By Karen Swallow Prior
Literature is art that uses words. Literary writing is different from everyday writing in the way that a Van Gogh painting in a frame differs from a coat of Sherwin Williams painted on the wall.
Leaders don’t need to be accomplished painters, but they do need to use language well and to appreciate the creativity and power it cultivates and entails. Here are six reasons why leaders (and everyone else!) should read literature.
1. Reading literature sharpens language ability.
Literary works use words not solely to communicate information in the way that an email or instruction manual uses words. Literary writing differs from the merely utilitarian use of language because it taps into the power of words beyond their literal definitions. Literature celebrates the connotative, connective, symbolic, and resounding power of words.
The ability to use and interpret the power of language beyond its mere ability to transmit information is an ability every leader should seek to develop and master.
For the Christian, this skill fulfills an even greater responsibility since we know the gift of language comes from God—who is the Word who spoke creation into existence—and is one way that human beings reflect his image. There is probably no better way to learn and harness the power of language than to read literature.
2. Reading literature exercises critical thinking skills.
Some of the most essential critical thinking skills are analysis, interpretation, and evaluation. Reading literary texts well requires all of these skills. And the skills of judgment developed by reading literature carry over to real life.
Analysis—examining the parts that make up the whole—is like looking at all the parts of a car engine to figure out what is making that strange noise. With literature, analysis is paying attention to the characters, settings, symbols, structures, and repetitions or omissions.
Interpretation is simply understanding the meaning. In the car analogy, it’s like hearing a noise and knowing what the noise means. In literature, it’s figuring out what the overall theme of a work is or of an element within the work based on the context.
Evaluation is the determination of the value or worth of something. Perhaps that particular part making that certain noise in the engine means that the car is worth very little.
Determining the worth of a work of literature is hard—and often debated by scholars and readers—but the works that pass the test of time are worthy of the critical thinking skills exercised in developing understanding and appreciation of them.
3. Reading literature increases empathy.
Ample research by cognitive scientists shows that emotional intelligence, empathy, and social perception increase measurably after test subjects read literary fiction. Researchers believe that this is because literary reading requires the same use of the imagination required by real life people and situations.
Readers of literary fiction (in contrast to commercial fiction) use more of the critical thinking skills described in the previous point, and such works require readers to make inferences, interpret nuanced indicators, gauge emotions, and empathize with characters and points of view.
Exercising these skills has the same effect on our ability to empathize whether the circumstances are real or imagined. This use of the imagination replicates what we do when we interact with real people in the real world every day.
Effective leaders understand the needs of the people they serve, and reading literary fiction expands that ability.
4. Reading literature shapes the way we interpret life.
Good literature is well crafted, and being immersed in such forms, in turn, forms us. All literary works, but stories in particular, develop sensibilities about life and shape the way we interpret the events and people we encounter.
In discussing the ethical education inherent in stories, Marshall Gregory explains in Shaped by Stories: The Ethical Power of Narratives that “stories show us such features of existence as the operation of cause and effect, the surprises of coincidence, the motivations of passion and guilt and ambition and pride, the suspense attending outcomes, the conduct that creates or destroys the quality of our interactions with others, the tranquility of turbulence of our inner emotional lives, the configurations of success or failure, and so on.”
Because literature is an art form experienced by reading words, one at a time in a linear fashion, it re-creates the form of the interpretations we make all day long about everything that happens to us, whether trivial or significant.
If the bus is running late, we tell ourselves a story about the possible meaning and consequences of that tardiness, a story that can heighten or assuage our anxiety. If a colleague fails to greet me in the hallway, I narrate an explanation to myself that makes little or much of the fact.
Life is not only what happens to us, but how we interpret it. Good leaders make good interpretations.
5. Reading literature expands our horizons of experience.
The ability to solve problems and make decisions depends, in large part, on the experiences upon which we can draw in imagining the possibilities in the way forward.
Literature exposes us to people, places, perspectives, and philosophies far beyond what even the most well-traveled person could ever encounter in a single lifetime.
As C. S. Lewis famously put it in An Experiment in Criticism: “in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”
Transcending oneself is one of the first steps in leading others.
6. Reading literature cultivates virtue.
There are many ways to lead. Some leaders exert power over others. Some leaders exploit the fears of those under them. The best leaders—whose influence will never wane regardless of platform or position—are those whose own virtue sets an example for others to follow.
As I argue in my book, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books, reading good literature well requires virtues such as patience, attentiveness, and diligence—qualities that seem increasingly in want in this world of hurry and hot takes.
Developing the ability to enjoy good literature isn’t just a character-building exercise (though it is that), but is also a way to take pleasure in the good creations of those who imitate their Creator by becoming what J. R. R. Tolkien called “sub-creators.” Enjoying good things is in itself a virtue that must be cultivated, particularly when so many lesser, easier things compete for our time and attention.
The best leadership imitates the generative, creative nature of God. The best leaders nourish creativity—in themselves and others.
Karen Swallow Prior
Karen is a professor of English at Liberty University and author of numerous books, including On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books.