Monday, January 21, 2013

Expand Your Mind With What You Don't Usually Read

True to my pledge to myself to spend the majority of my time reading and writing, I have been enjoying a feast of said pursuits, letting myself veer off into favorites that I don't often indulge in because they're not in my genre. Namely: nonfiction, short literary stories, and poetry. Actually I've been writing the poetry. Believe me, you don't want me to share that part.

Conventional wisdom about what writers should read says two things: read what you love to write, and read all over the spectrum. So I think you are allowed to pick whichever convention suits you best. This week, I choose all over the spectrum. Next week, I'll go back to my current genre (historical fiction . . . I've already got a great one lined up called The Great Pearl Heist by Crosby, which combines my two genre loves: historical, and mystery, plus some medical mystery stuff thrown in. OMG!!)

If you are interested in changing things up a bit and looking for books to read that are outside your genre, here are a couple of nonfiction books I've delved into recently that come highly recommended:

My Life As An Experiment by A. J. Jacobs.

This book is hilarious! My son gave it to me for Christmas.

Jacobs is a writer for Esquire whose assignments seem to revolve around immersing himself in various lifestyles or, even better, concepts, and living them fully, without stepping out of character ever, for a given period of time (often a month). My Life As An Experiment is a series of vignettes describing exactly what it was like to, for example, give up multitasking completely (which means that when you eat your breakfast cereal you do nothing else. You do not read, you do not talk, you do not watch television. You eat, and pay attention to what it's like to eat breakfast cereal). This one is fascinating, given the way our brains are being trained into multitasking, while studies show multitasking is NOT effective.

Other experiments include: 
  • completely outsourcing his life, including phone answering, email, arguing with his wife, etc. (if you've read Maria Semple's fiction bestseller, Where'd You Go, Bernadette, this will sound familiar)
  • the Rationality Project, in which the misleading biases natural to our brains are exorcised, and Jacobs does such important experiments as testing all the toothpaste brands he can find to determine which, rationally, is best
  • posing as a beautiful woman—one who he actually knows and who has given him permission to do so—on an internet dating site 
  • a major mind-bend: Radical Honesty—a movement created by a less-than appealing person, in my opinion, named Brad Blanton. Complete honesty, the good, the bad, and especially the ugly, are encouraged here. Oh, my.
  • the Ideal Husband month—A.J.'s wife, Julie, got to set all the rules for a month, and he took on all the household and childcare chores she normally handles (hint: he had no idea that most of these chores even existed—sound familiar??), plus he fulfilled her other wishes, like getting her little gifts. It's inspiring, and gets pretty darned funny when A.J. takes it to his own imagined level of 'ideal.'
There are quite a few other experiments, as well.

Jacobs is an engaging writer with a good sense of humor and, as he points out, a wife who is a saint to put up with all this. (Although she doesn't take it lying down, as he also points out. When he was doing his 'encyclopedia project' some years ago, for example, she fined him a dollar for every irrelevant fact that he inserted into conversation.) Definitely a fun read.

The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

This book focuses on the interaction between the technology explosion and brain activity. Brain science books are big these days, and this one is highly accessible. Carr opens up talking about Marshall McLuhan and his seminal work five decades ago about the power of technology to affect us. Even if you never read McLuhan, you probably know the phrase that is most remembered from his work: the medium is the message. It is not just that we get information and entertainment from a medium, like tv, it is that we become creatures of that medium to some extent in the way we think and live. McLuhan was talking about television at the time, but Carr points out how prophetic that phrase was for the world we live in now. (McLuhan also predicted the creation of the World Wide Web thirty years before it was developed.) Needless to say, Carr had me at his opening.

I'm only part-way into this book, but it is fascinating. Carr explains how the constant use of technology is actually reconfiguring not only how we think, but how our neural pathways are physically structured. That is huge.

Carr was a college student when personal computers were a glimmer in MacIntosh's eye, and he thrilled to each new technological development. But he was also trained, as part of his generation, to think critically and deeply by reading and analyzing tomes. He claims that now, because he is so used to using hyperlinks in online articles to find the information he needs for his job, and to think in terms of the most efficient way to obtain information, he's literally lost the ability to think in linear terms or read a book like War and Peace. Dire as this sounds, he also suggests that there's an upside to bouncing from source to source—the breadth of knowledge we can acquire, and the value of lateral thinking.

It looks like the medium may be even more than the message!

I love this book and know many others who do, as well.  (I'd have read it all by now if I had it in paper form rather than as an e-book. Yep, I love the paper! Those pretty pages just keep pulling me in like a siren, and that's what I reach for when I want to read, which means I forget I've got this other great book waiting for me in the ether! Wonder what McLuhan or Carr would have to say about that?)

I hope you enjoy these books as much as I have, and get some huge benefits out of shaking things up in your reading habits. The jury is still out on how this is working for me to bring fresh life to my writing, but I'll let you know when I've got enough pages down to get a glimmer. What happened with the Shawnee Indians and the settlers in the 1780s in the Ohio River Valley seems, literally, a world apart from these nonfiction romps, but can our understanding of what happened to those incredible individuals back then benefit from broader thinking? Something to contemplate.


  1. My Life As An Experiment sounds brilliant! Will have to give that one a look. don't normally read non-fiction so much but it sounds like a great read.

    This year I've set myself a goal of reading more international books (not including US although that is across the pond for me) just to mix things up a bit too. :)


    1. That sounds like an excellent plan, Mia. International writers def. expand our mindset!

  2. I think you're right that it's good to expand your horizons and read outside your genre. That's why I read Leigh Moore's Rouge, a romance, which is something I never read. And I've learned I like books in verse and contemporary stories by expanding my horizons. I don't read much non-fiction. Maybe I need to expand there too.

    1. Rouge looks great from your blog post, Natalie. That's fantastic about books in verse--I'd love to read some. What do you recommend? (I've been reading Keats' Endymion and loving it.) Are you talking Homer?? Or are there contemporary choices?

  3. Your post couldn't be better timed for me. I've been mixing it up a lot lately and reading outside of my genre. It's good, keeps the creative juices fresh.

    1. So glad to hear you say that, Heather. That's what I'm counting on! :)

  4. Those sound so funny! I am trying to incorporate more non-fiction in my life lately.

    1. Non-fiction can keep us grounded in real day-to-day behaviors and thinking, which is no bad thing for a fiction writer, right? I personally prefer the funny, whether direct or ironic/satirical/sardonic.

  5. Linda, Thanks for the great recommendations! I just ordered both books. I love to read a variety to genres, and these sound fascinating. As does your poetry.

    1. Hope you like them, Karlene, and I hope you're having a fabulous time at your screenwriters retreat!

  6. Hi, Linda,

    Thanks for the suggestions.... I am looking for unique books to read since I promised myself I would do A LOT more reading this year!

    If you get a chance I have a new excerpt up from my current WIP. It will be up until tomorrow, but if the other post is up, just scroll down.

    I remembered how much you liked my last one from this novella.

  7. Thanks for the recommendations Linda. I love reading and adding more to the list is always wonderful!