Bro, Do You Even Lit? Why I Switched to Reading Fiction

the benefits of reading fiction: never skip brain day


Almost all my adult life I’ve been an infovore obsessed with hoovering up all the knowledge. Then a year ago I joined a book club in which non-fiction was strictly prohibited.

This is the second-best thing to happen to me in recent memory.

I’ll say why, and why I don’t regret my initial fixation on non-fiction, but first: an invitation to get involved with the book club!

It started when my friends Cam, Benny and I discovered we’d all had David Foster Wallace’s monstrous Infinite Jest on our reading list for years, but were too intimidated to take it on. So we broke it up into instalments, put our heads together each week, and knocked the bastard off.

That was fun, so we picked another book. In the last year, we’ve tackled Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, Houellebecq, Herman Hesse, Kafka, Isaac Singer, J.M. Coetzee, Mary Shelley, Woolf, Borges, John Williams, Maugham, Beckett, and Philip K Dick.

We started recording our meetings, which I uploaded to a private RSS feed for easy access. Then I realised it wouldn’t take much marginal effort to clean up the audio and make it public. And so, almost by accident, we succumbed to the honeyed voice that whispers in the ear of every man over the age of thirty: ‘you should start a podcast…’

do you even lit podcast art
…well? do ya?

The concept is that we are STEM/finance dorks (Cam is a data analyst with a background in economics, Benny is doing his PhD in machine learning and statistics) trying to learn about literary fiction and classics. Our quest: to fuse the typically non-overlapping domains of tech bros and lit bros, and become perhaps the most annoying type of person of all time.

Here’s a link to the feed on Apple Podcasts. Here’s Spotify. Here’s PocketCasts. If you use another app you should be able to search the pod name and it’ll come up.

A warning: Because this wasn’t originally intended for public consumption, the audio quality initially was shit (it’s a lot better now). Also, this is a loose conversation between friends, which means it’s far less carefully considered than my writing here on the blog, often rude, and occasionally downright disgusting. Mum! Don’t listen!

We usually shoot for ~100 pages a week. If anyone wants to read along with us, I’ve made an email address for correspondence, and I’ll maybe set up a discord channel or something at some point.

UPDATE: I’ve added a page where you can filter all the books we’ve read by genre and topic, which gets updated every time we release a new episode.

Here’s our shortlist of books coming down the pike (order to be confirmed):

So that’s that.

Having just hit our one-year anniversary, here are my reflections on the benefits of reading fiction.


Reading Fiction as an Empathy Pump

Fiction lets you slip into someone else’s skin and look out through their eyes.

Authors like Virginia Woolf and David Foster Wallace take this about as far as it can go, forcing the reader to inhabit a fragmented kaleidoscope of thoughts that jump around in space and time, loop through inner dialogues and ruminatory spirals, and generally create the subjective experience of running someone else’s subroutine, which if conveyed with perfect fidelity, is indistinguishable from being that person.

fiction as an empathy pump that lets you peep out through the eyeholes of another mind

This is fiction as an empathy pump: not that you always feel sorry for the characters whose skin you are trying on—that would be sympathy—but that you’re better able to model the inner workings of minds very different to your own: what motivates them, how they respond to certain circumstances, and why they might think or act differently to someone like you.

Of course we never get perfect fidelity or even close to it. And few writers are as talented as Woolf or Wallace. But you still get to squint through the keyhole and catch a glimpse into the inner life of an emperor, a slave, a member of the opposite sex, an old person, a depressive, a narcissist, a dying person, or anyone experiencing one of the many and varied facets of the human condition we will never access ourselves.

The go-to claim for the benefits of reading fiction is that it helps us connect with people who are different to us. But there are two refinements I want to make to the standard argument. The first is that actually, one of the most powerful things that fiction can do is to help you empathise with yourself.


Reading Fiction to Better Understand Yourself

Why is there a certain type of person who reads David Foster Wallace? Why is that person very likely white, male, middle-class, well-educated, and prone to pathological self-consciousness around their own motivations and their failure to connect with people?

If fiction is an empathy pump, the DFW guys are making a big mistake: they already know all too well what it’s like to be this kind of person! They should be reading literally anyone else to broaden their perspective. Meanwhile, DFW’s readership should be composed of self-assured working-class women of colour who have deep roots in their community, or something.

