October 4, 2013

I like my reading just a little on the Spergy side *

It's not exactly a new discovery that reading good literature tends to improve perceptions, intuitions, and empathy, but it's fun to see an experiment, even if the finding that reading five minutes of Chekov makes a difference deserves skepticism.
For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov

... Something by Chekhov or Alice Munro will help you navigate new social territory better than a potboiler by Danielle Steel. 
That is the conclusion of a study published Thursday in the journal Science. It found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking.

Here's the title:
Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind

A Theory of Mind is what autistics lack. From Wikipedia:
Theory of mind (often abbreviated "ToM") is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one's own.

From the NYT:
The researchers say the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity. 
... The researchers, social psychologists at the New School for Social Research in New York City, recruited their subjects through that über-purveyor of reading material, Amazon.com. To find a broader pool of participants than the usual college students, they used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service, where people sign up to earn money for completing small jobs. 
People ranging in age from 18 to 75 were recruited for each of five experiments. 
They were paid $2 or $3 each to read for a few minutes. Some were given excerpts from award-winning literary fiction (Don DeLillo, Wendell Berry). Others were given best sellers like Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl,” a Rosamunde Pilcher romance or a Robert Heinlein science fiction tale. 
In one experiment, some participants were given nonfiction excerpts, but we’re not talking “All the President’s Men.” To maximize the contrast, the researchers — looking for nonfiction that was well-written, but not literary or about people — turned to Smithsonian Magazine. “How the Potato Changed the World” was one selection.

That's an excerpt from Charles C. Mann's 2011 book 1493, which I reviewed here.
After reading — or in some cases reading nothing — the participants took computerized tests that measure people’s ability to decode emotions or predict a person’s expectations or beliefs in a particular scenario. In one test, called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes,” subjects did just that: they studied 36 photographs of pairs of eyes and chose which of four adjectives best described the emotion each showed. 
Is the woman with the smoky eyes aghast or doubtful? Is the man whose gaze has slivered to a squint suspicious or indecisive?  
But psychologists and other experts said the new study was powerful because it suggested a direct effect — quantifiable by measuring how many right and wrong answers people got on the tests — from reading literature for only a few minutes. 
“It’s a really important result,” said Nicholas Humphrey, an evolutionary psychologist who has written extensively about human intelligence, and who was not involved in the research. “That they would have subjects read for three to five minutes and that they would get these results is astonishing.”

An alternative explanation is that three to five minutes of Chekhov doesn't raise these capabilities meaningfully, it just primes people into making the effort to respond well on the test. Chekhov is such a striking reminder of how psychologically perceptive a member of the human race can be that he encourages you to up your game, at least for a little while.

(I think we need a Theory of Test, which would include the notion that modern people are pretty good at figuring out what testers want, and not bothering to expend energy on low stakes tests if that's not what the tester wants to hear. Much popular psychological research, such as stereotype threat, assumes that test-takers are more or less autistic in not noticing what the testers want to discover.)

On the other hand, when I last read a couple of Chekhov stories around 2009, I was exhausted by the time I finished the second. And then I didn't sleep well. I'm not in Chekhov's league. I, personally, like articles about the potato's effect on history.
Dr. Humphrey, an emeritus professor at Cambridge University’s Darwin College, said he would have expected that reading generally would make people more empathetic and understanding. “But to separate off literary fiction, and to demonstrate that it has different effects from the other forms of reading, is remarkable,” he said.

Is it "literary fiction" per se that matters? Does reading Borges make you less Aspergery than reading Gone With the Wind? If so, why?
---------
* By the way, I only listen to the country music radio station about 15 minutes per month, but it seems like every other month I hear "I Like My Women Just a Little on the Trashy Side." Is this a reference that others recognize? Or is it just randomness that I keep hearing the same obscure song? Or is there a deeper pattern? Chekhov and Borges would probably offer differing explanations.

62 comments:

Anonymous said...

Life is an extended series of IQ tests, and I often feel like I'm scoring borderline special needs. Sometimes not so borderline.

But, listening to people talking about these studies makes me *feel* so much smarter. Maybe it's that, if you're smart enough to read lit fic, you're smart enough to be able to figure people out, realise that that it gives you an advantage, and make the best use of such knowledge.

I dunno, it's nice to think that my reading habits make me an all round better person, but isn't it at least as likely that the causation works the other way?

Julian O'Dea said...

I wondered some time ago if the lack of social skills attributed to scientists could be due to their (our) not reading much fiction.

I read very little fiction, and like Steve I prefer non-fiction.

I remember someone complaining that the old New Yorker used to have too many 20,000 word essays on the vegetable industry. Well, I like essays like that.

