The Secret Life of Literature

The Secret Life of Literature

By Lisa Zunshine

An innovative account that brings together cognitive science, ethnography, and literary history to examine patterns of “mindreading” in a wide range of literary works.





An innovative account that brings together cognitive science, ethnography, and literary history to examine patterns of “mindreading” in a wide range of literary works.

For over four thousand years, writers have been experimenting with what cognitive scientists call “mindreading”: constantly devising new social contexts for making their audiences imagine complex mental states of characters and narrators. In The Secret Life of Literature, Lisa Zunshine uncovers these mindreading patterns, which have, until now, remained invisible to both readers and critics, in works ranging from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Invisible Man. Bringing together cognitive science, ethnography, and literary studies, this engaging book transforms our understanding of literary history.

Central to Zunshine's argument is the exploration of mental states “embedded” within each other, as, for instance, when Ellison's Invisible Man is aware of how his white Communist Party comrades pretend not to understand what he means, when they want to reassert their position of power. Paying special attention to how race, class, and gender inform literary embedments, Zunshine contrasts this dynamic with real-life patterns studied by cognitive and social psychologists. She also considers community-specific mindreading values and looks at the rise and migration of embedment patterns across genres and national literary traditions, noting particularly the use of deception, eavesdropping, and shame as plot devices. Finally, she investigates mindreading in children's literature. Stories for children geared toward different stages of development, she shows, provide cultural scaffolding for initiating young readers into a long-term engagement with the secret life of literature.

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$40.00 X ISBN: 9780262046336 336 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 4


  • “This book opens up a new dimension in the study of literature that will change forever the way we understand our relationship with the authors we read.”

    R.I.M. Dunbar

    Emeritus Fellow, Magdalen College; Foreign Member, Finnish Academy of Science and Letters

  • “Armed with nonpareil knowledge of world literature and an astonishing grasp of the latest research in cognitive science, Zunshine sets out to answer those questions lovers of literature have always wanted to ask but are afraid to. She succeeds brilliantly, mind-bogglingly so. There has never been anyone who melds the art of close reading with the rigor of experimental science as seamlessly and with such wit as Zunshine. In unweaving the rainbow of literature, she makes it all the more alluring and precious.”

    Haiyan Lee

    Stanford University

  • “Bringing an expert review of current insights from cognitive science, developmental psychology, and anthropology into synthesis with compelling tour of 4,000 years of distinct literary traditions, Zunshine's The Secret Life of Literature guides the reader on an engaging (and often quite funny) expedition in pursuit of embedded mental states in literature and its writers and readers. The Secret Life of Literature will spark 'aha!' moments, hypotheses, and delightful puzzles for any reader curious about how stories work and what we do with them.”

    David C. Kidd

    Harvard Graduate School of Education