Oatley and Mar's conclusions are supported, Paul argues, by recent studies in neuroscience, psychology, and cognitive science. This research shows that "deep reading -- slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity -- is a distinctive experience," a kind of reading that differs in kind and quality from "the mere decoding of words" that constitutes a good deal of what passes for reading today, particularly for too many of our students in too many of our schools (as I have previously written about here).
Paul concludes her essay with a reference to the literary critic Frank Kermode, who famously distinguishes between "carnal reading" -- characterized by the hurried, utilitarian information processing that constitutes the bulk of our daily reading diet -- and "spiritual reading," reading done with focused attention for pleasure, reflection, analysis, and growth. It is in this distinction that we find the real difference between the warring factions in what might be a chicken-or-egg scenario: Does great literature make people better, or are good people drawn to reading great literature?
Currie is asking whether reading great literature makes readers more moral -- a topic taken up by Aristotle in Poetics (which makes an ethical apology for literature). Currie cites as counter-evidence the well-read, highly cultured Nazis. The problem with this (aside from falling into the trap of Godwin's Law) is that the Nazis were, in fact, acting in strict conformity to the dictates of a moral code, albeit the perverse code of the Third Reich. But Paul examines the connection of great literature not to our moral selves, but to our spiritual selves.
What good literature can do and does do -- far greater than any importation of morality -- is touch the human soul.
Reading is one of the few distinctively human activities that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. As many scholars have noted, and Paul too mentions in her piece, reading, unlike spoken language, does not come naturally to human beings. It must be taught. Because it goes beyond mere biology, there is something profoundly spiritual -- however one understands that word -- about the human ability, and impulse, to read. In fact, even the various senses in which we use the word captures this: to "read" means not only to decipher a given and learned set of symbols in a mechanistic way, but it also suggests that very human act of finding meaning, of "interpreting" in the sense of "reading" a person or situation. To read in this sense might be considered one of the most spiritual of all human activities.
It is "spiritual reading" -- not merely decoding -- that unleashes the power that good literature has to reach into our souls and, in so doing, draw and connect us to others. This is why the way we read can be even more important than what we read. In fact, reading good literature won't make a reader a better person any more than sitting in a church, synagogue or mosque will. But reading good books well just might.