Moreover I liked Steve's theory recently that people like Mark Zuckerman are slightly "off" and are therefore able to be usefully dispassionate about how people really work. I feel I have a good understanding of human nature derived from observation. One thing that stood out for me was the remark on this report that one could learn more about human nature from War and Peace than from 50 Shades of Grey. Really? Which is read more by women?

panjoomby said...

probably more of a chicken vs. egg thing. a scientist-engineer mindset probably prefers nonfiction. but fiction can remind them of nuances in the subtle social world.

Anonymous said...

o/t - Kenyan shopping mall was looted by security forces after the attack. Sounds as if they may also have relieved the dead of their wallets on at least one occasion.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/04/world/africa/in-kenyan-mall-thievery-comes-after-carnage.html?_r=0

"More and more Kenyans believe that those soldiers methodically cleaned out the mall, and that the barrages of gunfire ringing out for days were being directed not at the last of the militants but at safes and padlocks to blast them open. Some business leaders even question whether the Kenyan Army deliberately prolonged the crisis by saying that shooters were still in the building when they were actually dead, to give themselves extra time to steal. "

sciencey newz said...

In P.J. O'Rourke's chapter for Israel in "Give War a Chance" he said that the library at Ben-Gurion's childhood home didn't have any fiction

Anonymous said...

In general, people who read news stories about the benefits of testing people with academia-friendly experiments assembled by the research industry are more handsome and popular at dinner parties, studies show

Anonymous said...

If you want to understand the enemy read the enemy's literature; Chick Lit. Ha HA.

Jonathan Silber said...

Dale Carnegie for Sea-Gullible SWPLs.

These social "scientists" are bungling quacks, plain and simple.

Julian O'Dea said...

Sorry, Mark Zuckerberg.

Anonymous said...

>By the way, I only listen to the country music radio station about 15 minutes per month, but it seems like every other month I hear [Some song s] [...] is it just randomness [...]?

WARNING Some loose arguments and google calculator abuse follows:

Let's assume Steve's probability of hearing song s for a given month q(=0.1).
Probability of Steve hearing the song in the three or more of the last six months would be. P(x >= 3) = 0.01585. Which would be statistically very significant, considered in isolation.
How frequently they would have to play that song to get that q?
Suppose Steve listens 5 songs a day: 1 - (1-p)^5 = q = 0.1 => p =~ 0.02, they would have to play s every 50th on avg.

With what frequency are top songs played? Exampla data
Summary: Top ~28 songs played ~27 times a month each of total ~7000 songs played a month. Top songs played with frequency p_i = 0.004. to account for the 10% of all songs played.
q =~ 0.0198 (much less than above assumed .1) to give P(x >= 3) =~ 0.00015
Above being true for any of the 28 songs in top 10% =~ 0.0042 , with or without assuming independence.
Considering all the songs would give a little higher probability, but this the magnitudes we should consider.

~0.0042 : statistically very significant.

But what is the effect of data mining on this number.
If Steve was looking for patterns in a thousand different things, as I imagine he is wont to do, this number is not that significant.
Consider the xkcd caricature, but with the experiments repeated 1000 times instead.
(Engineering rule of thumb: there is a 50/50 chance that event with significance (p< 1/n) will occur if experiment repeated 0.7n times)

David said...

Chekhov's unpleasantness comes less from his perceptiveness than from his darkness. He, Gogol, and Dostoyevsky are essentially writers of psychological horror.

Tolstoy is the man although he isn't perfect.

Somebody somewhere remarked that as people (or only men?) get older or generally come into their maturity, their reading habits transition out of fiction and into non-fiction. Give me a scholarly bio or a pop science article over a novel any day, these days.

(Anyone have this experience? You're reading a novel and become impatient with how silly it seems, but you maintain your interest by shifting focus to the writing quality: the aptness of the style, the effectiveness of the plot, etc.? If a lot of people do this, then that would account for much of the prevalence of what Gore Vidal called "book chat," i.e., literary analysis, which has been an academic plague for many years, warping philosophy and doing other mischief. It may be the case that only some minds are fit for fiction, that democraticizing it too aggressively was an error.)

Anonymous said...

I've never understood how Confederate Railroad's cover of "Trashy Women" became a hit.

Jerry Jeff Walker recorded a much better version of teh song years earlier, and it went nowhwere.

Dahlia said...

On the country song...

Same experience here in central Florida, but with different songs. The stations here aggressively push the new stuff nowadays, turning more into top 40 stations. They seem to have a few older songs that they'll go to which rarely seem to be changed up.
"Indian Outlaw" and "Real Good Man", both by Tim McGraw, and "Dust on the Bottle" seem to be the go to songs when a respite is wanted.

Haven't heard the trashy song in many years; probably not since the 90s. The only similar song off the top of my head contains "tequila makes her clothes come off". I guess country fans like that stuff in only the smallest of doses.






Dahlia said...

Steve,
Here's something better.
No country music fan can resist turning it up and belting along when Queen of My Double Wide Trailer comes on. Best listened to LOUD :)
Love the video, too, how excited he is over the woman.

