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Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction 1st Edition

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ISBN-13: 978-0470974575
ISBN-10: 0470974575
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Editorial Reviews Review

From the Author: Is Reading Fiction Worth Our Time?
Author Keith Oatley

Literature departments have zealously defended fiction, but Keith Oatley’s book Such Stuff as Dreams comes at the question from the direction of psychology. This book explores the ways in which fiction is an important—even vital—part of understanding others and ourselves.

Ideas in this book include:

Fiction is the mind’s flight simulator
For more than two thousand years people have argued that fiction is good for you. But why? Raymond Mar, Keith Oatley and colleagues have shown that reading fiction increases empathy and improves people’s understanding of others. (Reading nonfiction increases knowledge of its subject matter, but doesn’t have this social effect.) The association between fiction and social skills isn't because socially empathetic people prefer to read novels. It's because fiction is about selves in the social world. Fiction is the mind's flight simulator. If you want to get better at flying a plane, you can spend time in a flight simulator. If you want to get better at understanding others, you can read fiction.

Fiction teaches us about our emotions
We wouldn't read a novel or go to a film unless we expected to be moved by it. Fiction offers us experiences of emotions, not the emotions of fictional characters, but our own. It can allow us to experience emotions not too strongly so that they overwhelm us, and not too faintly that they pass us by, but at a strength and in a context that lets us both experience them and understand them.

Metaphors and metonyms: Not just literary devices
Metaphors and metonyms are ways of thinking. When Hamlet says "Denmark's a prison," this metaphor is more effective than a list of complaints. When, later in the same scene, Hamlet says to his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern "There is a kind of confession in your looks," he was using a metonym—part for whole—in which the looks of his friends were a part that suggested their whole guilty consciences. Metaphors and metonyms are extensions of mind.

Novels were raw material for human rights
Literature was important in creating the idea of human rights in the eighteenth century. One way in which this occurred was with novels—new at that time—in which people read about characters who were different from themselves. The 1740 novel Pamela, by Samuel Richardson, was about a servant girl whom her master tried to seduce. People read and discussed this novel eagerly, and it created an awareness in readers that emotions experienced by servants and slaves were much as they would themselves feel in the same circumstances.

Readers’ interpretations are as important as those of experts
Interpretations of plays and novels have long been taught in literature classes. But times are changing. A play or novel or poem doesn't have just one correct interpretation. The best art has an individual meaning for each individual reader. Interpretation is moving from the classroom into conversations and into reading groups—very good places for it.


“Such Stuff as Dreamsis a remarkable book in several ways. It stands out by the breadth of the topics covered, extending beyond the reader to also include the writing and the communication about fiction, and by the diversity and richness of the many different concepts and studies brought to bear upon the topic.”  (JLTonline, 1 July 2014

Review copy sent on 29.05.14 to PsycCRITIQUES

Featured in The Scotsman - 25 July 2011

Featured in The Yorkshire Post - 23 August 2011

Featured in The Guardian - 22 July 2012

Featured in The Independent - 28 August 2012

Featured in The Globe & Mail - 9 September 2011

BBC Radio 4 interview - 7 July 2012

Featured in Times Literary Supplement - 30 March 2012

"Such Stuff as Dreams is a welcome and well-informed foray into a neglected research area. As someone who has thought very hard about the making of fiction as well as the creative engagement with it, Oatley is an excellent guide to the science of an art form whose value, in this brave new world of cognitive neuroscience, is undiminshed. His claim is that fiction, like other art forms, allows us to experience emotions in new contexts, and thus learn more about these emotions and ourselves. His achievement is to show us the many ways in which this is true." (The Psychologist, April 2012)

"Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers." (Choice, 1 January 2012)

"Fiction, according to this cognitive psychologist, is a "dream" or mental "model" or "simulation", and now its effects can be probed with modern scientific techniques . . . Oatley explains with enthusiasm the results of his and others' experiments on readers." (The Guardian, 22 July 2011)

"Keith Oatley's book asks why we read, and what happens to our mind when we do. It is a winning combination of psychology, literary criticism and speculation." (The Scotsman, 30 July 2011)

Review in The Times and The Sunday Times e- paper - 12/07/11.

"Much of the discussion is compelling, and this book could well change the way you read . . . Still, his writing is entertaining and he's tapping into a rich vein, and I hope he will explore the subject further." (New Scientist, 23 July 2011)?


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 290 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley; 1 edition (July 25, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0470974575
  • ISBN-13: 978-0470974575
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #434,802 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Keith Oatley is professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto. His research is on emotion, and on the psychology of fiction. He is the author of six books of psychology, most recently Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction (2011, Wiley-Blackwell). He is also the author of three novels. The first of these--in which Sigmund Freud and Sherlock Holmes work on the same case--The Case of Emily V. (Secker & Warburg), won the Commonwealth Writers Prize (1994) for Best First Novel. His most recent novel Therefore Choose (2010, Goose Lane Editions) is about making choices when we can't predict the outcomes. Keith organizes and writes for a blog on the psychology of fiction, and he reviews movies for PsycCritiques. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and a Fellow of the British Psychological Society.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Damaskcat on April 7, 2012
Format: Paperback
This is an interesting book about how reading fiction affects our minds, our personalities and our lives. It explains how reading fiction or watching it in the form of films grows naturally out of children's imaginative play and relates closely to dreams. People read fiction for enjoyment but they also read fiction to help them make sense of the world around them and of their personal relationships.

Drawing on the latest psychological research, the author looks at how fiction can change our personalities and reports that contrary to popular opinion those who read fiction are not loners with no friends or family. In fact it is those who read non-fiction who are more likely to fall into this category. I found it fascinating that reading a story can affect your personality to a measurable extent and that those who read fiction usually have better social skills and are better at relating to others. Whether that is cause and effect is not clear though the fact that reading a story can affect the reader's personality makes it seem that reading fiction can give you better interpersonal skills.

The book covers the rapid growth of book clubs throughout the civilised world, both online and face to face. Talking about books read can increase our own understanding of them and also our enjoyment. Book clubs, the author suggests, are as important as departments of literature at universities.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Prison Librarian on March 14, 2015
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is the book I have been looking for. It is better than the book Empathy and the Novel because it is more scientific with a great bibliography. Every librarian should read this book if they need to remind a stubborn political audience that libraries are worthy of public funds. Reading is the cheapest therapy for a society because it offers an antidote for the over abundance of tragic news bombarding our senses, feeding fear and sinking civil society into cynicism. Librarians Unite! It will be fiction that saves our libraries, not self-help nor philosophy nor world religions. This is the best scientific explanation of how powerful fiction is to human experience.
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1 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Gregory on August 10, 2014
Format: Audible Audio Edition
There's some cutting edge stuff in here that's important to know if you want to write fiction. A lot of drivel too, but it's hard to tell. The whole thing is delivered in such a rapid-fire monotone it's hard to follow along. Maybe I'll get more of it the second time through.
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