Why Read Fiction?

I was at a conference a couple of years ago, and I sat through a session where the presenter ran through a series of ideas about how to accomplish more.  Or be more productive.  Or maybe it was about APIs?  Something.  Honestly, I don’t remember – but one bit of it actually stuck with me (not so much that I can remember the conference, topic, or speaker.  Sorry, mystery person who helped shape my thoughts).  He said something to this effect (believe it or not, I’ll have to paraphrase):

Read fiction.  Nonfiction is great, and it’s important, and worth spending time reading.  But so is fiction.  Fiction gives you new perspectives – it helps give you the fuel to power your imagination.

Some guy | At some conference | Talking about something.  Probably < 2015.

What was so notable to me about this was that I had never heard anyone actually defend reading fiction before.  I mean, nobody is attacking here, so defend might not be the right word – but I’d never heard anyone sing the praises of fiction, outside of the context of either Art/Culture, which were terribly uninteresting to me at the time, or Entertainment, which was the only reason I could understand that anyone would read fiction.

But then I started reading more.

I’m not sure exactly why (maybe it was this guy!), but I felt compelled to start reading more.  So read more I did. And mostly these days, I read fiction.

It started, like I said, purely out of a desire for entertainment.  Reading fiction felt to me like really classy television:  You’re just in it for the entertainment, for the distraction, but the fact that you’re reading puts you in a different class than those mouth-breathing TV watchers (note: I’m a mouth breathing TV watcher, and my description of both the activity and myself probably deserve to be brought up with a therapist).  Reading fiction is compelling enough that I’ve stuck with it pretty regularly over the past few years, but my opinion of it has changed.

I no longer believe that reading fiction is entertainment; a distraction.

Why is the author writing?

The first book that really made me stop and question an author’s motives was Anathem, By Neal Stephenson.  Anathem may be my favorite book of all time – certainly top 5.  What made me stop and question was the feeling, relatively early on, that the author was not just trying to entertain me – he was trying to get at something himself.   He built an entire world around a few specific ideas, in a way that felt like the entire goal was simply to explore them.  “What would happen if the perception and role of religion and science were reversed?” felt like the first question in Anathem – and it could only be answered through real, thorough exploration.  I won’t spoil the book by asking the other questions he digs into in that book, but there are many, and they’re all interesting.

After Anathem, I dug into everything else from Stephenson I could find, and each time I found the same pattern:  An interesting question or idea, and an entire scenario, environment, world built simply in order to explore it.

Soon after, I started noticing the same pattern, if not quite so overt, in other authors’ work.  Slowly, it began to dawn on me:  It seems some questions can only be answered – or maybe it’s that they can only be shared – through stories.

What does it mean to me?

There’s an idea I mentioned yesterday, that is played on heavily in Siddhartha: Siddhartha is unwilling to accept the teachings of others.  I get this, I feel it, I relate to it.  But that’s exactly the point: By hearing the story of Siddhartha, which is, of course, fiction, I put myself in his shoes.  I figure out the ways in which we relate, and suddenly I can feel what is happening to him as though it were happening to me. I understand better his point of view, why he behaves the way he does – it’s as close as I can come to living his experiences without actually living them.

And, again, to reference the actual story in Siddhartha:  Sometimes in life we actually have to live things to understand them. I think there’s no way to get closer to that experience than to read well-written fiction (or, to be fair, nonfiction, told as a narrative).

So go read a trashy romance novel, and call it personal development.  If anybody questions you, just have them talk to me.

Siddhartha’s Many Deaths

Now he saw it and saw that the secret voice had been right, that no teacher would ever have been able to bring about his salvation. Therefore, he had to go out into the world, lose himself to lust and power, to woman and money, had to become a merchant, a dice-gambler, a drinker, and a greedy person, until the priest and Samana in him was dead. Therefore, he had to continue bearing these ugly years, bearing the disgust, the teachings, the pointlessness of a dreary and wasted life up to the end, up to bitter despair, until Siddhartha the lustful, Siddhartha the greedy could also die. He had died, a new Siddhartha had woken up from the sleep.

Hesse, Hermann | Siddhartha  (p. 46)

 

Siddhartha is a great book.  It’s not that long, it’s not a particularly difficult read, and it’s got a lot of interesting ideas (especially if, like me, you’re not particularly familiar with eastern philosophy).

