, the mouse in the tea pot at Alice’s tea party.

If there is something to reincarnation, and if there is any choice in the matter of when one might reincarnate, right now is the time I would choose. Maybe there was some sort of lottery and I won a ticket to the most interesting time, ever.

Must meditate more. Must med more. Must med. To bed.