Books as friends

Keith Oatley wonders whether Marcel Proust might stand alongside William James as a psychologist, and how fiction may be important for us.

Marcel Proust considered that À la Recherche du Temps Perdu was psychology extended over time. He started this seven-book novel in 1909 and was absorbed in writing it until he died in 1922. In part, he can be thought of as continuing a tradition of introspection also characteristic of his contemporary, William James.

In a paper of 1884, ‘What is an emotion?’, William James said that his arguments ‘grew out of fragmentary introspective observations’ (p.189). Emotions, he said, don’t start anything. They are endpoints. Their mechanism is perception of physiological change. In contrast, Marcel Proust derived much of his novel À la Recherche du Temps Perdu from introspections that invited mental associations in readers in a way that professional psychologists had not achieved: continuations of inner thoughts and emotions, explorations of meaning.

To understand people we can engage in conversations, perceive what they are doing, have sympathy for them. But conversations and perceptions of other people in day-to-day life are intermittent and often incomplete. In contrast, the depictions of novelists such as Proust, as seen in the image to the right, are written and rewritten until a fully meaningful depiction is reached. Here, from the first book of his novel, is what Proust said about this.

‘However deeply we sympathize, a real human being is perceived mainly by our senses. This means that the person remains opaque to us, and offers a dead weight that our perceptions cannot lift. If a misfortune should strike this person, it is only in a small part of the total understanding we have that we can be moved by this … The discovery of the novelist is the idea of replacing those parts that are impenetrable to the mind by an equal quantity of immaterial parts, that is to say parts that our minds can assimilate … [and] within an hour set free states of happiness and unhappiness of kinds that would take years of our ordinary life coming to know.’ (Du Côté de Chez Swann, p.84, my translation)

Portraits of characters over time
Here follows an example of the kind of understanding of a person that Proust achieved in his novel. In part this is introspective, as the novel’s narrator, Marcel, thinks of his Aunt Léonie. In part it is what we might call ‘extrospective’, derived from careful observations of a kind to which Proust devoted himself.

In Combray, everyone knew everyone else extremely well, animals and people, so that if by chance my aunt saw a dog she did not know pass by her bedroom window she would think about it, devote all her powers of inference and her free time to this incomprehensible fact.

“That must be Mme Seurat’s dog,” said Françoise, without much conviction, trying to sooth my aunt so that she didn’t go out of her mind.

“As if I didn’t know Mme Seurat’s dog!” my aunt replied in a critical tone; she wasn’t so easily going to accept that as a fact.

“Ah!” said Françoise. “Then it must be the new dog M Galopin brought back from Lisieux.”

“Ah! Maybe that’s right” (Du côté de chez Swann, p.57, my translation).

What could be more ordinary? But it’s recognisable: an invitation to us readers to engage in what we now call theory of mind and reflect on Aunt Léonie who, after her husband had died, confined herself to her bedroom in a state of uncertain grief, illness, and obsession. Her life had narrowed over time, but it continued. She was still a person; and Françoise helped to look after her. We may come to feel for Aunt Léonie empathetically, perhaps think of someone we know who exists in a comparable way or of how we, ourselves, might cope in this kind of situation.

One may hear the expression, ‘fact or fiction’. But, for psychologists, this points in an unhelpful direction. More appropriate is to consider subject matter. Books on genetics are likely to include great deal about DNA. Books of fiction are about what we humans experience (introspection) and how we interact with each other (extrospection). It is not made up. Instead, fiction writers put together elements of kinds that everybody can understand. So, Aunt Léonie (i) as she has become old and sick stays in her bedroom, (ii) living in a town where she knows everyone, so that (iii) she can become distressed to see from her window a person or a dog she cannot recognise. The novelist has conjoined such elements with Françoise’s attempts to explain, in a soothing manner, what Aunt Léonie has seen.

So fiction is made of complexes of elements that we all know and that we can therefore imagine. Using self-report and neuroimaging, Jennifer Summerfield and colleagues (2010) offered people sets of phrases such as: ‘a dark blue carpet’, ‘a carved chest of drawers’, ‘an orange striped pencil’. They found that three phrases were sufficient to enable a person to imagine a scene with maximum vividness, and maximum neural activation. Such conjunctions of phrases are similar to sets of suggestions such as i, ii, iii (above), along with the snippet of conversation between Françoise and Aunt Léonie. Elements that we know are arranged in conjunctions that we might otherwise not have thought of. In this kind of way, novels can offer us portraits of characters extended over time… not just Aunt Léonie but, if we read a lot, then lots of examples: bases of creating intuitions by means of multiple neural connections.

On reading
So, how might we think of reading? Here’s what Proust thought.
‘In reading, friendship is suddenly restored to its original purity. With books there is no false affability. If we pass the evening with those friends – books – it’s because we really want to. When we leave them, at least we do so with regret. And, when we have left, there are none of those thoughts that spoil friendship: “What did they think of us?” – “Did we make a mistake and say something tactless?” – “Did they like us?” – nor is there the anxiety of being forgotten because one’s place has been taken by someone else. All such agitating thoughts expire as we enter the pure and calm friendship of reading (1906, ‘Sur la Lecture’ [On Reading], pp.60-61, my translation).

If books are friends, we can perhaps converse with them mentally about circumstances and how they may affect us; reflect on our own lives and those of people we know. As psychologists, this may be significant for us and those with whom we are concerned.

