Wanna Save Democracy? Read a Novel

Wanna Save Democracy? Read a Novel

By Anna Nordberg


Books are what America needs to bridge the partisan divide, so let’s create some required reading.

By Anna Nordberg

When CEOs and business leaders talk about books they’re reading, the lists tend to have one thing in common: little or no fiction. Sure, they’re reading high-minded, important tomes on history, science, innovation and leadership, but that’s not nearly enough.

Where have all the novels gone? People simply aren’t reading them like they once did. In the U.K., sales of literary fiction have plummeted in recent years, prompting the Arts Council England to consider subsidizing writers. In the U.S., according to a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center, 24 percent of Americans didn’t read a book or even part of a book in the past year, let alone a novel. This could spell doom for humanity. After all, a large body of research shows a strong link between reading fiction and increased empathy.

Since we know reading novels helps us work together, why not make it legally required? If the U.S. Department of Agriculture can roll out dietary guidelines, surely an independent government panel — no partisan Ayn Rand pushers, please — can issue a list of novels all Americans must read. The benefit would be a citizenry that’s less polarized, less biased and more able to cooperate.

“What really characterizes us as human beings is our ability to cooperate with each other,” says Keith Oatley. A professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto and the author of Our Minds, Our Selves, Oatley has done extensive research on the impact of reading fiction. To work together, he explains, we need some understanding of the people we’re cooperating with — whether it’s an individual, a family or a larger group like a community or nation. “The ability to understand other minds is absolutely central to making society work,” says Oatley. “And if you read a lot of fiction, you actually get better at it.”

Reading about a fictional scenario is often better than experiencing it in real life, in terms of the insights shared.

Good novels aren’t pedantic. Unlike politics, they have a way of getting us to see another point of view by placing us in the mind of a character, not by telling us what to think. If Facebook lets us marinate in a cozy echo chamber, novels can shake us out of it. So how could this work from a policy perspective? 

Obviously the government isn’t in the business of telling people to do their homework. Yet. But it has already issued reading lists — and pretty good ones — that are just gathering dust on the Library of Congress website. To go a step further, Washington should pass legislation that incentivizes reading through the tax code. 


According to Elaine Maag, a senior research associate at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, you could potentially create a deduction for every novel read that would apply to middle- and high-income earners (say, $10 for any work of fiction, $20 for a novel on the list). For low-income earners who don’t pay income tax, you could structure it as a transfer payment like SNAP, the food stamps program, which is administered as a direct payment rather than a tax credit. Recipients would receive $20 every time they check one of the books out of a library and return it, along with a completed questionnaire about the book.

The biggest problem with the incentive program idea is that you’re likely to see the majority opt out. But because there’s so much evidence that reading novels is a public good, you could treat noncompliance the same way Obamacare handles the individual mandate: If you don’t read a single novel, you pay a tax penalty.  

No doubt this would sound completely pie-in-the-sky to policymakers, and it wouldn’t be easy to enforce. But the fact is that reading about a fictional scenario is often better than experiencing it in real life, in terms of the insights shared. “If you read George Eliot, she not only describes situations — ‘she said this and he said that’ — but she also allows us into the minds of her characters, and then she has the narratorial voice comment on it,” says Oatley. Those three styles “invite us to join in and have our own thoughts,” he adds. “That’s better than most of us manage just pottering around in the world.”

So a must-have for the list is Eliot’s Middlemarch. Others should include Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf; Beloved, by Toni Morrison; The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James; The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro; Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson; A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley; War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy; The Underground Railway, by Colson Whitehead; Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson; The Dream of the Red Chamber, by Cao Xueqin; and any novel or short story by Alice Munro.

Before the internet rises up, please know this is a very incomplete list. You can add your own recommendations in the comments below. Politically, socially, culturally — we all know how polarized we’ve become. There’s plenty of data on that, but data can’t save us, and stories can.