There’s so much going going on in this quote, but I’ll just focus on one thing:  Siddhartha gives himself completely to whatever phase of life he’s in.  This idea is probably one of the things that had me thinking about consistency in opinion yesterday.  In the book, Siddhartha has a friend from youth, Govinda, who leaves him and becomes a follower of Buddha, where he stays for the rest of his life.  Govinda seems to lead a fulfilling life, and it’s one in which he really doesn’t have to change  who he is.  He makes a decision and he sticks with it for the rest of his life.  Which is great, and interesting, but, I think, not nearly interesting as how Siddhartha lived.

Siddhartha commits completely to whatever phase of his life he’s in.  When he’s an ascetic, he’s a committed ascetic. When he’s a merchant, he becomes wealthy and successful.  Siddhartha is unwilling to accept teachings without experiencing them firsthand for himself –  He accepts that he’ll change throughout his life, and that to find his path, to continue moving forward, he has to be different people, and then let those people die.

Siddhartha learned through living.

Waffling

Yesterday, in a footnote, I mentioned that I was clearly contradicting myself from a few days before.  At the time, I just meant it as a joke – but I think there’s more to it.

I dislike being wrong.  I dislike admitting I’m wrong.  I think stereotypically when I imagine a person who doesn’t want to admit they’re wrong, I imagine the school know-it-all, or the arrogant boss: so smug in their superiority that they can’t imagine a scenario where they’d be wrong.

Maybe that’s not actually how it is, at least not always.  My discomfort with admitting I’m wrong doesn’t come from a place of arrogance, an assumption that I do know everything.  It comes from insecurity – the fear that you’ll realize I know far less than you assumed – or worse, less than I lead you to believe.  To be discovered to know less than I’ve implied is literally a worst case scenario for me.  It’s the kind of thing that will keep me up at night.

As with any insecurity, in time you begin to build walls around it.  Once a feeling you don’t like is identified, you start changing your behavior in order to make sure you’ll never have to feel that way.  So I stopped having opinions on all but the safest topics – or those that could reasonably be argued in either direction.  To take a stand on a topic and be proven wrong, or to change your mind, was unthinkable.

But once you start down this path, the topics you can comfortably have an opinion on shrinks.  And as it shrinks, your ability to have interesting conversations shrink.  Interesting conversations are built around honesty and vulnerability, and avoiding sharing an opinion – avoiding even having an opinion out of fear is about as far from vulnerable as you can get.

Writing this is my immersion therapy.  I’m here, sharing half baked ideas.  Most of them aren’t as safe as I’d like.  It’s uncomfortable.  I’ll turn on some of them in days, or weeks, and decide the opposite true, or discover I didn’t have the whole story, that I hadn’t thought things through all the way.

But here’s why I’ve decided it’s ok, and why I’m writing anyway:  Constant adherence to who you were yesterday is dishonest.  It’s ok to contradict yourself.  We all change.  We get new information, we have new ideas.  If we only share the ones we’re absolutely sure of, or force ourselves to maintain opinions we had yesterday, last week, last year, and make a point of crucifying those around us who don’t, we’ll all be absolutely right, absolutely static, and absolutely boring.

Hard.

Tonight I went for a run.  But in order to prop that run up as something meaningful and noteworthy, and significant enough to expend all these precious keystrokes on, I have to lay out the rest of my day:

I didn’t sleep well last night.  I don’t know why – I got to bed later than I wanted to, a certain child kept showing up in my bed with bony knees jabbing into my side, and I had to pee several times, because I guess I have the bladder of a 70 year old man.

This evening was kindergarten orientation.  There seem to be multiple versions of this leading up to the school year.  This was the one where you don’t bring the dagger-kneed child.  So we dropped the kids off at my parents, and endured enjoyed a run through of what kindergarten is about, how to make sure our little angels are properly prepared, and a tour of the school.  After that, seeing as we had no children handy, we went to dinner, during which I consumed entirely too much sushi.  It was delicious, and I can’t say that given the opportunity I’d do anything differently, but by the end of the meal, it was apparent that I’d made a mistake.

We left dinner and picked up the kids.  Somehow, in the hours since dropping them off, the temperature dropped 30 degrees, and gusty winds started blowing.  It got cold.