At the beginning of the 20th century, physiological psychologists sought evidence to bear on James’s theory of emotions as endpoints, bodily perceptions (Kennedy & Oatley, 2021); their findings did not support it. James himself abandoned his theory in the only large-scale piece of research he ever did, published in his book of 1902. In this he found emotions that were not endpoints but starting points towards life changing religious conversions.

By contrast, in the 21st century, empirical effects of reading have been found, which show that Proust’s idea was correct. He had suggested that novels depict people in terms of ‘immaterial parts that our minds can assimilate’; findings include that the more books of fiction people read the better their ability to understand others, theory of mind, and empathy in which one person’s emotion can become similar to that of another (Oatley, 2016). It has also been shown that the reading of literary works enables us to change within ourselves, not by persuasion, not all in the same direction, but each in our own way (Djikic & Oatley, 2014).

Keith Stanovich and colleagues (e.g. 1995) found that the more books people had read, the better had become their verbal skills. Raymond Mar and Marina Rain (2015) discovered that these improved skills derived largely from reading fiction. The measure of book reading, used here and in earlier studies, was a version, modified by Mar, of the Author Recognition Text, invented and extensively validated by Stanovich and Richard West. Participants check, in a list, names of fiction and non-fiction book authors that they recognise, and refrain from checking names of non-authors. So, although, in psychology, fiction has often been dismissed as neither valid nor reliable, what has happened is that effects of introspective and extrospective depictions, such as those of Proust, have now joined with results of empirical findings of cognitive, interpersonal, and emotional benefits of reading fiction.

With a different kind of outcome, Avni Bavishi and her colleagues (2016) examined a cohort of 3635 people in the USA’s national representative Health and Retirement Study. They compared people who read books with those who read only magazines and newspapers, and with those who did not read at all. They found that people who read books lived longer. They say that ‘Compared to non-book readers, book readers had a 23-month survival advantage’ (p.44). When adjustments were made for covariates of age, sex, race, education, wealth, self-rated health, marital status, and depression, the survival advantage for book readers remained significant. When this result is combined with that of Mar and Rain (2015), is seems likely that this benefit arose mainly from reading books of kinds that people most enjoy: books of fiction.

Life narratives
Many of the studies on this subject have contrasted effects of reading fiction and non-fiction, but this may not be the best distinction. Emy Koopman (2015) randomly allocated 210 participants to read texts on depression and grief. There were three genres: non-fictional expositions, life narratives of an emotional kind, or literary narratives. Each person read two texts of the same genre, with a week in between. More people who read life narratives donated to a charity related to the subject matter than those who read the other genres. Both personal experience and the amount of fiction they had read (as measured by the modified Author Recognition Test) contributed to an increased empathy with the character about whom they read.

Among other implications, then, is that the basic distinction here should probably not be between fiction and non-fiction, but between life narratives – which include fiction, biography, memoir, and some kinds of history – and expository texts, the purpose of which is to explain the workings of the biological or physical world.

Whereas Marcel Proust’s idea for his novel (1913-1927) was to enable readers to discover and reflect on meaning in their own and others’ lives, William James’ paper of 1884 and his book of 1902 were expository: aimed at discovering mechanisms. Both kinds of endeavour are necessary; they are complementary. And, how might professional and research psychologists connect with those who write life narratives? Among British psychologists, Don Bannister, who researched personal construct theory, wrote three novels, one of which was Burning Leaves. Another, D.W. Harding, researched fiction and published an article that became well known: ‘Regulated hatred: an aspect of the work of Jane Austen’.

In general, however, psychologists and literary theorists have worked, taught and published, separately. Given that the subject matter for both groups is what we human beings are up to within ourselves and with each other, perhaps psychologists and literary people might work more closely. Books as friends might then become books as colleagues.

- Keith Oatley is Professor Emeritus of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Toronto. [email protected]

Key sources
Bannister, D. (1982). Burning leaves. Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Bavishi, A., Slade, M.D. & Levy, B.R. (2016). A chapter a day. Social Science and Medicine, 164, 44-48.
Djikic, M. & Oatley, K. (2014). The art in fiction. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 8, 498-505.
Harding, D.W. (1940). Regulated hatred: An aspect of the work of Jane Austen. Scrutiny, 8, 346-362.
James, W. (1884). What is an emotion? Mind, 9, 188-205.
James, W. (1902). The varieties of religious experience. Longmans, Green, & Co.
Kennedy, A. & Oatley, K. (2021, in press). Understandings of emotion in the first half of the Twentieth Century. In A. Scarantino (Ed.), Routledge Handbook of Emotion Theory. Routledge.
Koopman, E.M.E. (2015). Empathic reactions after reading. Poetics, 50, 62-79.
Mar, R.A. & Rain, M. (2015). Narrative fiction and expository nonfiction differentially predict verbal ability. Scientific Studies of Reading, 19, 419-433.
Oatley, K. (2016). Fiction: Simulation of social worlds. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20, 618-628.
Proust, M. (1906). Sur la lecture.
Proust, M. (1913). Du côté de chez Swann. Gallimard (current edition,1987).
Proust, M. (1913-1927). À la recherche du temps perdu, English translation, In search of lost time. Penguin (current edition 2002).
Stanovich, K.E., West, R.F. & Harrison, M.R. (1995). Knowledge growth and maintenance across the life span. Developmental Psychology, 31, 811-826.
Summerfield, J.J., Hassabis, D. & Maguire, E.A. (2010). Differential engagement of brain regions within a ‘core’ network during scene construction. Neuropsychologia, 48, 1501-1509.

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