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Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel

3.69  ·  Rating details ·  204 Ratings  ·  21 Reviews
Why We Read Fiction offers a lucid overview of the most exciting area of research in contemporary cognitive psychology known as "Theory of Mind" and discusses its implications for literary studies. It covers a broad range of fictional narratives, from Richardson’s Clarissa, Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment, and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Nabok ...more
Paperback, 198 pages
Published March 22nd 2006 by Ohio State University Press (first published March 1st 2006)
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Mattia Ravasi
Feb 01, 2016 rated it really liked it
Video introduction:

An interesting, quick and accessible introduction to a pretty drastic, pretty revolutionary way of looking at the way we read, and at the biological/physical reasons why we do. It will make classic literary theorists cringe and I myself am not 100% sold (maybe not even 50%), but it still makes for a very interesting read.
A must for Literary scholars, an interesting read for book lovers. (It's also really short, and the Kindle edition is
Sherwood Smith
Zunshine's "theory of mind" is fascinating, as is her explication of the way minds play with levels of reference. She delves deeply into these two points, drawing on examples ranging from Woolf to Nabokov to Austen, so that the reader can pause, reflect, examine the text and see what it is she wants you to see.

Yet at the same time, she seems to think that there is one way to look at Mrs. Dalloway, for example. While I found her example interesting, it didn't match my reading experience at all. G
Jul 14, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
I normally hate reading literary theory. It just tends to tangle me up in knots and make me feel like my degrees are just two bits of paper and a silly hat. But I loved this one: I loved the whole concept of applying ideas like a theory of mind to fiction, and I enjoyed the way it was written, with examples and some humour. It helps that the cognitive theories are ones I understand well from a) being the daughter of a psychiatrist and having long discussions about this kind of thing and b) being ...more
Max Nemtsov
Apr 11, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: theory
Бывают интересные книжки о книжках, а бывают не очень. Все просто — эта относится к последней категории. Психолог-когнитивист читает худло, применяя модель психического. Так читать романы, я бы решил, неинтересно. Т.е. сама по себе эта книжка, видимо, не очень насосана из пальца, но близка к этому. Ну да, мы относимся к литературным персонажам, как к своему реальному соседу по даче, ну да, читая детективы, мы всех подозреваем, потому что нам хочется быть умнее автора. И? Мы же высшие приматы, ек ...more
Michael Austin
May 05, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Ed Erwin
Jul 26, 2015 rated it really liked it
Zunshine describes the way that fiction can be written and read in ways that exercise the mind-reading skills of the reader. Mind-reading in the sense of: what is this character thinking? what does character A know about what B knows about C? what does A want B to think he knows about C? what is the narrator lying to us about? or lying to himself about?

Yes, that is a big part of what makes reading some novels fun for some people, including me. But she presents it here as the one and only reason
Jun 11, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Zunshine's idea of "metarepresentationality" is based on work by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby. Metarepresentation is a cognitive activity by which we keep track of who said what. We keep track because often it's not just the information that matters, but the "source tag" of who gave us the information. To use Zunshine's example, the idea that "It is raining" is a mere fact, something that might be called an "architectural truth" insofar as we'll quickly forget who told us it was raining as we go ...more
Sep 20, 2017 rated it it was ok
It's probably unfair for me to rate this so poorly; the fault is partly mine for not doing more research about the book prior to buying/reading it. Based on the title, however, I anticipated an overview for lay readers of the reasons people are drawn to fiction. The book is instead an account of Zunshine's "Theory of Mind" meant for academics and specialists in literary studies. It reads like a doctoral dissertation, with lots of references to other scholarly books/articles and all the requisite ...more
Jan 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Megan by: Shinynickel
The first part is the most interesting and was everything that had I hoped for and more when picking up this book. It blew my mind open with new ideas about the limits and possibilities of fiction while reading about it through this new lens. The second part delves deeply into two novels - Clarissa and Lolita - and gets really specific. It's clear while reading that section that this book was likely spawned from a Ph.D. dissertation. That section may only hold a real interest to other English li ...more
Roslyn Ross
May 19, 2015 rated it liked it
-Fun, interesting, easy read

But I don't think she's entirely right. On the right track.

