(Feature) Reading With a Tin Foil Hat

Those who compulsively hate on what’s popular never think that’s what they’re doing. Like the paranoiac who believes his tin foil hat is all that saves him from the government machine, these people legitimately confuse their tastes with objective fact and try to save the rest of us from ours.

I know because I used to be that guy. Enough decades separate us now that he almost seems a different person, but I know he never would’ve accepted that sometimes it’s enough to just leave it be, nor even that if you do so, you’re not “letting” people have their fun. Their fun is theirs and you have no claim to it.

Unfortunately, there are enough such people in the world that, as a consequence, there also those who assume if you speak against a popular movie or song, you’re just being difficult. I’m not sure that’s any better, honestly.

I’m finicky with novels. I just have to accept that.

I don’t want to be. I’d rather be carefree with my enjoyment, like I am with movies and like I used to be when I read voraciously, before I made the craft of fiction my job. I miss the exhilaration of reading, which feels every bit like the excitement of a first date.

But one’s faculties are not like iron. They don’t dull with use but actually sharpen. They weaken only with inactivity, like muscle.

There is no common definition of what makes a novel “good,” thankfully. If there were, it would be as simple as replicating that and writing novels would be prosaic, like cutting grass.

There are many prosaic novels, of course — orders of magnitude more than good ones. It’s where the word comes from.

But good and popular and prosaic and unpopular are not on the same axis. There’s nothing that says a popular novel can’t also be a prosaic one.

The difference is that, while there is no common definition of “good,” we can broadly sketch what makes a novel prosaic. If you don’t know, all the better. That means you can enjoy what’s popular and not have to worry about whether it’s any good.


But there is value in reading, even bad novels. A new study suggests reading actually changes the brain.

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” says neuroscientist Gregory Berns, lead author of the study and the director of Emory University’s Center for Neuropolicy. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

The neural changes were not just immediate reactions, he says, since they persisted the morning after the readings, and for the five days after the participants completed the novel.

“It remains an open question how long these neural changes might last, but the fact that we’re detecting them over a few days for a randomly assigned novel suggests that your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain.”

“Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” says Berns.

It’s a two-edged sword, of course. On the one hand, the brain hungers for narrative. So it is, within hours of Jeffrey Epstein’s death, millions of people on Twitter and around the world were already sharing coherent narratives for why it happened and who was to blame, despite that not a single human on the planet yet had even half the facts.

So, too, people take to YouTube the moment a trailer comes out to dissect all 200 seconds of it and unpack from that the whole of the two-hour movie that won’t be released for five months.

It’s as if the brain is a kind of anti-Heisenberg machine. It cannot exist in a state of uncertainty. It MUST decide, and having decided, will stick to it. The particle will never again be a wave, and vice versa.

Indeed, several days after Saturday’s events, we’re still told there are only two possible suspects in the whole world, which is of course a way of orienting this episode — indeed, of making it an episode — within the larger drama of this season of American Politics, which pits a single set of good guys (with a leader) against a single set of bad guys (with a leader), with the entire country at stake!

And people make fun of superhero movies…

I alternate between feeling sorry for those folks and feeling angry at them. They are the reason we can’t have nice things.

Of course, at the other extreme, that same narrative-seeking plasticity can, with time, training, and effort, liberate us from itself, the same way a puzzle box can be locked and unlocked with no key.

Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog.

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like a night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

–C.S. Lewis


Incidentally, this is why I can’t truck with these folks who say that if a book is racist or sexist or whatever, we should discourage students from reading it. That suggests, for one, that the list of Party-approved authors are noble–and so, by association, the Party and all its members.

Authors are not noble. We’re not that kind of species. But even if by some miracle yours are, I don’t read Nabokov–or better yet Bukowski, because he’s noble. He’s not. He’s despicable. Grimy. He oozes resentment and stale tobacco.

I read Bukowski because such people exist, and because he does it so well he takes me outside myself. To proscribe the mean, the foreign, the nasty is to leach literature of its singular value and reduce it to the mechanical act of inculcation, which I suspect is the point — not to empower the student to enervate her own destiny, but to take out something we don’t like and put something else in its place.


I don’t want to go off on too many tangents, but one final and exciting implication of the study is that emergent properties, like consciousness, can alter the world in a top-down fashion.

This is opposed the pure reductive model, which says that all complex phenomena are built up from smaller and smaller parts.

That’s not to say complex phenomena aren’t mediated by some kind of substrate. Brains cause minds. They don’t simply hold them. It’s not at all clear yet that you can have a mind without a brain, or similar structure, to mediate it.

In fact, I doubt it. A mind is not a “thing” in the classical sense, which is why there’s so much shoddy thinking about consciousness: it requires a new category of existence. I doubt a mind can be ported, for example, and remain the same mind, despite the dreams of science fiction writers.

But that takes us too far afield. The point is simply that emergent phenomena like minds can alter the physical structure of the world in ways that couldn’t happen if they were nothing but a collection of bits, and that the humble act of reading participates in that.

Sofia Bonati2
art by Sofia Bonati