I am reminded of a story I recently read on a website called Marketwatch. This story explained to me that reading fiction can improve empathy. It was a proven fact—the scientific method had determined that books could do this. This was relevant because Marketwatch was reporting on a new finding that only 47 percent of Americans had read a novel, play, or poem in 2012, down from 50 percent in 2008. The argument was simple: you can get a tangible benefit out of fiction—in this case, greater empathy. This benefit could make reading more competitive with other entertainment options. Reading could improve its market share.
I was struck by the fact that this article never tried to account for the utilitarian benefits of much more widespread forms of entertainment, like professional basketball or a Hollywood action movie. I’ve read a lot of articles like the Marketwatch one, and I’ve noted that none of them ever do this. Never is an NBA playoff game or a blockbuster movie expected to explain its reason for existing, its benefits to the consumer. They only ever try to make novel art account for its purpose. Maybe this is the divide we’re really speaking of when we invoke that binary, high and low. Perhaps we are talking about ways of filling our free time that need no justification, and those that do.