She started with the wrong question. It begins, not with why we read fiction, but why we write fiction. No one can read what is not written. If we are talking about the evolution the human mind and of literature, shouldn't it begin with the writer and not the reader? It doesn't begin with, "Why do I watch people dancing?" It begins with: "Why are those people dancing?" Not, "Why do I look at pai
Aug 14, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: folks interested in how we think about how others think about the world
This book kicks ass. It's a little bit wandering, but the idea is so interesting that I'm willing to trail around after the author in order to see it applied to various novels and literary techniques.

Central to this book is the idea of 'theory of mind', the ability each of us has to step into another's shoes and imagine the world from their point of view. Children under five, and people who are autistic, often have trouble with or lack entirely a theory of mind - one of the primary tests for it
Katia M. Davis
I found this book to be less about WHY we read fiction than HOW to read fiction in the author's opinion. Books and opinions such as those represented in this book were the reason I dropped English Literature in my second year at university. I could not stand to be told what to think about a book, poem or passage. I found this book very pompous, as if the author was standing atop her soap box. The first person declarations really got on my nerves. It read like a PhD dissertation that had been ada ...more
Caleb Ross
Apr 25, 2009 rated it liked it
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 le
Mar 29, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: grad-class
Well, here's Zunshine's twofold main point--I haven't met her met her; just seen her from across a room full of other academics talking about narrative pedagogy, so I can't call her Lisa: 1) when we read fiction, we mind read. In the sense that when we're not always given access to a character's thoughts (just his behavior, say, or thoughts separated by a narrator), we still read as though they're real people with real minds. 2) metarepresentation (I believe that you said you wanted X when reall ...more
C Morland
Mar 14, 2014 rated it really liked it
An engaging, thought-provoking book divided into well-marked chunks suitable for either binge-reading or leisurely digestion. I enjoyed the three main sections (on theory of mind, metarepresentation, and detective novels) as well as the literary examples the author picked. My only big disappointment was in the truncated conclusion, which felt like it should have been of equal length to the other sections instead of being only 5 pages long. As this short conclusion covered the Why We Read Fiction ...more
Molly Lingenfelter
Jan 01, 2013 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed reading this (not a comment I make too often about literary criticism) although I stopped and started it on and off for months. She offers some interesting comments on reader response theory and writers in her final chapter, claiming that "The novel, then, is truly a meeting of the minds--of the particularly inclined minds in a particular historical moment that has made the encounter serendipitously possible." Good illustrating examples throughout and thought-provoking.
Aug 10, 2015 rated it really liked it
Helped me understand why I find detective stories so frustrating and annoying. Also why they seldom stick with me in any meaningful way, with one exception, "Murder on the Orient Express", because the author takes into the territory this author describes - what the reader thinks about what the protagonists are thinking, their motivations, feelings, lies, etc.
Craig McConnell
I enjoyed this, though I'd have to say that it's more the case that I enjoy watching the milage Zunshine gets out of looking at literature through cognitive studies lenses than that I think the approach is as universally enlightening as she supposes.
Feb 18, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting read... Gives some insights that can be useful when reading fiction.
Payal Banik
Nov 08, 2011 marked it as to-read
I definitely want to read this book to know why I read so much fiction rather than some autobiographies....
Lynn Weber
Mar 20, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Not for the casual reader, but really interesting if you're into literary crit/theory.
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Jacki Thomas
rated it it was amazing
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Michael Potts
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Laura Wallace
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Dec 20, 2017
Todd Williams
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Aug 03, 2011
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Lisa Zunshine is Bush-Holbrook Professor of English at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, where she teaches courses in Restoration and eighteenth-century British literature and culture. She is the author or editor of ten books, including Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel (2006), Strange Concepts and the Stories They Make Possible: Cognition, Culture, Narrative (2008), and Intro ...more
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“We all learn, whether consciously or not, that the default interpretation of behavior reflects a character's state of mind, and every fictional story that we read reinforces our tendency to make that kind of interpretation first.” 0 likes
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