Dear Jim . . . (#13) Re: Fiction vs. Nonfiction


In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”[…] In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments[…]” – The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Dear Jim,

Thank you for your last bletter. Sorry this one is late, I blame everyone but myself.*

As to your question: What works of fiction do you feel has taken your imagination and expanded it in this way? the short answer is: None.

The longer answer is: None that I can think of but also I guess all of them sort of a bit but not really all of them dot com.

Which is to say, I don’t remember a work of fiction drastically changing my world view or granting me sudden insight into worlds hitherto unseen. To some extent every book does this a bit but I find the effect one of accretion, one book gives you a look at someone else’s point of view, another someone else’s. It all adds up, but I rarely have that flash of insight from a fiction-book.

So, I am not going all They Came Together** or denying the ability of fiction to expand one’s horizons, or to give one insight into – as in your examples – the life of a black Americans, but for me, it is always non-fiction that cuts new channels in my brain. The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans would be the books that did for me what Citizen and Invisible Man did for you.

Another book I would recommend for this reason is The Ruins of Empire which was a fascinating insight into the post-Colonial cultures of India, China, Egypt and the Middle East. That rendered the grievances more, to use that word again, more complexly and personally than I had previously considered.

Perhaps this is because, until a few years ago I didn’t read much serious fiction. I read nonfiction, I watched movies and TV***, and fiction was picked up for light entertainment.

Perhaps it is because non-fiction has a greater power for directed brain thrilling perspective shifts for me. Almost the books which I come back to over and over again in my mind are nonfiction. My intellectual biography could be written in The… titles****: The Theory of PokerThe Selfish GeneThe Problems of Philosophy. I remember where I was when I read them, and how they moved my brain in one direction or the other. I guess these sort of texts amount to a sort of personal canon.

But your question was more precise, about books that helped imagining Others complexly. On that score books like my A-level psychology textbook, played a role. And sections of The Stuff of Thought by Stephen Pinker, especially concerning the idea of taboo. The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt is another book that for many reasons was empathy expanding. Some of the Bhuddist literature I’ve read did the same thing in different ways and for different reasons: The Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness and Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner Mind. Their merits are probably fairly obvious, so the one I’ll pick out to expand on is Derren Brown’s Tricks of the Mind.

Tricks is an odd grab bag of a book, made up of chapters on each of the things Brown is interested in. It lays out his aesthetic theories about magic and misdirection, gives guides on lie detection and memory tricks, but also contains the science of – and his speculations on – the nature of hypnosis and influence.

The hypnosis chapter combined the science of influence (Milgram, Zimbardo, Ariely, et al.), the ability of the brain to trick itself, and ideas about intentionality and self-justification. The implications go far beyond hypnosis, every human interaction does to some extent the same thing that a Mentalist does with his ‘hypnotised’ subject.

It gave me a far better sense of how I and you and everyone else on planet Earth live their lives. We all do what we mean to do only a tiny fraction of the time, our brains seamlessly filling in the justifications afterwards. Our experiences are largely lies, memories even more so.

The world looks different when you realise no one is in control of even all their actions. That a missed lunch can have as great an effect as someone’s ethical code. It’s a little easier to forgive, and to see oneself in the same position.

I would recommend Tricks of the Mind to almost anyone, but I wouldn’t necessarily expect it to have the effect on them it had on me, I don’t think it would have had that effect if I had read it a few years later. Personal canons are exactly that.

I know in many ways your personal canon reflect the literary canon quite closely, and you have always a broad respect and interest in that trunk line of culture leading back inexorably towards Gilgamesh. But, I’d be interested to hear how your recent batch of reading all madcap and experimentalist has altered your views on the works of the past?

Yours hypnotically,


*I should also probably point out that ‘imagining others complexly’ is not my phrase, but John Green’s.


*** For example House M.D. was probably one of the biggest fictional influences on how I thought about other people, ethical questions, even epistemology. The way that show used its ensemble cast to create a dialectic on whatever the issue of the week was. There are few shows as entertaining as House that also have the intellectual heft of those first three seasons.

**** Also Michael Crichton novels.


1 Comment

Filed under Dear Jim, Reading, Writing

One response to “Dear Jim . . . (#13) Re: Fiction vs. Nonfiction

  1. Pingback: Dear Jon . . . (#14) Re: On Waste Lands of Straight People | What is There to Option?

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