Category Archives: Reading

Hurricanes, History, and Writing

spaghetti graph

Hurricane Florence has left us dazed, confused, and waterlogged. As bad as it was, the shifting forecasts and endless revisions of the storm’s projected path only made it worse. Florence was supposed to march through North Carolina and douse Raleigh, instead, it hit Wilmington and slowly churned its way through South Carolina, spinning off tornados and flooding low-lying areas. Here in Charlotte, trees are down and many roads and yards are under water. Now comes the clean up. Yuck.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Back in the heady days of the Enlightenment, learned individuals imagined they could predict and control both man and nature through science. French scholar Pierre-Simon de Laplace assured fellow scientists they could one day predict the exact movements of tides and storms — in fact, he went so far as to claim that the movement of every atom could be calculated.

Now we have both private industry and government departments armed with Cray supercomputers that can guzzle meteorological data from all over the world, digest it faster than Laplace ever dreamed, and spit out detailed predictions.

Problem is, those details are often wrong — just as we’ve just seen with Hurricane Florence.

A long, long time ago, I worked in the insurance industry as an analyst and project manager. Pretty handy with a computer, a long-time weather buff, and an instructor of statistics, I served on the North Carolina Rate Bureau’s Property Committee a number of years, where I studied long-range weather forecasts. Our mandate was to recommend and justify future rate proposals based on expected weather patterns. To make a long story short, I learned quickly that despite all our efforts, we were only guessing at future trends.

More famous experts have performed as badly, even worse. Barbara Tuchman’s “The March of Folly” chronicles the greatest miscalculations in history, including America’s conduct of the Vietnam War. Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson, was a whiz kid with a degree from Harvard Business School. Here’s how Tuchman summarizes McNamara’s mindset:

“Precise and positive, with slicked-down hair and rimless glasses, McNamara was a specialist of management through ‘statistical control’ … his genius for statistics left little respect for human variables and no room for the unpredictable.” (p. 285)

The military establishment Secretary McNamara guided was all too receptive. The commander of the US forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, the years of escalation and certain victory, was William C. Westmoreland. Though later denounced as the “most disastrous American general since Custer,” Westmoreland was not ill-prepared for the job. He’d graduated West Point with the highest rank possible, first captain, and was America’s youngest major general ever. And he’d studied statistics at — Harvard Business School. In fact, his reliance on “kill statistics” overstated American success in Vietnam, setting up both the American military and public for a nasty confrontation with reality.

If US leaders had listened to historians rather than statisticians, and recognized that Vietnam’s ancient animosity against China precluded Communist Chinese control of an independent Vietnam, they could have avoided a tragedy. Instead, they relied on the dehumanizing scientism of B.F. Skinner to “stress” the Vietnamese into acting “rationally.” Despite the odds, first against the French, and then the Americans, the Vietnamese prevailed.

Sadly, those who would reduce people to a logical, globalized, and disconnected existence aren’t going to let a few tragic failures stop them. But no matter what they say or do, numbers alone cannot define humanity or nature. Humans stubbornly refuse to surrender purpose, identity, and emotional fulfillment. And we are not without weapons. Literature is a wild, throaty howl of defiance to those who would reduce us to formulas or pawns in their ideological schemes. And that’s a fact we can be sure of.

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My Name is Joe Bob, and I’m an English Major

Reader

Well. Seems Joe Bob Briggs is torn these days. While repeatedly swearing his life long love for literature, he now claims it has no real-world value:

And eventually, if you study the data, which is what the Modern Language Association does, you have to reach the conclusion that studying English is good for…nothing. …

I’m racking my brain. I’m trying to come up with justifications. I’m trying to figure out some way this translates into “Yes, you are now prepared for life.” But alas, these modern students who thumb their noses at English are correct. It’s good for nothing. It has no practical value whatsoever.

Wait — NO practical value? C’mon, Joe!

