Tag Archives: fiction

reading and the brain

There is a fair amount of evidence that reading is good for the brain. One of the reasons is that reading narratives and having to get into the characters’ heads helps to build empathy in real life.

Improved theory of mind comes primarily from reading narratives, research suggests. One meta-analysis published by Raymond A. Mar of Toronto’s York University reviews many of the studies demonstrating the effect of story comprehension on theory of mind, and concludes that the better we understand the events in a narrative, the better we are able to understand the actions and intentions of those around us. The kinds of narratives we read, moreover, might also make a difference. One study, conducted by psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano of the New School for Social Research, tested the effect of differences in writing quality on empathy responses, randomly assigning 1,000 participants excerpts from both popular bestsellers and literary fiction.

The type of writing appears to matter, with more literary fiction helping more than best-sellers or non-fiction. A piece of good news is that audiobooks seem to be fine. The article doesn’t get into electronic vs. paper forms of reading, or reading vs. television or video games. It does quote one neuroscientist who questions whether reading is really special compared to other forms of experience.

One hypothesis I have, based on my own experience with people who can’t read in two different corners of the world, is that reading could change the nature of a person’s verbal skills, and not necessarily for the better. People who can’t read sometimes have the “gift of gab”, are good storytellers, and are good at teaching children to speak their native language. And similar to teaching small children, they can be incredibly patient with illiterate foreigners like myself, where an educated person would not have the patience, or somehow, maybe not have the empathy, to do that. So while I think reading and writing and certainly very important to our species, they also may have changed us along the way.


Here is a book for children as young as 4 about the bicycling revolution in Amsterdam. Here’s the Amazon description:

Pedal Power: How One Community Became the Bicycle Capital of the World

Cycling rules the road in Amsterdam today, but that wasn’t always the case. In the 1970’s, Amsterdam was so crowded with vehicles that bicyclists could hardly move, but moms and kids relied on their bicycles to get around the city. PEDAL POWER is the story of the people who led protests against the unsafe streets and took over a vehicles-only tunnel on their bikes, showing what a little pedal power could do! Author and illustrator Allan Drummond returns with the story of the people that paved the way for safe biking around the world.

I love Amsterdam, It’s not just the idea of bicycling as a major form of transportation, it’s the whole package of getting around by bicycle and on foot, the old world layout, and the active public places and street scenes it leads to. It’s a winning formula that cities around the world could aspire to, and yet almost none are.

Tolkien and World War I

Here’s an article on how J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels were influenced by his experience in World War I.

The descriptions of battle scenes in “The Lord of the Rings” seem lifted from the grim memories of the trenches: the relentless artillery bombardment, the whiff of mustard gas, the bodies of dead soldiers discovered in craters of mud. In the Siege of Gondor, hateful orcs are “digging, digging lines of deep trenches in a huge ring,” while others maneuver “great engines for the casting of missiles…”

In “The Lord of the Rings,” we meet Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, Hobbits of the Shire, on a fateful mission to destroy the last Ring of Power and save Middle-earth from enslavement and destruction. The heroism of Tolkien’s characters depends on their capacity to resist evil and their tenacity in the face of defeat. It was this quality that Tolkien witnessed among his comrades on the Western Front…

Beside the courage of ordinary men, the carnage of war seems also to have opened Tolkien’s eyes to a primal fact about the human condition: the will to power. This is the force animating Sauron, the sorcerer-warlord and great enemy of Middle-earth. “But the only measure that he knows is desire,” explains the wizard Gandalf, “desire for power.” Not even Frodo, the Ring-bearer and chief protagonist, escapes the temptation.

Great stories tend to have a clear cut line between good and evil. In real life, we tell ourselves stories about good and evil, often to rationalize our own actions. But the vast majority of evil outcomes in the real world are not caused by intentionally evil acts, but by ignorance, negligence, and amorality. People don’t have the mental tools to understand and make good decisions about the complex systems we are all embedded in, and don’t think enough about right and wrong in their daily actions. How do you tell compelling stories about that?

bicycles, airships, and things that go

I have read Cars, Trucks, and Things that Go to my 3 year old son at least 100 times. It is his favorite book in the world. I didn’t have a lot to do with this – I actually tried to steer him more toward animals and nature, but his fascination with wheels began shortly after birth and shows no signs of abating. It’s clearly baked in to his genetic makeup, which is interesting considering that almost all evolution of our genetic makeups happened before cars, trucks or other things that go (other than legs and muscles) ever existed. Perhaps humans, and the male of the species in general, just have an instinctive attraction to power, whether it comes from harnessing animals or burning things and then transferring that power through mechanical or electrical means. That would clearly give us an advantage and it makes total sense, but it is amazing that it emerges within months of birth.

