For the New Year

Frank Bruni sounds a familiar note today about cultivating a practice in the new year that fosters consideration, empathy, and virtue. In the sped up world of social media, he commends reading fiction. “According to some researchers, people who settle into it are more empathetic — more attuned to what those around them think and feel — than people who don’t.”

But I’d bet big on real reading, fiction or nonfiction, as a prompt for empathy and a whole lot more: coolheadedness, maybe even open-mindedness, definitely deliberation. It doesn’t just yank you outside of yourself, making you consider other viewpoints without allowing for the incessant interjection and exaltation of your own. It slackens the pace. Forces a pause.

Last week I lingered over an excellent book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,” by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Published in 2012, it plumbs the relationship between emotion and reason.

And one of Haidt’s observations, relevant to an era in which partisans stake their ground and fortify their opinions at the start rather than the end of a discussion, is that people are more likely to be moved by information that challenges their prejudices if they’re prevented from responding to it straightaway and it has time to sink in, to steep.

Is there enough such time these days? Amid what’s trending on Twitter and swiftly going viral throughout cyberspace, is there an adequate premium on it?

I don’t doubt that he’s right about reading’s salutary effects on public discourse. But I’ve been considering spending less time online in the coming year and more time cultivating simple practices like reading (fiction & nonfiction) and taking walks.

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