scowling chinese man

Why I read fiction

When I was a kid, I rode the bus for an hour and a half to get home because they wouldn’t let an eight-year-old cross rural highways, so I had to go clear to the end of the route and come back.  I spent that entire time reading and consequently, as an adult, am an inhumanly fast reader.  My superpower is as geeky as I am.

But after watching me devour material, most people who ask me what I generally read are surprised, for two very simple reasons.

One: I don’t read nonfiction.  That’s a bit of a lie, as I read a ton of primary source material (psych journals, academic papers), but what I mean is that I don’t read what most people think of when they talk about non-fiction: New York Times best-selling books that are serious history, science, etc. written for a popular audience.

Two: I don’t really read blogs or websites.  Again, it is a bit of a lie; more accurate would be that I read hardly any blogs regularly or deeply.  I skim Anandtech and BGR, mostly for straight news announcements about technology.  I’ll binge on RockPaperShotgun when I have an hour to just indulge in the weird games people are building.  And I read a lot of articles sent to me by friends I trust, though these aren’t from any one source particularly.  If Betsy or Dave or Julie says “thought of you when reading this”, I’ll certainly check it out.

When I read for pleasure, it is fiction (everything from sci-fi to serious literature) and only fiction.  That’s why they call it “reading for pleasure”.

And more importantly, if the latest Gawker article or pop science book is really that interesting, I’m sure someone will tell me about it.  I can always tell you what the book of the moment is because people have summarized it for me over drinks or dinner – they’ve done the hard part of reading it, they’ve applied an intelligent analysis, and summarized.

Think of it this way: It is important that someone reads this blog post.  But it is not important that everyone reads this blog post.  You could succinctly summarize much of what I’m saying to someone after reading and for the spread of an idea, that’s probably good enough.  Even better if you’ve made it your own, put your twist on it, made it even better.

We have to stop reading for self-presentation, going after the book of the moment simply to appear well-educated or well-informed.  Instead, we need a system that allows you to read the books that are interesting to you, meet for a drink to tell me the good bits, and then we can spend more of our time talking about why you find it important and what may or may not be true about it and how it intersects with everything else we’ve read.  You tell me all about The Omnivores Dilemma and I’ll tell you about how I see that reflected in the Mars Trilogy and we’ll both be better off.

In other words, there is more than enough interesting material in the world for us all to have read different things and bring different opinions.  I think I’m talking about some sort of reading material version of the Nash Equilibrium.  And if that’s a wrong use of Nash Equilibrium, some friend that has read his papers will correct me and I’ll have learned something new.

Side note: You see how I did that there at the end?  Even if you prove I’m wrong, I’ll still be right about something.  And let’s be honest: the only reason I write this blog is to feel like I’m right.  Also, non-fiction is essentially defined by not suffering from summation (since non-fiction is itself a summation of reality), whereas fiction, like all art, is definitionally reduced by summation.

Also published on Medium.