I love this article from the Harvard Business Review! It’s another article documenting the neurological, psychological, and social benefits of reading fiction. There have been several such over the past few years.
I love that we’re beginning to accept reading fiction as something that’s good for us on a deeper level than just entertainment and escapism (not that entertainment and escapism aren’t valuable in-and-of themselves!) Complex fiction builds empathy, connection, social intelligence, and theory of mind. It boosts creativity, both for new ideas and for problem solving. It improves our ability to grapple more productively with the complexity of the world we live in.
I love that businesses are beginning to realize the value of having employees who are educated beyond the requirements of job training.
And it’s not just reading fiction which presents these benefits: it can come from powerful storytelling in any format. Oral stories, theater, movies and television, music, visual arts. All of it, so long as it’s complex and nuanced. Stories are how we know who we are, how we’re both the same and different from one another, and how we relate to our world.
But this article also frustrates me. This is where I turn into a curmudgeon and tell you all:
Why didn’t I list storytelling as the characteristic that makes us unique?
Why did I end up with something as depressing as “we’re the only animals who sometimes hate ourselves?”
Storytelling is built into the most basic functioning of our brains. It’s how memory works. It’s how we make sense of the world. For something so deeply embedded in us, it can’t be something entirely unique to us—it must be based on antecedent mental abilities in the animal world. So, as with so many things, storytelling is a unique expression but not unique in its essential nature.
I’m fascinated by ancient history—the archaic and classical Mediterranean, ancient Egypt, Sumeria and Mesopotamia. Mostly, though, I love studying paleoanthropology and archaeology—the Paleo- and Neolithic periods, the evolution of human kind and our spread across the face of the planet.
Recent history doesn’t particularly interest me. I understand the proximal importance of the Modern Era, the World Wars, the Cold War, etc., to the present day but it doesn’t capture my imagination. I look at the world during that time and I see something very much like the world I was born into. It’s too familiar to be fascinating.
I’m fascinated by ancient and prehistory because these eras are so vastly different from the world I live in. In a review I wrote of Madeline Miller’s novel, The Song of Achilles, I refer to the “alien-ness of Bronze Age Greece”. I read articles like this one about Kennewick Man and it’s shocking to realize just how little prehistoric life resembles my own. How vastly different it was than anything I’ve ever known.
I’ve longwonderedabout the differences between reading in print, reading online, and reading in mobile formats. Science is bearing out my belief that our brains apprehend and process language differently in different mediums.
Technology is changing the way we read, with a much greater emphasis on skimming and speed reading. Apps like Spritz—well-intentioned though they may be—intrinsically promote an idea that reading isn’t worth investing time, a belief that deep reading is flawed because it’s inefficient.
I can’t believe that this is a good thing. So I was very happy to read this article:
The central thesis of Everything Is Miscellaneous is one with which I completely agree: digital information environments allow us to organize, access, and interact with information in new and previously undreamt ways. It allows us to transcend the limitations of physical storage and communication media, to free information to be everywhere and anywhere all at the same time.
It allows information to be whatever we need, whenever we need it. There exists more potential now to add more value, not just to information itself, but to the ways we access and interact with it. Mr. Weinberger offers us a powerful and compelling vision for our digital information world.
These three quotes perfectly sum up what this book is about:
From p. 212:
The difference in the digital order is the difference between the annoying interactions you have on a product support line… and the conversations you have with real people. … The potential for connections from the trivial to the urgent is characteristic of the new miscellany. We are busily creating as many of these meaningful connections as we can.
I’ve concluded that I’m wrong about this. Not that there aren’t plenty of solipsistic echo chambers online, but it’s nothing to do with the inherent nature of the internet or social media. It’s to do with the inherent nature of human beings.
Consider—Outside of school and work assignments, no one is required to read books they don’t want, to talk to people they don’t like, to see or listen to things they don’t agree with, and many people don’t. We’ve always either avoided or sought out challenge and disagreement, accord and reinforcement, each based on our individual natures. Preaching to the choir, seeking affirmation of our beliefs and opinions, burying our heads in the sand… These things have always been how we behave.
Very few individuals handle disagreement or conflict well. Most people do everything they can to avoid it. This has always been true.
The internet may bring our echo chambers to a larger scale and make them more explicit—but this isn’t a flaw inherent to the internet itself. Indeed, maybe making our echo chambers so much more explicit helps us to counter them.
And the internet also makes it easier than ever before in history for people to encounter ideas and perspectives they never knew existed. This is a good thing, no matter how much it sometimes makes us uncomfortable and scares us.
Earlier this month, I explored some stats about reading in America as a jumping-off point to emphasize my desire to be more aware of how different the world can be for different people.
What I didn’t talk about was how much those stats scared me. I understand that as an avid life-long reader my perspective is biased, but I believe that reading is one of the most important things a person can do to grow, to realize their best self, and to keep their mind healthy.
Last week, the Pew Research Center released a report (PDF) which showed that nearly a quarter of American adults haven’t read a single book in the past year in any format. That’s nearly triple the percentage from 1978. For me, this is terrifying.
This brought to mind a post I wrote shortly after I started this blog, in which I detailed an experiment that some librarians had done to determine how dress and appearance affect patrons’ perception of them:
This doesn’t really offer any new ideas. That print offers better reading comprehension than ebooks is something that’s been shown by quite a lot of data recently. The telling quote for me is this:
Some scientists believe that our brain actually interprets written letters and words as physical objects—a reflection of the fact that our minds evolved to perceive things, not symbols… The differences between page and screen go beyond the simple tactile pleasures of good paper stock. To the human mind, a sequence of pages bound together into a physical object is very different from a flat screen that displays only a single “page” of information at a time. The physical presence of the printed pages, and the ability to flip back and forth through them, turns out to be important to the mind’s ability to navigate written works, particularly lengthy and complicated ones. We quickly develop a mental map of the contents of a printed text, as if its argument or story were a voyage unfolding through space.