This song marches up to the line of irony, but doesn't cross it. A lark, but not fake, if that makes sense. It's one of the few early 90s songs that the stations will play (when they play them).

International Jew said...

Psychologists and other social "scientists" could now take the next step and admit that good literature packs way more insight into people than the social "sciences" do.

Luke Lea said...

"Does reading Borges make you less Aspergery. . .?"

Probably more so. Pick another author. Proust, Updike, Woolf, . . .

Portlander said...

obscure???

Buw-hahaha. If you can stand it, try increasing your N to 30 min/month and see what happens. OK, maybe not a perfect double, but close enough for statistics work.

JeremiahJohnbalaya said...

The first few comments caused my mind to drift to Gasset's chapter in The Revolt o f the Masses, on The Barbarism of Specialization. But, then googling around that a bit, I realized the whole thing is probably worth a re-read.

Anonymous said...

http://www.france24.com/en/20131004-marine-le-pen-national-front-tea-party-hostage-madagascar-violence-iran

pat said...

I too like articles on the potatoes' impact on history. But this article misses a couple major points. The potato had an big effect also on warfare as William McNeill has pointed out. Seems pretty impactful.

Also you don't have to read Chekov or any other literary source in order to tune into the "Theory of Mind" dimension. All you have to do is just talk to any woman. I hasten to add that you will also need to actually listen to her. Not so easy. Maybe reading Chekov isn't such a bad idea after all.

At one time I managed a mostly female work force. I never knew quite how many - this was government - but certainly hundreds. That meant I attended many meeting and in most of them there were a lot of women. I hit upon the tactic of always bringing a female subordinate with me - to sort of translate. After these meetings I would debrief my female companion. It was always as if she had gone to another meeting altogether. Women see and hear all sorts of nuances that men miss or misinterpret.

I think a lot of famous male literary figures are just good at perceiving the female viewpoint. Tom Wolfe come too mind.

Albertosaurus

Ray Sawhill said...

Cool posting. I think one of the main functions of art is to provide real-seeming (but otherwise safe) opportunities to rehearse and experience life-crises and other life-situations. What's it like to have your heart broken? What's it like when someone you know dies? Etc.

A small historical note that can clear a little smoke from the battlefield? It's the meaning of the term "literary fiction." Most civilians (ie., people not in academia or publishing) sensibly assume that when people in the books world discuss "literary fiction" they're discussing something like "serious storytelling," or at least "book-fiction that has been created, successfully or not, in the spirit of the greats." In fact, that's not it at all. The term "literary fiction" as the pros use it means "fiction with its roots in the post-WWII institution of academic 'creative writing' seminars." Really-truly, that's what the term indicates. (I worked in and around the book publishing world for 15 years. Trust me on this.) When you look at the books on the shelves labeled "literary fiction" at your local bookstore, if you have one, you aren't looking at today's best or most serious book-fiction. You're looking at book-fiction that's been written in the contempo "creative writing" mode. That's it, that's all it means.

It's one of the great hijacking-the-discussion ploys in modern cultural history, IMHO, the way the academic 'creative-writing' industry has managed to associate itself and its products in the minds of many people with the greats. Calling its products "literary fiction" leads many bright-but-otherwise-uninformed people to accept the idea that the only serious/substantial book-fiction of our era are the products of the creative-writing world. "We're the only people today writing in the tradition of Shakespeare, Melville, Austen, Chekhov, etc!" and "All that other book-fiction is just popular/commercial dreck!" are the claims ... and 'way too many civilians are willing to accept them. In fact, these pretentions are nonsense. Many of the pre-WWII greats wrote popular and commercial fiction, as many of us know. And who's to say what the future will make of the book-fiction of our own era (if they think about it all)? Maybe Stephen King and Joan Collins will be declared to be the great book-fiction writers of the late 20th century. We certainly can't know in advance. (I think that Joseph Wambaugh, Lee Smith and Ruth Rendell -- all of them far more "popular" than "literary" in the contempo sense -- are three of the best living book-fiction writers. But, hey, does my opinion count?)

If you don't mind a little self-linking, I did a lonnngggggggg blog posting on the topic back here.

David said...

The deeper pattern with that 20 year old country music song is that the people who run program-rotation outfits (there are such) are probably trying to make the white demographic swallow Miley Cyrus a bit longer, just long enough for her to appear nude in a rap video with a black boyfriend. Hey, she's just an adorable trashy gal like Flo at the diner, lay off her! (Top that for paranoia.)

Mark Plus said...

This could explain the phenomenon of "geek culture," which apparently started with Jules Verne's novels. Aspergerish guys have trouble processing the subtle social cues in literary fiction written by neurotypicals, but they can readily relate to unsubtle stories about characters with superhuman abilities or ones who can accomplish or experience extraordinary things, especially if they have complicated backstories. Just think what, say, Sherlock Holmes stories, Star Trek, Star Wars. Doctor Who, Lord of the Rings, comic books and science fiction in general have in common. A definite sort of personality exists which tends to like all of these things, but not the usual sorts of classical literature unless someone can put a geek interpretation on it, like the use of Greek mythology or Arthurian romance in fantasy novels.

