Between The Covers: 28/08/2011

Your weekly guide to what's really going on in the world of books

*This will doubtless come as no surprise to readers of these pages, but reading makes you a better person: it's official.

A study by Professor Keith Oatley, a British psychologist at the University of Toronto, Canada, tested the "social ability" of 94 volunteers, after assessing how much fiction and non-fiction they read. The results, published in Such Stuff As Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction (Wiley-Blackwell, £16.99), confirmed that reading is associated with increased social ability, and that reading fiction makes you particularly brilliant. "What we're saying is that fiction has a great ability to help you to develop empathetic skills," said Professor Oatley. He did accept, however, that this trend has some exceptions. "Stalin is one example of someone who was very well read but also a villain. There will always be people out there with great understanding of human nature who use that skill to evil ends." Now, read nicely, people.

*Fans of science and literature will be excited by two new projects. The Royal Society is marking 350 years of its library with a new literature festival called One Culture, which will combine the talents of some of the country's finest scientists, poets, novelists and historians. Marcus du Sautoy, Jenny Uglow, Gillian Beer, Michael Frayn and John Banville are among the cross-disciplinary stars. More details at Meanwhile, Nasa has teamed up with Tor/Forge Books to produce a completely new series of fiction. The collaboration hopes to raise awareness of the role that Nasa plays in the lives of the public, at the same time as inspiring an interest in science and "math" in young people.

*Many things have changed and many have stayed the same since George Orwell wrote his investigative classics, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). This year, to celebrate The Orwell Prize and mark 80 years since Orwell's heyday, his hop-picking diary will be "post-blogged", with each entry appearing online 80 years to the day since it was first written. For 25 August 1931, for instance, Orwell wrote: "On the night of the 25th I started off from Chelsea with about 14 shillings in hand, and went to Lew Levy's kip in Westminster Bridge Road. It is much the same as it was three years ago, except nearly all the beds are now a shilling instead of ninepence." The blog appears at Meanwhile, on 25 September (the opening day of the Labour Party Conference), Beautiful Books will publish The Road to Wigan Pier Revisited, by Stephen Armstrong. Following in Orwell's 75-year-old footsteps, Armstrong examines how things have changed, and how many have not. He says: "Many parts of Orwell's book could be reproduced word for word ... I discover shocking poverty, missing community and a forgotten generation. But also acts of heroism, imagination, and optimism that offer hope and faith in a nation of lions led by donkeys."

*The Royal Shakespeare Company has announced the cast for the London leg of its Matilda the Musical, based on the Roald Dahl book and with lyrics by the brilliant Tim Minchin. Minchin's songs, including the bitter-sweet "Grown Up" ("I will eat sweets every day ... and go to bed late every night") should add to his reputation as the Shakespeare of our day, but, as this is a family musical, they can surely never approach the lyrical genius of this column's favourite Minchin song: "If I Didn't Have You (someone else would do)".

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