I’m not going to censor Cars and Trucks and Things that Go. But there is a lot of pollution and unsafe road conditions in those books, plus head-scratching things like children driving cars, and enormous pileups where nobody gets hurt. So I think it’s great that some people are trying to update that classic winning formula with updated and more sustainable technology choices. Of course, kids don’t need to be brainwashed in the latest urban planning buzzwords, they need to be educated in how to think about systems so they can reach the right conclusions and make the right choices when they grow up. They also need to be entertained. We’ll see if this succeeds.

The Time Machine

Here’s the epilogue from The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1898):

One cannot choose but wonder. Will he ever return? It may be that he swept back into the past, and fell among the blood-drinking, hairy savages of the Age of Unpolished Stone; into the abysses of the Cretaceous Sea; or among the grotesque saurians, the huge reptilian brutes of the Jurassic times. He may even now—if I may use the phrase—be wandering on some plesiosaurus-haunted Oolitic coral reef, or beside the lonely saline lakes of the Triassic Age. Or did he go forward, into one of the nearer ages, in which men are still men, but with the riddles of our own time answered and its wearisome problems solved? Into the manhood of the race: for I, for my own part, cannot think that these latter days of weak experiment, fragmentary theory, and mutual discord are indeed man’s culminating time! I say, for my own part. He, I know—for the question had been discussed among us long before the Time Machine was made—thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind, and saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end. If that is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so. But to me the future is still black and blank—is a vast ignorance, lit at a few casual places by the memory of his story. And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers—shrivelled now, and brown and flat and brittle—to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.


I wonder if this book could possibly be as entertaining as this review of it:

Genoa (Paul Metcalf, Coffee House Press)

Here’s another deeply American book, reprinted this year on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. Indeed, it may be the most American book I’ve seen in a long time, not counting that children’s series Rush Limbaugh writes where he travels through time to stabs redcoats. Genoa deals in seafaring, in ghosts, in mythmaking and violence. As with the Wieners collection, this was my introduction to the author, and I was glad for it. Metcalf writes through his corpse, so to speak, in the same style used and advocated by Davenport, Delany and Gass. In this novel that deep attention to the narrator’s body runs in a feedback loop with excerpts and discursions about and by Herman Melville and Christopher Columbus. The result feels shockingly au courant, as if Maggie Nelson, Eliot Weinberger or Valeria Luiselli had taken it upon themselves to gloss an Updike story.

Atlas Shrugged vs. Red Plenty

I finally got around to reading Atlas Shrugged (confession: I read an abridged version because life is short). It’s a childish book in many ways. It depicts a naive vision of perfect competition and innovation between large corporations, then suggests that any government interference is a mistake. Government is as incompetent and corrupt as private industry is virtuous and innovative. The government interference in question is not the environmental regulation and anti-trust regulation of today, but rather an extreme form of anti-competitive central planning that sounds very much like the vision that would have prevailed in the Soviet Union at the time. In fact, I think Atlas Shrugged makes the most sense through a Cold War lense. At the time the book was written, the early 1950s, the Soviet model did seem to be producing fast growth, and if it had been able to stay on that trajectory for decades it could have theoretically overtaken the west. Some people probably admired it for this, and some people were terrified of the implications. Ayn Rand was somewhat prescient in foreseeing how such an extreme form of central planning would eventually destroy incentives for productivity and innovation, and she even foresaw the risk of the military industrial complex managing to hijack such a system. Of course, what she gets wrong is the idea that large corporations engage only in perfect competition and innovation. They do their best to avoid competition whenever they can because it is cheaper to buy political influence. This means that capitalism is creating exactly the kind of government corruption that Ayn Rand railed against! It shouldn’t be surprising though, if we look at ecological analogs to how competition actually works. Plants and animals occasionally compete head to head for the exact same resources at the exact same place and time (thing Coke and Pepsi), but more often they try to find and exploit niches where they are complementing or at least not interfering with each other (think Coke itself versus bottlers, trucking companies, restaurants, etc.) Parasitism and gangsterism also are strategies that work pretty well in the natural world. So in summary I think Ayn Rand was prescient for her time on certain things, but overall the book is just childishly dumb and not even all that entertaining.

I’ve just started Red Plenty, which is a historical novel about Soviet central planning in the 1950s. The book tries to capture a moment in history when people were really excited about this model, thought it was working, and didn’t see that it would lead to ruin and military-industrial domination. You know how the story ends, and yet you are sympathetic to the characters (some actual historical leaders, like Nikita Krushchev), and actually pity them because they are so full of hope and have no way of knowing their story will end in tragedy. And unlike Atlas Shrugged, this book is well written and entertaining.