Ordinary people encounter this kind of personality often enough that it becomes a cultural reference in itself, for example in Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons, and in the geek characters on The Big Bang Theory.

Jehu said...

Literary fiction is generally old---from eras that were much less delusional about human behavior and motivation. Right now we live in an era where the density of elephants we're not supposed to talk about is insane. We're not even supposed to notice the results of said elephants.
This is absolutely horrible for the 'theory of other mind' for pretty much every non-natural at such matters. Reading lots of older literary fiction oddly enough puts the reader more closely in contact with Reality.

gubbler of the church of reformed chechenism said...

Empathy can be an arrogant notion in real life. I mean how do you know if what you sense about another person is what that person is really thinking or feeling?

Sympathy is understandable cuz it's just your feeling for others regardless of what they know or think. Esme Cullen is full of sympathy regardless of what she thinks or knows about others. She's Mrs. Good Will Mother.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxI1zzqO0QY

Empathy, in contrast, implies you can get inside their heads. But can you really?

Of course, in arts--as opposed to reality--, empathy is absolutely necessary for fiction is speculative.
Obviously, superior writers are better able to 'enter' into the minds of other characters and look through the nooks and crannies, ferret out agendas and complexes(though they could actually be projecting their own feelings onto others). There are lots of shades and nuances in the characters in Chekhov plays. Never read him but I did see this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BNo24lHSvQI

Good movie. Chekhov, it seems, understood that much remained unsaid, especially in the bourgeois milieu where people put up respectable facades. Same might be said of Jane Austen novels though I never read any.

But I wonder if empathy really matters much in our much more casual let-it-all-hang-out culture. People now openly talk of their lusts, fantasies, vaginas, dicks, hatreds(as long as not politically incorrect), and etc.
Empathy was necessary in traditional bourgeois society cuz you had to read the 'hidden self' underneath the respectable self. This was why Freud was so big. He claimed to see into the real hidden self beneath the respectable bourgeois self.

But now when girls say 'vagina, vagina' and act like Miley Cyrus and when guys openly say dick jokes in front of their female friends, when manners and graces have fallen by the wayside, why need to 'read' anyone's heart or mind?
Ours is not the age of empathy but the age of emphasis.

So, on youtube, college educated girls get together to discuss sex and go dick, dick, dick, dick, dick.
Also, with the decline of old line feminism, even progo guys yammer nonstop about tits and asses. Even lib guys on facebook post tons of pics with 'bodacious' looking hos.

Also, given that much of our culture focuses on criminals, thugs, gangsters, and etc, is empathy necessarily moral? After empathizing with Sopranos, meth dealing baldie on Breaking Bad, F-word spewing fools in Deadwood, lardass in Lost(who must be wicked cuz he must eating up more than his share of the food supply on the island for he doesn't seem to lose an ounce), isn't empathy in much of our culture a matter of identifying with grubsters?
And if libs are so into empathy, why are so lacking in their understanding of those who fear black crime, illegal invasion, etc?

Also, true empathy isn't merely about 'understanding' and 'agreeing' with others but looking through their mask, seeing the true agenda, and being critical.
But Critical Empathy is something that is hardly discussed. As media define 'empathy', it mainly means we should identify with homos, illegals(as undocumented), rich Jews(by pretending they're poor helpless Jews), and blacks as Magic Negroes.
It's empty empathy.

Of course, if you're truly critically empathetic about Jews and posit that Jews have hidden agendas they won't discuss openly, you are not praised for your power of empathy but attacked for being paranoid.


gubbler of the church of reformed chechenism said...

"Life is an extended series of IQ tests"

Academia--at least in hard sciences--and working in science/technology fields are like series of IQ tests.

Life is a series of IHIQ tests--intelligently handling idiots tests.

Politicians look at us as idiots to fool. They find intelligent ways to dupe the idiots.
Hollywood sees us as dummies who want dummy stuff, and it looks for intelligent ways to come up with stuff idiots like.

Anonymous said...

I read a lot of so called "literarture" and i'm about as emotionally distant as they come in face to face interactions.

Anonymous said...

Why is it that so many bookworms and cinephiles who are into 'high culture' stuff are socially so clueless?

Maybe one bad thing about empathy is you spend too much time trying to feel and think what others are feeling/thinking without putting your own feelings, thoughts, and agendas on the line.

I mean Zelig went too far with that stuff.

Steve Sailer said...

" "tequila makes her clothes come off""

Yes, that also always gets played during my 15 minutes per month of country radio station listening.

Anonymous said...

"Calling its products "literary fiction" leads many bright-but-otherwise-uninformed people to accept the idea that the only serious/substantial book-fiction of our era are the products of the creative-writing world."