We got home, the kids reluctantly went to sleep.  I was sleepy, uncomfortable from overeating, and just generally grouchy.  And I remembered that I have to run tonight.

I’m not generally a person who “has to” run.  I’ve never met a training plan I’m unwilling to ignore.  But last weekend, for reasons I can’t remember, I stumbled on Pact, a website that forces you to stick to your plans by charging you $5 every time you don’t.  And, because I was probably bored, and it was a Saturday, I went ahead and signed up, said I’d run every day this week, and then gave them a credit card.  Weekends are strange, dangerous times for me.

So that brings me back to tonight.  I’m grouchy and uncomfortable, it’s cold and windy outside, and I have to run.  I’m not going to pay $5.

So I dutifully put on my shorts, running shoes, headphones, and step outside.  And it starts to rain.

At this point, of course, I’m spectacularly annoyed.  But I go anyway.  And almost immediately, something magical happens:  It feels good.  I still don’t feel good – I’m cold and now wet and I feel a bit like I’m going to barf – but forcing myself to do something I don’t really want to do, when I had every reason not to do it feels good.  And soon I’m running too fast, forcing myself to slow down to avoid getting hurt, or bonking before I get home.

Sometimes hard is good.  Maybe sometimes hard is to be sought after.  Maybe it makes us better, gives us a reason to fight.  Maybe there was something off about that sushi.  Regardless, tonight’s run was good.

And before someone tries to call me out on the fact that 2 days ago I mocked suffering for the sake of suffering, let me announce: I’m aware.  And I don’t care.  Looking at you, Mazur.

Fiber

 “None of them would ever volunteer to go get his legs shot off in the jungle, just to piss off his old man. They lack a certain fiber. They are lifeless and beaten down.”

Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash (p. 170).

To me, strangely, this quote goes hand in hand with the “Into the Wild” quote from the other day.  Sure, that one was an actual quote, from an actual person (who was a little crazy), with some serious actual followthrough, and this one comes from a fictional mobster to a teenage girl in a post apocalyptic, virtual reality obsessed wasteland – but they share something important.

There’s something beautiful about reckless defiance mixed with conviction.  For McCandless, it was about rebelling against society and social mores.  For Uncle Enzo (who is speaking in this quote), it was about rebelling against his father.  Both took risks that were likely pointless, and incredibly dangerous.  But the value wasn’t in the specific rebellious act – Uncle Enzo didn’t make a significant difference in (fictional) Vietnam, and we all still measure our self worth in new cars in spite of the fact that McCandless died for his choices – the value was in their willingness to rebel, their willingness to accept hardship (or death) for something they cared about regardless of what the thing they cared about was.

I’ve tried several times, unsuccessfully, to write a conclusion to that – to wrap this up in what it means to me, what this class of person is.  Should they be looked up to?  Scorned? Ignored?  I don’t know.  Having convictions and being willing to make real sacrifices for those convictions – regardless of what they are, or if they’re broadly considered valuable or foolhardy – there’s something to that.  As uncle Enzo says, it “gives a person a certain fiber”.  I like the sound of that.

I’m sure I’ll write more about this topic, I don’t seem to be able to stay away from it.

Highlighting for Fun and Profit

I read a lot, almost entirely on the kindle.   I like the kindle.  Some people swear by physical books – the smell, the feel, the weight, the ability to carry them around and look important.  I get it, but I don’t get it.

Aside from the convenience, both in being able to carry all books easily, but also in purchasing, my favorite thing about reading on the kindle is highlighting.  I tend to be moved by particular passages in books – the punchline, the careful phrasing used for the literary climax of an important point, or even a throwaway filler line that, for whatever reason, feels profound.  Without a mechanism to note them as important or notable, I’ll lose them – and benefit for only the few minutes they stay at the front of my mind.

Highlighting provides that mechanism.  Not only does the physical act of marking the passage to be highlighted give the line or thought a little extra sticking power in my brain, but it’s easy and convenient to scan the highlights of a book when you’re looking to quickly be reminded of the high points or particularly moving ideas.

Try highlighting.  Alternatively, if you already do, go scan back through some past highlights, and relive only the best parts of a recent book you enjoyed.

Bonus:  I recently discovered Your Highlights, which lists all your highlights, regardless of book.  Handy.