Obviously this is not a good description of reality. The stories we enjoy the most are often those where we identify strongly with the characters.

he just like me fr

I don’t think this is a mistake: you live in your own head, you are the person whose bullshit you have to deal with most frequently. You may not be the sole source of the problems you have to solve, but you are typically the only one who can solve them.

So it’s not narcissistic to be drawn to stories about people like you. Recognising yourself is often a deeply uncomfortable experience anyway, and while some texts might directly serve up some take-home insights or morals, mostly you’re gonna have to do the work yourself.

I love DFW and think he has a lot of important wisdom to share, but he also struggled to overcome the major problems in his life, did various fucked-up things, and ultimately killed himself. It has been a useful exercise as a fan to figure out where I think he goes wrong, both on the page and off of it (see episode 2 of Brief Interviews for criticism of his writing, and episode 3 for criticism of him as a role model or guru). Which is another way of asking: what are the kind of traps that people like me tend to fall into?


Fiction as Non-Compressible Knowledge

some books being compressed. wrong! bad!

 

I don’t want to say no book is ever worth reading, but I actually do believe something pretty close to that… If you wrote a book, you fucked up, and it should have been a six-paragraph blog post.

—Sam Bankman-Fried, fraudster

There is this trend where people love to claim most books should be blog posts, most blog posts should be a tweet, etc. I think this is braindead and the people saying it are telling on themselves: if your entire conception of reading is airport business books, OK, sure.

Having closely followed the aftermath of the FTX implosion, I have a very strong sense that what went wrong is that Bankman-Fried reached the kind of incredible heights of stupidity that only very smart people are capable of. Or in the language of the classics he didn’t read, he fell victim to hubris.

Fiction contains something that I want very badly to call deep knowledge about the world. By its very nature, this type of knowledge cannot be compressed. It has to be felt on a visceral level, perhaps over the course of hundreds of pages, through a genuine human connection fostered between author and reader. If you read a six-paragraph blog post instead, you fucked up.

This is the same problem as when you trip balls and have a deep whole-body epiphany that ‘love really is the answer’. As soon as you start trying to speak the words turn to ash in your mouth. You sound like a moron. It doesn’t compress well!

This is the same problem as when you try to review Infinite Jest and realise it’s impossible, because the medium is the message: the act of slogging through this big heavy phonebook of a novel is a metatextual homily about the importance of overcoming passivity, and reminding yourself every day of the deep truths buried within apparent clichés, and how the work of fending off loneliness and self-worship and addiction never, ever comes to an end; the moment you think you’re done you just loop back to the start again. If you read the SparkNotes you will only ever pick up some faint ghostly imprint of the book’s themes. It doesn’t compress well!

I’m not saying that all fiction contains deep truths or couldn’t possibly have been edited down into a slimmer volume. Ninety percent of everything is shit.

But there is a lot of knowledge out there that is, for want of a better word, phenomenological. Usually this can only be acquired by direct experience, i.e. getting off your ass and actually doing the thing. Any other kind of transmission is lossy, but fiction is probably the best tool we have for conveying experiential knowledge across continents and millennia. And you don’t even have to get off your ass!


Fiction as a Delivery Vehicle: Humans Just Love Stories

We are social animals: we want to know who is doing what to who. Writers love to exploit this tendency by wrapping up factual knowledge or polemic in the form of a story.

Neil Stephenson famously treats characters and plotlines as an afterthought to infodumps on whatever topic he happens to be interested in. Ayn Rand is in some sense a terrible novelist—the climax of her magnus opus is a 90-page monologue on economic philosophy—but I can still picture her archetypal characters as if they were carved in stone, and can even quote a few lines from memory.

If you want to spread certain memes, packaging them up with memorable characters who interact in dramatic ways is a very effective method: I think philosophers in particular should write more fiction.

The extent to which I enjoy infodumps very much depends on the info being dumped. The Razor’s Edge ultimately turned into a delivery vehicle for bringing Eastern philosophy to the West, which would have been fascinating in 1944, but wasn’t a great payoff for me today (episodes 1, 2, 3). Other stuff holds up better: Dostoyevsky is still pretty great on the problem of evil; Houellebecq has refreshingly intelligent critiques of consumer capitalism (The Map and The Territory episodes 1, 2, 3).


Fiction vs Non-Fiction: Which Order to Read In?

