I’m afraid I traumatized the first group of students to whom I told, “There are no new ideas.” Actually, I meant it to be comforting. But here in the US, we are in a committed relationship with the idea of originality, which is perhaps a by-product of having a short history.
At any rate, my intention was to take the pressure off. I wanted to release my students from the anxiety that they must, when writing their essays, uncover some previously unexpressed Deep Truth about the Human Condition. As if, across thousands of years of literature, philosophy, history, etc., someone missed something.
Eventually, I learned to say it in a more palatable, but no less true, way. This is to say, instead of expressing what is not available, I learned how to express what is possible. I encourage my students to have and pursue a genuine question. I encourage them to embrace the understanding that we are not alone, spinning on this insignificant planet in a vast universe, trying to reconcile ourselves with the why or the how or whatever. Therefore, seek the insights of other thinkers and writers who have wrestled with similar questions.
When we arrive at our own understanding of a question or problem, it feels new to us because it is new to us. Even if it isn’t an Original Idea, it will be refreshed and enlivened, as we bring our unique experiences to working through it.
All this is to say, ideas don’t have to be new to be compelling. Perhaps the most intriguing ideas are the ones we keep coming back to again and again. Take, for example, the idea that reading literary fiction inspires connection and empathy. It has been the subject of more than one research study over the last few years. And it’s only what readers and writers have been saying for, oh, 150 years or so:
“The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from them in everything but the broad fact of being struggling, erring human creatures.”
“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”
“It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive or who had ever been alive.”
“Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.”
David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano:
“We present five experiments showing that reading literary fiction led to better performance on tests of affective ToM* (experiments 1 to 5) and cognitive ToM (experiments 4 and 5) compared with reading nonfiction (experiments 1), popular fiction (experiments 2 to 5), or nothing at all (experiments 2 and 5). Specifically, these results show that reading literary fiction temporarily enhances ToM. More broadly, they suggest that ToM may be influenced by engagement with works of art.”
*ToM stands for “theory of mind,” the ability to understand others’ mental states and to understand that others may have different believes, values, and ideas from one’s own. The quote is from the abstract of “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” a study conducted by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano published in Science.