The Good Little Book
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The Good Little Book introduces questions about the morality of literature and the paradox of fiction.
A boy gets a time-out and is sent to the dusty old study. He finds a nondescript book that at first looks a little boring, but as he begins to read, he feels it was written just for him. He spends hours reading the book. One day he loses the book and cannot find it. He finally spots it in the hands of a little girl. He lets it go, accepting that others will love the book too. Even though he has lost the physical copy, the good little book was a part of him.
Read aloud video by Calgary Reads
Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
The Paradox of Fiction
The boy gets wrapped up in the good little book. Getting lost in a fictional world is a common side effect of reading a good book. How does this happen? How can we get so engrossed in a made-up story? The Good Little Book can be used to guide discussions surrounding the paradox of fiction, which is the argument that our emotional responses to fiction are irrational. Is it true that we must know that an event is real to respond emotionally to it? If it is, then it seems silly to have an emotional response to a work of fiction since we definitely do have these reactions.
Is it irrational to have an emotional response to fiction? Some say that our emotional responses to fiction are also made-up. One possible solution to the paradox is to say that we do not actually need to believe the scenario is real to have a real emotional response. We can react emotionally to just the thought of something happening (like real disappointment at the thought of a favored political candidate losing), and that shouldn’t seem irrational. Is it so wrong that this paradox exists anyway? Works of fiction can successfully allow us to imagine diverse scenarios and expand our minds.
Children are likely to understand what it’s like to get caught up in a good book, especially intermediate and advanced readers who are reading longer stories. The discussion questions are meant to get kids to acknowledge that they are responding emotionally to the stories they read. Asking if that seems irrational, or silly, introduces the paradox, since we should only react deeply to real events (right?) Even if it is silly, does it matter? Does this emotional response give fiction some value? This leads well into the second topic.
Morality and Literature
Some philosophers believe that a good work of fiction is one with moral value. Imagining various scenarios can expand our capacities for empathy and allow us to be moved beyond our immediate experiences. The boy’s behavior was not improved by the good little book. Could it still have moral value? Could it still be a good book? If so, what is its value?
Literature might not need to be either morally valuable or useless. It can provide consolation, entertainment, or creative inspiration. Throughout history, some have argued that fiction is dangerous because it plays on our emotions rather than our rational faculties. So we may be manipulated into believing new things, which is not always a positive thing. This is the underlying fear in the thought that literature is corrupting, which we’ve seen throughout history as books have been banned and censored. Could these “corrupting” books still have value―even moral value? A natural place to begin the discussion is asking why kids read and what they feel they get out of reading. The questions are meant to get kids thinking about the potential moral value of books and the fact that works of fiction sometimes teach lessons. But is that all they do? And can we read a “good book” that teaches no lesson at all or even a bad lesson? What is so good about it, then?
Questions for Philosophical Discussion
The Paradox of Fiction
- Why do you think the boy enjoys the book so much?
- What kinds of books do you like? Why?
- Have you ever cried or laughed while reading a made-up story? Why do you think that might happen, even when the story isn’t real?
- If you have had an emotional reaction to a book, did it seem silly? Or very real?
Morality and Literature
- It isn’t a “sensible book of languages or a useful book of information”. What do we get out of reading fiction? Is it only fun, or can we learn lessons from stories, too?
- What does it mean that “the good little book never completely went away”?
- Has a book ever changed the way you thought or felt?
- Have you ever felt a connection or that you identified with a story character?
- Have you ever felt empathy for someone in a book? Maybe someone who is very different from you?
- Could there be good books that teach bad lessons? Why or why not?
- The good little book did not improve the boy’s behavior. Could the book have made him better in some other way?
- Have you ever read a book to distract yourself from thinking about other things?
Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Olivia Oberle. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.
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