I dunno. Colleges teach Stephen King. Many critics praised Harry Potter very highly as good literature.

And it seems even most young popular writers are products of creative writing classes.

It's like filmmakers, high or low, all tend to be film school grads now.

Anonymous said...

It seems a lot of serious literature are essentially self-absorbed. It's about writers going on and on about 'my personal problem' than about showing much interest in the larger world. I think Tom Wolfe once said this about much of modern serious literature. That they withdrew from the the larger world and time and dwelt too much on the neurosis of the self... like some of Bergman films of the late 60s and 70s when Bergman pretty much shut himself off from the world in his tiny island. I can't find that video but this video says much the same.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xob_W0mbo5E

Anonymous said...

Was Bonfire of the Vanities a big success for its subject of race or its 'lifestyles of the rich and famous' aspect?

Something Gatsby-like in a woman causing the problem but guy taking the rap?

Steve Sailer said...

"psychological horror"

That could be. Would explain the post-Chekhov nightmares.

sunbeam said...

I like fantasy and science fiction. It's really the only form of literature I've ever read for fun and enjoyment.

There have been a select few books like Huckleberry Finn, Robinson Crusoe, The Three Musketeers, Journal of the Plague Year (for some reason) that I've read and enjoyed outside those genres. But not many.

I guess I'm a new ager or something. I don't feel the slightest iota of guilt for not having read Chekhov. I don't have the slightest desire to read it.

And the same goes for other serious books of fiction, stuff like Catch 22, any kind of spy book, military fiction, anything to do with relationships, you name it, I have no interest in it.

This isn't meant in any vaguely derogatory manner, I just don't think it is worth the time to read.

A few years ago I read a semi-decent story arc in the Marvel Ultimates Universe. The story isn't important, but the Deus Ex Machina was that they built a device that created portals to other dimensions. They used this device to repel an attack by a horrible version of Galactus (don't ask). The angle was "It's always the Big Bang somewhere." So you just open a portal that only has one side, right in front of "him."

That's big man. Cool. Interesting. In a way that a 19th century Russian nobleman with a collection of peasants, mistresses, and Masterpiece Theatre clothing never will be.

Now I can read things like that, or something that makes me better (so they say) at reading the contextual clues other people give. Since my fondest fantasy would be to have so much F-U money that I could dispense with the necessity of having to have to deal with people and their crap, it's kind of hard to generate any enthusiasm for serious literature.

So other people can read Lolita, American Psycho, Bonfire of the Vanities, Back to Blood whatever.

I just don't care. The oddest thing is that I think I am more in tune with the place that changing technology is taking us to, than Chekhov is.

He was basically a human from an age as antediluvian as Atlantis (Yeah I know, but that's how I roll).

David said...

By "fit for fiction" I don't mean superior or inferior on any dimension (including empathy/sympathy); I only mean having that preference.

Theoretically, wouldn't visual media (TV, movies) be at least at good at priming social perceptiveness as written fiction is? After all, the viewer, unlike the reader, sees the characters' (actors') faces, hears their voices, etc. Written fiction offers inner soliloquies but seems relatively clumsy or roundabout when it comes to visual reproduction (no matter how clever the writing style may be). For seeing a laughing or tear-stained face or observing emotional dialogue, nothing beats seeing/hearing same IMO. Both the movie and the novel have strengths and weaknesses, so absorbing only either one of these media isn't a bad deal.

Hitchcock told a joke about two goats eating a pile of film cans. One goat says to the other, "Personally, I prefer the book."

Dahlia said...

"Yes, that also always gets played during my 15 minutes per month of country radio station listening."

Wow, your DJ is taking the new country badly. There aren't many songs like that and those particular two are separated by over a decade. I did some looking around to try to put a period when the softer spoken guys, meh women, and whiny girls took over and it seems to have started around 2007-2008. It was still very enjoyable, but the takeover seems to have been mostly complete in just the past year or so. I hope it's just a lull...

They say country music is more popular than ever, though. I read the other day it's the number one genre during the morning traffic commute and number two for evening (Or was it the other way around?) I find Eric Church's "Smoke a Little Smoke" the best song in probably the last five years, but his "Springsteen" is far more popular.
In other words, I'm out of step nowadays.

David said...

Nightmares: Gogol. There's psychological ghastliness for you. Here's his wiki write-up; "Style" is the most relevant section.

As for Chekhov, he apparently was the victim of severe physical abuse in childhood (which I never heard in school or saw in critical introductions to some anthologies). Dostoyevsky, as is well known, was in prison for years, was reportedly the victim of a mock execution there, and had epileptic seizures for 40 years. These two writers were great but often one's work is of a piece with one's life, and what lives.

By contrast with them, Tolstoy was an (overly?) vigorous count, wealthy, extroverted (albeit subject to spells of diminished mania). In his writings, alongside the infamous egotism runs a notable streak of healthiness, which Paul Johnson memorably praised in Intellectuals. (Johnson has a special sensitivity to certain Russian visual art as well and his opinions about it are interesting.)

carol said...

