The Educational Value of Reading: a Cognitive Approach
Mentor:Bryan Rasmussen, Assistant Professor of English, California Lutheran University
Why do readers continue to read popular novels that are critically panned? Why do these stories continue to engage the reader? Horace claimed that the purpose of poetry was to both educate and delight. However, a quick survey of contemporary bestsellers seems to indicate that “education” in the modern novel has fallen out of the picture. Using recent cognitive theory, I examine the similarity between the reader’s education and delight that suggests the dividing line between the two is narrower than we realize. In this view, in reading both page-turners like Stephen King’s The Shining and critical darlings like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the reader uses a process of cognitive self-education to better comprehend new experiences vicariously lived through the narrative. To support this claim I rely on the work of Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, cognitive theorists who hold that a reader comes to a text with pre-constructed frames of reference for various situations, created from prior life experiences and perceptions, which are used to understand and interpret new scenarios encountered in daily life. When a person encounters a brand new situation in a text, he or she rearranges or blends those situational frames to account for the new information, in the process coming to a new knowledge or understanding. But if all novels are equal at the cognitive level, how have we come to distinguish high art from low art at the formal level? I think the answer lies in the longstanding, and perhaps outdated, definition of “art” as that which contains an extra-literary social critique or moral.