The Joy of Fiction and Useless Things

For some reason, I hadn’t read a proper novel in ages. It’s all too easy to get lost in popular science books, general non-fiction and the nebulous rabbit hole of self-improvement. In the end, telling stories is something inherently human, and we lose something when we don’t have good fiction in our lives.

The last time I read fiction was Mo Yan’s the Garlic Ballads in 2015, a good three years ago. There’s nothing inherently wrong with non-fiction, and perhaps only I’m burnt out on it.

There’s something about most contemporary non-fiction that has begun to grate me. More and more, I see a lot of what I read as part of an idealogical milieu that I’m not entirely comfortable with.

Magical thinking

Religion, properly speaking, isn’t merely placating divinities. It’s a much wider set of assumptions and practices that form one’s worldview and day-to-day life. It’s easier to start with the opposite of religious, or magical thinking. From the Bāhiya Sutta:

In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself…This, just this, is the end of stress.

The opposite of magical thinking is a strict empiricism stripped of idealogical overlays. The question of what assumptions we bring to the table isn’t asked enough. Instead, there’s an arrogant dismissiveness that we, as moderns, are free of bias. Chuck Klosterman, openly asks what if we’re wrong? We need more of such thinkers.

So what are the assumptions that most of us carry? On a societal level, there’s a blind faith in the ability of technology, medicine and science to improve life. Tech is not looked at as dispassionately as a tool, like the way we look at a shovel; no, all of our problems are going to be solved with the latest iPhone app!

On a personal level, many of us assume that spending a large percentage of our income on travel is the route to personal fulfillment. When we’re on the road, much of our time is devoted to taking pictures, sharing them and gathering social acceptance via social media likes. This is no more rational than going on pilgrimage to see the relic of a saint and distributing scraps of cloth you touched the relic with upon returning home.

Travel is just one example, but there are plenty of more odd quirks that we moderns posses that our ancestors would simply not understand.

The new demons afflicting society are anxiety, depression and whatever form of malaise is in vogue. Our exorcists are the pharmacopeia, psychology and self-help—none of which seem to be particularly effective given that anxiety, depression and drug addiction are only getting worse.

Self-improvement as the new secular religion

Years ago, there was a piece about TED talks being tent rival sermons. I read it and mostly ignored it as hyperbole. Since then, I’ve worked mostly in the tech industry. Was I wrong.

Another faucet of magical thinking is the hagiography of CEOs. True to form, there are plenty of logical failures here, foremost among them survivorship bias. This is more than a passing phenomenon, books like the Tools of Titans and the Millionaire Next Door are huge sellers.

GQ’s interview with Svend Brinkmann is worth the entire read. From the article:

We’ve become so obsessed with looking inward and trying to achieve our ideals, he says, that it’s actually made us less equipped to be a human on the outside.

Taking a relaxing walk, putzing around, a bike ride or just vegging out are now sinful. More to the point, it’s sinful to admit that you loved the pointlessness of whatever you did. You have to invent some pretext that you worked hard this week so you needed to just chill over the weekend, or that biking fits into some fitness plan you have or that you snapped the perfect Instagram sunset on your walk. Being human for the sake of being human doesn’t cut it anymore.

My life as a missionary

The American missionaries of a century ago brought the English language packaged in WASP culture and religion to the unwashed masses. I’ve unwittingly done the same thing as an English teacher. So much of the ‘content’ out there is cut from the cloth of the new religion.

Self-improvement blogs made great topics for English classes, and I dutifully used them for years. This is no more neutral of a subject matter than using the New Testament to learn English.

With time I realized how on edge of all this made me—wanting to optimize every little thing in my life, wake up early, ready a million books, eat the perfect diet. This is religious zealotry.

The backlash

The new religion isn’t without its heretics. Classical Stoicism and Early Buddhism have been quietly entering the conversation. I certainly don’t mean the self-absorbed mindfulness and memes with exotic looking people saying vaguely uplifting things. I’m talking about the real thing: the world sucks, there are shitty things you can’t change, deal with it and find a way to make peace with all of this.

The lure of TED and self-help is that a 20-minute talk is going to solve all of the world’s problems. The Stoics and Buddhists harbor no such pretense. Nor, do they wallow in fatalism. Instead, there’s breathing room to be human, accept your limitations and do what you can.

Spending a day staring at the ceiling is something Montaigne would have had no problem with. I can’t picture a peppy TED talk allowing such an indulgence unless there was data proving that it actually made you more productive in the long run.

The most popular anti-self-help is none other than Jordan Peterson. Those in the mainstream still can’t come to grips with why he’s become so popular. Simple, no-nonsense advice and blasphemous rejection of identity politics are what have made Peterson so popular in a field filled with fluff and frivolity.

Relishing fiction

My revolt was to read the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, 600 pages of uselessness. I didn’t learn anything, find out how to be better at something or optimize whatever. We shouldn’t be too quick to throw out fiction or dismiss its importance. Nor should we limit fiction to the ossified classics.

It’s easy to forget this, but I’m going to make it a point to read more novels. Taking a break from productivity and usefulness is what we all need to do in order to not sell our humanity to the cult of self-improvement.