It's about writers going on and on about 'my personal problem' than about showing much interest in the larger world

On the contrary, a good writer is usually intensely absorbed in the personalities of other people. They seem to see outward better than most people.

Anonymous said...

burnt by the sun is chekhovian

Diederik Stapel said...

Reading Chekov teaches you to notice situations where a gun is definitely going to be used eventually

Silver said...

David,
"Anyone have this experience? You're reading a novel and become impatient with how silly it seems, but you maintain your interest by shifting focus to the writing quality: the aptness of the style, the effectiveness of the plot, etc.?"

Oh boy, have I ever had that experience. I tried yesterday for the third time in my life to read Thomas Pynchon (Gravity's Rainbow). I made a really determined effort, going over the more difficult sentences multiple times (there are plenty). The writing is so nonsensical it's virtually unreadable, so I had little choice but to try to focus on the esthetic effect of the word flow. Two or three hours of this but, nope, nothing there. I again gave up in disgust. I googled up some internet discussions to see if anyone else hated it as much as I did. Goddam that man has legions of nauseating raving fans. Nothing I've ever read on the internet has made me want to reach through the screen and punch someone's lights out as much as a Thomas Pynchon fan (and given my familiarity with the intellectual far right that's really saying something).

Interestingly, today I wondered whether I didn't perhaps somehow - say, subconsciously - get something out of my reading. I'm not at all keen to repeat the experience, so I guess I'll never know. But whereas yesterday I was adamant that it was completely and utterly worthless today I'm not so sure.


-----------------
*I just listened to that Tequila/clothes song on YT. Good God, what total rubbish. I can't believe how many views it has. The only country music I like (or at least can stand) is from the the 50s and 60s. (And Achy Breaky Heart, that's always great for drunken a singalong.)

Silver said...

Sunbeam,
"I like fantasy and science fiction. It's really the only form of literature I've ever read for fun and enjoyment.
There have been a select few books like Huckleberry Finn, Robinson Crusoe, The Three Musketeers, Journal of the Plague Year (for some reason) that I've read and enjoyed outside those genres. But not many."

I've enjoyed all the "classics" I've read (some much more than others, of course), but for me the best sci-fi and fantasy I've read is easily the equal of these classic works in terms of the enjoyment I've gotten.

That said, while I'd be the first to agree that a lot of "Serious Literature" is seriously overrated - and I'm not even talking about the postmodern stuff; those people are on another galaxy - some of it really is outstanding. Reading it is one of the most effective ways to grow as a person I know of. I would definitely regard myself a less complete person had I not been exposed to this literature. And the best is thing is that I'm by no means done yet. The literary treasure trove out there is as close to a "free" lunch we're likely to get. It's nigh on criminal to neglect it.

Anthony said...

Julian O'Dea asks one could learn more about human nature from War and Peace than from 50 Shades of Grey. Really? Which is read more by women?

While I haven't read War and Peace, I suspect Tolstoy understood women's desire to be dominated, and maybe even to be roughed up sexually, and wrote at least about the former in his books. But he understood so much more, too, so his novel wasn't an S&M instruction manual, because he had other things to say.

Anonymous said...

http://blog.penelopetrunk.com/2013/10/04/6-things-to-do-in-your-20s-to-make-your-30s-good/#more-12758

Anonymous said...

I'll be looking up stuff on comparisons between pre and post Darwin literature. I image the differences will be profound.
I, being a post-er, am very partial to writers like, Louis Ferdinand Celine who certainly accepts that man is an animal, but doesn't pretend to cherish the knowledge.
I would guess that pre Darwin, many an author would describe a character as he compared to the image and likeness of God, or the Devil; post Darwin, don't be surprised if man is often viewed as a gorilla, or a slug, driven only by appetites and aversion to pain.
I haven't read any Chekhov, but I find it interesting that both he and Celine were doctors who were sympathetic to the poor and both partial to a dark view.

P.S. Have all the literary readers abandoned here - there was a time, not too long ago, when if you even mentioned a book, you were guaranteed > 100 very eloquent comments.

Anonymous said...

What need for empathy in a culture like this?

Anonymous said...

"On the contrary, a good writer is usually intensely absorbed in the personalities of other people. They seem to see outward better than most people."

There are all kinds of good writers with different attitudes, approaches, temperaments, and etc. I would say a good writer just finds his own voice, and it can be whatever. A totally self-absorbed person can be a good writer or a bad one. A totally socially minded writer can be good or bad.

"see outward better than most people"

This is tricky. In some ways, each person is most himself/herself and least himself/herself. He or she sees through his/her own eyes and thinks with his/her own brains. But unless one is facing a mirror--usually not the case--, one is looking at OTHER people. So, one almost never sees oneself--and one's own voice sounds different to oneself than to others.

