Will Reading Arabic Literature (in Translation) Make Me a Better Person?

At the prodding of Claire Armitstead of The Guardian, I went over to the newspaper’s website and read the extract of Steven Pinker’s new The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker’s basic thesis is that reading—because it requires perspective-taking—makes us better, more empathetic, less violent people.

More literate nations, we might therefore imagine, are less violent ones. By a rough sketch, the United States should be less violent than Nepal; Russia should be more pacific than the Comoros.

Even if these cases don’t work out, there might be an overall correlation. Yet, as Pinker well knows, this doesn’t mean causation: Literacy might just as well be riding along with wealth, and wealth might give us the ability to move our violence, and our dirty work, outside national borders.

In the extract, Pinker gives a particular hat-tip to certain novels that ostensibly made us better people: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Alex Haley’s Roots, Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. The idea is not drawn out, but I imagine that those who have read To Kill a Mockingbird should be less racist and those who have engaged with Reading Lolita in Tehran should be less eager to wage war against Iran.

But the leaders of modern, push-button warfare have often been wide and voracious readers. And while it’s possible that after reading a novel you are less likely to hit your spouse or kick your dog (I would need to see data), literacy—and literate sympathies—can just as easily abet violence. It reminds me again of Juliette O’Keefe’s comment in 2008 in Dissent. She said, of Nawal al-Saadawi’s The Hidden Face of Eve, “For me, as for many other young (white, North American) feminists in the early 1980s, the horror of genital mutilation, of which we had largely been ignorant, overwhelmed us, and – and I say this carefully – fixed to an unfortunate degree our opinions on women’s situation under Islam.”

First, there is an error in these feminists’ reading, as O’Keefe later points out: FGM is an African practice, not an Islamic one. But, even so, this novel should have made young feminists into better people, blunting their desire to commit violence against Arabs. But perhaps, as O’Keefe notes, it instead fixed a particular stereotype. Perhaps it led readers to believe that Arab (males) are violent and Arab (females) are passive, and a war to liberate them might be a good idea.

In the end, I might agree that literacy makes us more sophisticated about explaining and justifying violence. It could help us to keep violence at a remove, out of our immediate frame, clean and justified. But as for having some curative properties, no.

So, dammit, why read Arabic literature in translation, if it’s not going to make me a better person?

Well: Why not for the joy of it? Why not for the same reason I might want to set aside my macaroni and apple pie one night of the week and seek out food from Thailand, India, Morocco, or Japan?

For myself, I could eat Lebanese food until it came out of my pores. And I would dearly love if this made me a better person. But I suppose, to become a better person, I have to do the hard work of being more patient with my children, kinder with my neighbors, and braver in the face of power.

Still, even if I’m not a better person—yum.