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Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel (Theory and Interpretation of Narrative) Paperback – March 5, 2006

4.3 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Lisa Zunshine is a professor of English at the University of Kentucky and author of Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel.
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Product Details

  • Series: Theory and Interpretation of Narrative
  • Paperback: 198 pages
  • Publisher: Ohio State University Press; 1 edition (March 5, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 081425151X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0814251515
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #410,415 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I purchased WHY WE READ FICTION after reading a number of strong books on evolutionary psychology written for non experts, including Dennett's CONSCIOUSNESS EXPLAINED, Wright's THE MORAL ANIMAL, and Pinker's THE BLANK SLATE. After reading these works and finding myself fascinated by their insights and their explanatory powers, I was curious to see how evolutionary psychology might be applied to my own discipline of literary criticism. I was not disappointed. WHY WE READ FICTION is readable, well conceived, and patiently executed, and it shows beyond any reasonable doubt that the cognitive perspective can be brought to bear on literature in extremely satisfying ways.

Zunshine's major focus in the book is on the phenomenon that that psychologists (and many others) refer to as "Theory of Mind," the cognitive process by which we collect facts about another person, assign various labels and levels of reliability to those facts, and construct a narrative about that person's thoughts, feelings, and motivations. It is our theory of mind that allows us to make reasonable guesses about another person's intentions and future actions while, at the same time, understanding that the other person's perspective is different than our own. Most people exercise their theory of mind automatically without realizing that it is an extremely complicated process built into the human mind through hundreds of thousands of years of natural selection in environments where understanding other people's perspectives was vital to survival. It is not until we encounter people with difficulties forming a theory of mind--such as individuals with autism or Asperger's Syndrome--that we realize what a complicated cognitive process it really is.
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Format: Paperback
Anyone who has studied Literary Criticism knows how rich it is in theories which claim to explain it all, and in the end become one more milestone in a vast intricate network of interpretations. The problem of course is that in the discourse of the Humanities there are no ways of simply excising out all the over- interpretations.

This means that a new exciting way of 'reading Literature' is not for experienced readers the 'answer' but rather another creative contribution, hopefully more insightful, cogent, and aesthetically pleasing than most.

Lisa Zunshine presents such a new way of reading. Drawing from evolutionary psychology, and the new cognitive sciences she makes an effort to read Literature in relation to these new ways of understanding ourselves.

And in fact the center of her effort is on the 'theory of the mind' and the way we as readers read novels, put together clues about people in a way similar to the way we do in our everyday lives- and of course in a way similar to our ancestors have done in their historical struggles for survival. We read according to Zunshine in order to figure out what others are thinking and feeling, and in order to develop an understanding of them which will enable us to better live.

She reads a variety of texts in an effort to illustrate these points, and does so with a certain insightfulness and perceptiveness that make the enterprise richly worthwhile.

This book provides a 'new way of seeing' which helps us ' see more' than we would otherwise, and thus is a valuable contribution to readers, and especially to those who love to read about reading.
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Format: Hardcover
As Zunshine summarizes at the end of WHY WE READ FICTION, we read fiction because "fiction helps us to pattern in newly nuanced ways our emotions and perceptions; it bestows `new knowledge or increased understanding' and gives `the chance for a sharpened ethical sense'; and it creates new forms of meaning for our everyday existence" (164). And while the book explores this theory in depth, it never broadens the argument beyond this simple idea.

Readers without a very specific bookshelf may feel left out for much of the book. Zunshine harps on examples for her theory, ranging from Richardson's Clarissa, Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Woolf's Mrs. Dallowy, and Nabokov's Lolita to such extent that unfamiliarity with these texts can distance a reader. Hence, a lot of skimming. But on the bright side, as stated above, Zunshine never broadens her argument beyond a couple key points (Theory of Mind and metarepresentational capacity), so if a reader can grasp even a single example from Zunshine's referent texts, then chances are he can fake the rest.

WHY WE READ FICTION is definite must for literary theory nerds (such as myself), a probable read for psychology buffs, and an easy pass for all others
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This interesting book argues a number of points. First, one of the reasons that we have survived and prospered as a species is related to our ability to read others' minds, i.e., to infer their beliefs, desires, and intentions from their words, behaviors, demeanors, visual cues, and so forth. (Societies that were story-intensive, Paul Hernadi suggests, may have been particularly successful in developing these advantages.) The ability to do such things is highlighted by the difficulty with such behaviors exhibited by the autistic and the schizophrenic. In addition to reading minds, we qualify and contextualize representations made by others by being attentive to the fact that the representations are not necessarily straightforward, unvarnished and reliable. They are, rather, metarepresentations and it is important that we learn to recognize them and absorb them in specific ways.

The novel is particularly suited to mirror these processes and, hence, both hone our own skills and recapitulate the importance of those skills in our evolutionary development. Different genres do this in different ways and at different levels of intensity. The novel has triumphed as a form for other reasons; this is only a single nexus of reasons for its success, but it is an interesting one for the literary student to observe, since it highlights the importance of cognitive science for humanities research.

In general, the humanities have (in their recent incarnations) been wary of science, fearing its dominance and seeking to undermine its truth claims. This is ultimately self-defeating, to the degree that the insights of science are relevant to humanistic study and have existed, in effect, as a grand, missed opportunity.
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