So, what often happens is people see through their eyes and feel through their hearts but identify with what they are seeing.
So, you got all these plainfaced or ugly fat chicks at Comicon for Twilight, and they are so busy looking at the big stars that they don't see themselves.
This has long been the weird thing about movies. All those women in the audience looking at Hollywood stars and identifying with them. Women love Gone with the Wind not because of the history but the Scarlett O'Hara character as their idealized mirror of ego, vanity, and looks.

I think that maybe the finer writers have a way of seeing not so much 'outward' as passing through the spaces between themselves and others and seeing through the eyes of others, but this also means the power to see oneself through the eyes of others, and this is something most people are loathe to do.

Julian O'Dea said...

Anthony, did he? I have never read Tolstoy. There are plenty of cultural items that imply women's desire to be dominated, which used to be in the middlebrow culture and in the public arena. These have mostly been forced out of the public square in recent years, although they have lately resurfaced on the Internet and in Fifty Shades of Grey, as guilty a female secret as a tray of bonbons.

Having said that, the rapelike scene in Blade Runner might have been female "fan service". A scene I discussed at length at my blog recently. So, it still tends to sneak through even in the mainstream sometimes.

Anonymous said...

http://stuartschneiderman.blogspot.com/2013/10/why-teach-great-literature.html

One main difference between entertainment and art is the former gives the audience what they want. It panders to them, coddles them, flatters them, etc. So, there is no pressure on the audience to think and feel beyond conventions.

The latter try to explore and convey some kind of truth that goes against the grain of our fantasies and expectations. Therefore, they can be challenging and even upsetting. But they help you break out of the shell. It makes you broaden your palate away from just the sweet and creamy stuff.

Liberalism(at its best and truest) has this advantage over conservatism. It has the will to break out of the shell of comfort.

Cassavetes's HUSBANDS isn't an happy experience but it said so much about his generation of men.

And this film was upsetting, even tiring, but it seemed true to life and did affect me.

Anonymous said...

Art challenges one's convictions and tastes with the prickly 'truth', entertainment confirms them with soothing fantasies. One forces the reader out of the comfort zone, the other erects barriers around them. Platoon: grappling with ugly truth. Rambo: war porn fantasy.

But when art becomes 'art' controlled by academia, it becomes just another comfort zone formula with its self-referentiality.

PS. Jews cannot even accept the truth of their power. They are living in some kind of Zardozian comfort zone. And people who speak the truth are exiled from the Vortex. Look at Rick Sanchez. Richwine.

The Lib Jewish idea of 'reality'?
KKK at Oberlin.

Anonymous said...

"It found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking."

The virtue of serious non-fiction is it has to stick to facts, data, and record, but this obligation restrains speculative-ness on the part of the writer. When biographers like Albert Goldman veer into speculation territory, they are generally condemned.

The other kind of serious non-fiction is political, opinionated or ideological, and this type usually offers a b/w view of the world. Agree or disagree. So many books yammering about 'racism', 'sexism', 'homophobia', etc.

Serious fiction, in contrast, requires the artist to, at the very least, mold even the characters he loathes with some degree of empathy and understanding.
So, Stone's Untold History is just dreary ideological yammering and sermonizing, but his NIXON tries to understand the character from underneath his skin.

Mr. Anon said...

"Silver said...

Interestingly, today I wondered whether I didn't perhaps somehow - say, subconsciously - get something out of my reading. I'm not at all keen to repeat the experience, so I guess I'll never know. But whereas yesterday I was adamant that it was completely and utterly worthless today I'm not so sure."

Your first impression was the sound one. Pynchon is garbage. Fetid, reeking garbage.

Anonymous said...

sunbeam said...
I like fantasy and science fiction. It's really the only form of literature I've ever read for fun and enjoyment.

I also prefer Ensign Pavel Chekov to Anton Chekhov.

Bottledwater said...

Theoretically, wouldn't visual media (TV, movies) be at least at good at priming social perceptiveness as written fiction is? After all, the viewer, unlike the reader, sees the characters' (actors') faces, hears their voices, etc. Written fiction offers inner soliloquies but seems relatively clumsy or roundabout when it comes to visual reproduction (no matter how clever the writing style may be). For seeing a laughing or tear-stained face or observing emotional dialogue, nothing beats seeing/hearing same IMO. Both the movie and the novel have strengths and weaknesses, so absorbing only either one of these media isn't a bad deal.

Perhaps watching reality TV would be the best of all, because not only do you have visual AND verbal cues ,but you're observing the behavior of real people (though in contrived situations), not some autistic writer's idea of how real people behave and some actors interpretation of the emotion and facial expression

Bottledwater said...

An alternative explanation is that three to five minutes of Chekhov doesn't raise these capabilities meaningfully, it just primes people into making the effort to respond well on the test. Chekhov is such a striking reminder of how psychologically perceptive a member of the human race can be that he encourages you to up your game, at least for a little while.