Your Ultimate Guide For Waking Up Early

If I ever legitimately write a post titled “Your Ultimate Guide For Waking Up Early”, I want you, gentle reader, to drive to my house and punch me right in the face.  Don’t announce your purpose, don’t even ring the doorbell.  Walk in, find me, punch me in the face.  Please don’t punch my children.  I’ll be the one with the beard, typing furiously.

I’ve had this simmering for several months now, maybe longer.  Im far more worked up about it than is justified. There’s this cult – especially in tech, but I’m sure it exists outside of tech, in which we’ve all decided that the holy grail is to operate at 100% efficiency.  All the time.  To be so amazingly productive that not one minute of any day is wasted.  And I get it.  Life is short, we’re all dying (note: That’s 3 posts in a row that mention death.  I swear things are fine, mom), so you better be operating at 110% all the time if you’re going to get yours.

There’s something so gross about this.  I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is, but I’m going to make some wild guesses about what it might be.  Don’t ask me to back these up, I’ll have forgotten them by the time we next talk (undoubtedly because I didn’t read the ultimate guide to never forgetting all the stuff).

Suffering is awesome

I legitimately think that deep down inside, people – especially Americans – imbue some deep value on suffering.  Like something that is awful is worth doing for the sole reason that it’s awful.  Fun things are of questionable value.  Terrible things?  Now you’re proper adulting. Then we get to wear it like a badge of honor: “I’m so tired I’m essentially useless, but the fact that I didn’t sleep in past 5:30 is proof of my commitment to being an adult”.

Other people do it

Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo, gets up at 4:30 AM.  Aren’t you excited to do it now?  Maybe if you do, you too will be the CEO of PepsiCo.  Setting my alarm as we speak.

You are gross and pathetic

This, I think, is really the heart of what we all want.  We’ve got to be better – we’ve got to get rid of whatever we are and be something else.  The CEO of Pepsi.  Smarter.  In better shape.  More productive.  I guess we’re back to “Other People Do It”.  If It’s good enough for Indra, damnit, it’s good enough for me.

I started to make a joke about dressing like her, but then I remembered that this is totally a thing.

Anything you didn’t plan out ahead of time is valueless

Going hand in hand with the “Here’s why you should wake up early” advice is the “you should schedule every second of your morning”, and here’s Mark Zuckerberg’s morning, which you should duplicate.  Or don’t, but I mean, he started Facebook.  I guess maybe your ideas are ok too.


I just don’t buy it.   Yes, many successful people have well defined morning routines.  Many successful people get up very early.  And there are bits and pieces of their lives, their ideas, their routines, that are valuable to me, to you, to everyone.  But to accept their life entirely, and to assume that you ought to  be doing just what they do in order to achieve your goals is lazy, and it frustrates me.

So I don’t know, do whatever.  If you want to get up early, get up early.  Don’t do it because Tim Cook starts replying to emails at 4:30 AM, so you should too.  Do it because you like being up early, or because that’s when the gym is less crowded, or because you like going to bed early so that’s naturally when you wake up.  Or maybe just because you want to take the afternoon off.

And now that you’re out of the way, it will be that much easier for me to climb to the top, what with my perfect morning routine and my same-outfit-everyday.

Advice from the Young and Dead

So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.

Jon Krakauer | Into the Wild (p. 58)

It’s worth noting, before getting too carried away with what a glorious quote this is, that it’s not actually Jon Krakauer speaking, but Christopher McCandless.  The same Christopher McCandless who chose the name Alexander Supertramp, and, depending on who you ask, either arrogantly set out into a harsh Alaskan wilderness inexperienced and unprepared, or courageously threw off the shackles of modern society for a grand, romantic adventure to find something deeper and more fulfilling than the life of security, conformity, and conservatism he railed against.

Further clouding the value of this quote – he was 24 at the time he wrote it.  How much deep, life changing advice are you willing to take from your closest 24 year old?

Finally, he died for it.  The sentiment in this quote literally lead to his demise.

So on it’s face, there’s a lot going against it.  And in spite of all that, I’ll be honest:  I don’t care.  If I knew a 24 year old who called himself “Alexander Supertramp”, hitchhiked around the country taking odd jobs and convincing anyone he talked to that modern life was of questionable value before taking off with meager supplies and questionable training to survive an Alaskan winter (we’ll ignore the bit where he dies, because lets be real: poisoned by wild potato seeds?  That’s just a bad draw.), I’d listen to anything he wanted to talk about.