Briggs laments that many of today’s college students aren’t even considering majoring in English, and are instead flocking to more “practical” courses of study. No doubt a degree in accounting or math is more marketable these days. But to dismiss the study of literature as having no value is wrong, wrong, wrong.

We could argue that learning how to interpret complex texts has significant value in a technological world. We could talk about the crucial role of reading in improving one’s social intelligence, making one more adept at working with others, or how reading helps one form a robust and informed worldview to make sense of one’s place in the world. Or how fiction in general, and science fiction in particular, opens one to spiritual insights that can make you a happier, and therefore more productive person.

But if you insist on focusing only on hard science, we’ve got you covered. Scientists have solid evidence on the link between reading and general problem solving skills. The act of reading itself builds “white matter” in the brain that boosts its ability to recognize patterns and imagine new scenarios. The importance of reading in nurturing general intelligence is beyond dispute:

But in today’s world, fluid intelligence and reading generally go hand in hand. In fact, the increased emphasis on critical reading and writing skills in schools may partly explain why students perform, on average, about 20 points higher on IQ tests than in the early 20th century. The so-called Flynn effect is named after James Flynn, a New Zealand professor who has devoted much of his career to studying the worldwide phenomena of increasing IQ scores.

Knowing technical details is important, but developing the ability to use technical knowledge in new and creative ways is critical.

Storytelling: It’s about Going Primal

We’ve talked about the paleo diet and lifestyle before, but here’s a great post on the vital role paleo plays in the stories we enjoy reading. The post, by author E J Randolph, appears at Jami Gold’s blog, one of the best writing resources on the web. Check it out:

The evolutionary imperative at the level of our genes is to “eat, survive, and procreate.” Our brains evolved to solve the obstacles to these goals, and the same basic brain functioning operates today in every sphere of our lives—including writing. … For a story to ensnare our attention though, we need a big problem to solve. We are interested in how others solve problems in different situations. We may need that knowledge. It is imperative we remember or are told which berries are poisonous, which plants are edible, where the best places to hunt are.

We are riveted by big problems. The bigger the problem, the better the story.

Absolutely! As James Bell counsels, every effective story has to be about death. It doesn’t have to be about physical death; a protag can grab and hold our attention if he’s confronting other forms of death, such as professional death, or the death of a relationship. (Of course, since making a living and personal relationships are vital to one’s survival, those struggles indirectly involve physical death.)

Our goal is to craft a story that enchants readers with beauty and emotion. Evocative details that trigger the senses as well as believable, interesting characters are important, but most important is a realistic threat the protag must face. Pull those elements together, and you’ve created a story that slush pile editors and readers will love.

How Reading Rewires Your Brain

Reading

There is no doubt in my mind that modern society traps its subjects in an unhealthy and unsuitable environment. That stark realization motivates many of my stories (see here and here, for example). The most disturbing symptom of how toxic our culture has become is the increasingly acerbic mutual distrust evident in current politics. Little wonder so many feel depressed, powerless, and alienated.

Rather than utilizing technology to better our lives, we let it rule us. Distracted by smart phones, buffeted by inescapable sensory overload, and hobbling our discourse in 140-character outbursts at each other, we’re incapable of understanding our own inner selves, much less that of others.

Fortunately, the tonic for the condition we find ourselves in is close at hand — if only we would use it, as this eye-opening piece in big think proclaims:

Research shows that reading not only helps with fluid intelligence, but with reading comprehension and emotional intelligence as well. You make smarter decisions about yourself and those around you.

All of these benefits require actually reading, which leads to the formation of a philosophy rather than the regurgitation of an agenda, so prevalent in reposts and online trolling. Recognizing the intentions of another human also plays a role in constructing an ideology. Novels are especially well-suited for this task. A 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology found overlap in brain regions used to comprehend stories and networks dedicated to interactions with others.