Bingo. I seriously doubt reading a few minutes of literature, or even a few hours, has a meaningful impact on Theory of Mind. Far more likely is that one intellectual challenge helps motivate and discipline you for another. It's not unlike the studies that find that kids perform better on IQ tests during the school year and scores decline in the summer holidays.

Did this study have any kind of control test that didn't measure ToM, to see if the effect was limited to just social cognition?

Anonymous said...

"I seriously doubt reading a few minutes of literature, or even a few hours, has a meaningful impact on Theory of Mind."

Yeah, few minutes are dubious. But even a little of something can alter one's view of life and world.

I remember in high school film class, we were shown snippets of foreign films, but they did leave an impression on me.

A few passages from the Bible or Greek mythology can be illuminating.
It's like to a hungry person, even a spoonful can be very nourishing.

Maybe the Chekhov piece left such an impression on the participants because they were so starved for meaning and depth in a culture that slams us with the obvious, puerile, vulgar, and sensational.

In a more literary era, maybe it wouldn't have been so impressionable. But to today's kids who are so used to violence, gore, and fast-furious-flashy stuff, it might have struck a chord as something different and special.
It's like to someone living under communism, a single rock song can feel like a life-changing event.

Btw, one of the snippets of foreign films shown in the cinema class was this one:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ijs1SoOlgho

Maybe nothing special to someone familiar with French cinema, but it opened my eyes as something so different from what I'd grown accustomed from Hollywood and TV.

I'm not a fan of poetry--and I find most of it rather intimidating--, but when I come upon some poetic passages(mostly by accident in movies), they can make me see the world with new eyes.

I don't like Hannah and Her Sisters, but the ee cummings poem quoted in the film availed nuances of imagery and emotions I didn't know existed.
It was something more than roses are red, violets are blue...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ieoFkuu_aNM

-------

Batman good.

http://youtu.be/JoXY69YMeUA?t=1h27m11s

Don Quixote better(though I don't know how he read it in one afternoon).

http://youtu.be/JoXY69YMeUA?t=1h41m59s

---------

But here's a problem. What if empathy turns into identification where the reader/viewer comes to embrace the character as his/her alter ego?
Immersion-empathy or immerthy. Instead of understanding other people, one might lose oneself in the other person, as the woman faces the danger of doing so in PERSONA.

And think of Chapman who fused into one with Holden Caulfield.

Mr. Anon said...

"Anonymous said...

Cassavetes's HUSBANDS isn't an happy experience but it said so much about his generation of men."

Cassavetes specialized in those depressing, cinema-verite, slice-of-life movies. Another good one of his (by which I mean a depressing, grim, soul-crushing movie) is "Faces" (1968):

Faces

And if you're really looking for a reason to slit your wrists, try watching "Wanda" (1970), by Barbara Loden:

Wanda

Enjoy!



BB753 said...

I just made a longish comment plugging Austrian author Thomas Bernhard, and lamenting Céline´s fall from grace after WWII, just in time to have an influence on Arthur Miller and Jack Kerouac (who read it in the origina French).
After all, we still read Stendhal even though he was as compromised with Napoleon as Céline was with Pétain.
As for Bernhard, I can´t believe
he´s less popular than Houellebecq in the USA!
Start with Old Masters and Wittgensein´s Nephew. If you manage to keep your sanity after reading Correction however, you´ll thank me later.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Bernhard




Anonymous said...

http://www.thedaysofyore.com/molly_haskell/

She got sooooooo angry.

Anonymous said...

http://www.newrepublic.com/article/114887/stanley-kauffmann-truman-capotes-cold-blood

Anonymous said...

http://www.nydailynews.com/blogs/pageviews/2013/10/jonathan-franzen-slams-social-media-as-%E2%80%98a-coercive-development%E2%80%99

Anonymous said...

"Start with Old Masters and Wittgensein´s Nephew. If you manage to keep your sanity after reading Correction however, you´ll thank me later.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Bernhard"

On your recommendation, I've read Wittgensein's Nephew, and, because Old Masters isn't in kindle version, The Loser (I held off from Correction since you implied that it should be the finale).
Bernhard's style is pure Celine but I haven't seen a reviewer mention it. The major difference is that Celine writes from the perspective of someone who has always been up-against-it. Bernhard's tragic characters are for the most part from a privileged class but cannot distinguish themselves, they are pathetic second-stringers. The saddest and, I think, the most HBD, theme in The Loser is that when you've lost your status, there is no retreat to the lower class - there is no reception or kinship or culture for you there.
The material doesn't require any esoteric prerequisites, which suits me just fine, since my middle-aged, weary self just isn't up to getting re-educated to read a novel, but I knew I had to read Bernhard when I looked up his quotes, which is now my filtering method for every prospective read, and his first was this: “Instead of committing suicide, people go to work.” - if this isn't your preferred flavor of insight-porn, his stuff isn't for you.