When I was in my late teens and early twenties I tried reading ‘the classics’ and it just didn’t work. I didn’t get it. I started and abandoned Brothers Karamazov multiple times. I bounced hard off of Infinite Jest. Eventually I gave up and went back to sci-fi, which, again: mostly paper-thin characters as a wrapper for Facts and Ideas.

So what’s changed this time round?

In my Zettelkasten guide, I described how to build a lattice of mental models to store associative knowledge:

If we want to get compound interest on our knowledge, we have to stop all these precious ideas from draining straight back out the holes in our colander-brains. That means building a framework of mental models to ‘hook’ ideas as they drift down the river. Once they’re part of the structure, we can hang new ideas on them, and so on. We end up with a sprawling latticework that expands its surface area in a non-linear fashion; like beavers took a bunch of acid and built a four-dimensional dam out of coat hangers. Now when something comes floating down the river, we have any number of hooks to snag it with.

When I was 20, I just didn’t have much of a scaffold to hang things on. Reading nonfiction has been hugely helpful for building up a general model of the world: the vague outlines of history, central philosophical problems, how humans are wired from an evolutionary perspective.

Now I can enjoy seeing those ideas more fully-fleshed out and embedded in fiction, whereas doing it the other way around didn’t really work for me.

In nonfiction, the author takes you gently by the hand and walks you through their arguments as clearly and explicitly as possible. But one of the hallmarks of literary fiction in particular is that there are no convenient infodumps that explain stuff for the reader: there is a lot of assumed knowledge and allusion, as well as deliberate ambiguity or even misdirection on the part of the author (fuck you, Nabokov).

The other thing that’s changed is just that I’m older.

Life as a teenager is narrow and parochial: you probably spend your time with one family, one set of friends, one school, one town, one culture. The 15-year-old me had only experienced some tiny subset of the possible range of scenarios that good fiction treats.

A couple of decades later, I’m far more worldly—at least in the sense of having made lots of mistakes and being exposed to some of the grimier facets of the human condition.

If there is nothing to hang things on in your associative knowledge graph, your experience of art is that much less rich. So this points in favour for exploring pretty hard early in life, and also provides some much-needed cope for getting old. Almost everything else degrades; this just keeps getting better.

The first year of book club has already been incredible. I can’t even imagine how things might look after five years. Or ten. Or twenty. Let’s fucking go!

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Karol
Karol
14 days ago

Hey Richard, if you like non-fiction try Three Body Problem trilogy. It is much more philosophical than you could have thought 😉

Also if you haven’t tried it before, then I suggest give audiobooks a try. The quality has improved massively to what we had when we were kids and most of the time the narrators are experienced actors acting out their roles on world-class theatre/cinema level. Also sometimes there are audiobooks voiced by multiple actors – and if done properly these will just melt your brain. If you pair audiobooks with some high quality headphones – you’re set.

This way I read massive amount of fiction, including classics, and I keep coming back to my favourites.

Only downside I can see is the fact that voice actors, by definition, interpret the book as they read it.

Cheers and enjoy your books!

Karol
Karol
10 days ago

Rich, as an audiobook I can truly recommend “The Expanse” saga. It isn’t as philosophical as “Three Body Problem”, but is really solid series. The characters are very well built, the story is great and the plot and ideas behind them are interesting to say the least. And the narrator does really good job with voice acting.

Apart from that I enjoyed listening to “Apollo Murders” by Chris Hadfield (the astronaut) and “The Martian” and “Project Hail Mary” by Andy Weir. These books are even less philosophical but play into some really interesting ideas and have a great story. And also are a pleasurable experience.

But your post got me thinking and reminded me of one more book you might like “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera. It is hard to say what the book is about other than it is about life itself. It’s set mostly in communist Czechoslovakia and follows life of few interesting individuals. I think you would like it, but I have only listened to the original and I have no idea how good is the translation or listening experience.
Good luck and I wish you great reading experiences!

Merrell
Merrell
14 days ago

Awesome post Richard, stoked to see you blogging again!

Is Knausgard on the list at all for you guys? Reading the My Struggle series right now and the paragraph below could have been used word for word to describe Knausgard, definitely made me want to revisit DFW too and check out Woolf.

Authors like Virginia Woolf and David Foster Wallace take this about as far as it can go, forcing the reader to inhabit a fragmented kaleidoscope of thoughts that jump around in space and time, loop through inner dialogues and ruminatory spirals, and generally create the subjective experience of running someone else’s subroutine, which if conveyed with perfect fidelity, is indistinguishable from being that person.