None of my ramblings thus far have even addressed the content of the quote.  There’s a lot going on here, and I’ve now tired myself out just discussing the context for it.  So I’ll just let it soak.  Drink it in.

Death

A year or so ago, a guy I didn’t like died. We used to argue all the time over our opinions. Now he’s dead. I guess I won.

James Altucher | Choose Yourself (p. 163)

This made me giggle.  That’s all.

Of course, as I’m prone to telling anyone who will listen, we’re all dying,  right now.  I’ll save ruminations on that for another post.

I won’t even give the original context for this quote, because honestly, I didn’t find it very interesting – but as I mentioned with regards to Alan Watts, sometimes there’s a golden nugget of a sentence or idea in an otherwise boring, or nonsense paragraph, chapter, book (or person), and I’m not inclined to throw it out just because of where it lives.

For now, rest easy in the fact that some of the people you don’t like will die before you.  It won’t be your fault, you certainly would never hope for such a thing (you’re not a monster), but it will happen anyway.

And you’ll never admit it, but you’ll have won.

Being “Yourself”

I’ve had an idea rolling around in my head for weeks now, probably longer – but every time I try to write about it, I get hung up.  Sometimes when I get like this it’s because I feel like the topic is particularly important, or interesting, and whatever I write isn’t quite good enough – I’m not doing the topic, the idea, justice.  That’s lame.  It’s an excuse to never write anything, to never get anywhere on the topic.  I’d rather just write what comes, and at another time, write about it again.  So here we are.

There isn’t a Jordi in the mountains, and  a Jordi outside of the mountains.  I’m just one, you can’t divide me into two.

This comes from “Unbound”, which I posted about a couple weeks ago.  Direct link to the quote here.  In context, he’s referring to the fact that he feels part of the mountains – that he just is who he is, honestly, no matter where he is.


Earlier this week, I was at a conference with some coworkers.  I like these people – I enjoy hanging out with them, they’re smart, caring, friendly – a good bunch all around.  I look forward to seeing them.  The conference was a few days long, and generally had 4 tracks running at a time – so we all went to whatever session most interested us.  Sometimes I found myself in a session with two or three others, sometimes there was no one else in the room that I knew.

I went to one session – more of a forum, or small group discussion than a lecture, and introduced myself to a few of the people at my table – all strangers, doing similar work to me.  I thought about the kinds of topics I could add value or speak intelligently on.  Just before the session started, one of my coworkers coincidentally walked in and sat at a table near me.

Upon noticing, my feelings about the session – about talking, sharing, etc, changed.  Not for the worse, necessarily, but there was a difference.  The suddenness of the change struck me – it was distinct, and obvious.  Why?

When the room was full of people I didn’t know, I was free to say whatever, and behave however came naturally to me, without much concern beyond whether I was adding value to the conversation, or getting what I wanted to get out of it. In this sense, in spite of the fact that the room was full of people, I was alone.  It was a room full of strangers, who I hadn’t seen before, and wouldn’t likely see again.

As soon as someone I knew arrived, things changed: now I had to be myself.  “Myself”. A persona consistent and cohesive with who I am the rest of the time – or who I think that person expects me to be, based on our past interactions. And that’s work.  I don’t think this version of “myself” is really measurably different than the person I am when I’m alone, but there’s some part deep down inside that feels particularly concerned with making sure I’m on brand all the time.

My brother recently commented about how great airports are.  They’re absolutely full of people, but none of the people know who you are, or particularly care.  They’re all busy with their own lives, and you’re completely anonymous.  You’ve never seen any of them before, and you’ll never see any of them again.  You are no one, or you’re whoever you want to be.

I think this might be part of the reason why introverts enjoy being alone, or why it feels so draining for introverts to spend too much of their day with other people.  Alone is easy, quiet, relaxing.  It requires no thought, no effort.  It’s honest.  Conversely,  it’s work to maintain a persona, even if the persona is exactly who you are when alone.  The constant awareness, the subtle effort underlying all your choices – your words, your mannerisms, your reactions.

Back to Jordi (who apparently is now my spirit animal): I’d like to be able to turn that background process – the one making sure you are who everyone expects you to be – off.  After all: there is only one Jordi.