The beauty of it all is that when you read, you gain more than just the knowledge contained in the text. The very act of reading builds “white matter” in the brain, thereby boosting the brain’s interconnectivity and ability to function more efficiently.

In the United States — yes, the United States1 out of 4 children grow up without learning to read. That’s intolerable. Want to do your part to make the world a better and happier place? Read, and do what you can to help others read.

And if you really get ambitious, and have the nerve to try it, write something beautiful.

BEST FICTION AND WRITING BLOGS

JRR Tolkien
The best fiction and writing blog posts from around the ‘net, all guaranteed to make you a literary legend. Compiled by john.

Evie GaughanThe Definitive Self-Publishing Checklist
Millie SchmidtAre you a ‘writer in the closet’?
S. J. HigbeeHeinlein’s Starship Troopers in the US and UK
J. A. Allen8 Things You Must Do Before You Write
Sheron McCarthaGood News for Indies
Dave AstorCharacters Who Make a Big Impression in a Small Amount of Time
Ed A. Murray3 simple tips for writing around a busy schedule
Alicia GaileWalking the Line: How I Outline the First Draft
J. R. R. TolkienTolkien’s 10 Tips for Writers

Bookworms Rejoice: the Benefits of Reading

Reading nurtures both personal growth and one’s ability to connect with others. A great post from new author Amy Walters.

Blissful Scribbles

Bookworms need no convincing of the benefits of reading, for most of us, reading is engrained in our DNA. We love the smell of new books, or the email from Amazon telling us that new Kindle book is now on our device (especially those long awaited prereleases). But apart from the fact that we love it, why else is reading a beneficial thing to do?

Stress relief -Reading relieves stress because it takes our mind to a place far away from our troubles. It allows us to be present in another person’s moment, and our own fight or flight response calms down. Our, mostly unwanted, companionadrenaline, trickles out of our bloodstream. Our muscles relax, and the world seems a better place.

Empathy -Reading about someone else’s life and experiences gives us a sense of what life is like for that person. When we then meet someone going that…

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Why kids can learn more from tales of fantasy than realism

Fantasy learning

Deena Weisberg is a senior fellow in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her specialty is “imaginative cognition,” which studies how imagination boosts one’s ability to learn. Her research demonstrates that children absorb new material taught in the context of a fanciful scenario better than they do when it’s presented in more realistic terms. In a recent edition of Aeon, she challenges herself with a question she’s grappled with before: Why do fantastical stories stimulate learning?

What can be going on? Perhaps children are more engaged and attentive when they see events that challenge their understanding of how reality works. After all, the events in these fantastical stories aren’t things that children can see every day. So they might pay more attention, leading them to learn more.

A different, and richer, possibility is that there’s something about fantastical contexts that is particularly helpful for learning. From this perspective, fantastical fiction might do something more than hold children’s interest better than realistic fiction. Rather, immersion in a scenario where they need to think about impossible events might engage children’s deeper processing, precisely because they can’t treat these scenarios as they would every other scenario that they encounter in reality.

They must consider every event with fresh eyes, asking whether it fits with the world of the story and whether it could fit within the laws of reality. This constant need to evaluate a story might make these situations particularly ripe for learning.

Writers of every genre know that a fresh metaphor adds to a reader’s interest and enjoyment. But Weisberg is arguing that there’s more to fantasy stories than just another metaphor. It appears that the act of forming impossible scenarios in one’s mind focuses more of our mental resources and forces us to pay greater attention than ordinary, representational stories of the day-to-day.

In a world where the day-to-day assaults and surrounds us on television, on our phones, and on our computers, the allure of the fantastical is compelling. Maybe even necessary. It would explain why the speculative inspires so many hit movies, TV series, and books these days.

This is hardly revolutionary. We’ve long realized that children learn better when learning is mixed with play — and children are teaching themselves about the world when they invent their own styles of play. Songs, skits, and stories are entertaining and effective learning media.

And hey, if it’s good for the kids …