The implication is that nonfiction is a higher calling, that fiction is a frivolous pastime while nonfiction is a serious education. This has been a push-pull throughout the history of the novel, especially since early novels tended towards salacious or scandalous, more Danielle Steel than Ian McEwan.
Poet Samuel Coleridge, (1712 to 1835) stated his case thus:
I will run the risk of asserting that where the reading of novels prevails as a habit, it occasions in time the entire destruction of the powers of the mind: it is such an utter loss to the reader, that it is not so much to be called pass-time as kill-time. It…provokes no improvement of the intellect, but fills the mind with a mawkish and morbid sensibility, which is directly hostile to the cultivation, invigoration, and enlargement of the nobler powers of the understanding.
My brain must be a mawkish mess because I love a good novel (currently reading Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, thumbs up). I love nonfiction too, but the escape and emotional charge novels provide have always been preferable to me (unless we’re talking narrative nonfiction, like Erik Larson’s engaging histories or a book I recently read in practically one gulp, The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home).
So I was gratified to read this New York Times story about the neuroscience of reading fiction.
Elisha Goldstein’s book, The Now Effect, has sent my brain spinning in yet another direction.
A professor stood before a philosophy class holding an empty jar. As the students took their seats, she began filling the jar with golf balls. When they reached the top, she asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was. The professor then took a bag of pebbles and poured them into the jar, and they made their way between the spaces of the golf balls. Again she asked the students if the jar was full, and they agreed that it was.
But the professor had another trick up her sleeve. She brought out a bag of sand and proceeded to pour the grains into the jar, filling up more of the remaining space. Again the question came: “It’s full now, correct?” The answer was a resounding “Yes.”
The professor then took a sip of her coffee and dumped the rest into the jar, filling up spaces that no one thought was there.
The thought: how does our brain process negative space?
I picked up The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way To Get Results, Improve Your Relationships, Enhance Self-Esteem, by psychologist Guy Winch, in hopes of learning something about the chronic complainers in my life.
But the book taught me as much about myself as others.
Despite the many years that have passed since, I still wince remembering my last months on a job that had gone bad. I became the person whose friends ducked for cover when they saw me coming because they knew to expect a litany of complaints about my miserable life.
And a few years ago, when I was again floundering professionally, I realized with horror that friends had started looking at me with pity. It was an awful epiphany. As Winch points out. “By succumbing to the special attention pity offers us, the convenience of lowered expectations, and other secondary gains associated with being objects of others’ sorrow, we become victims in our own eyes as well as those of others.”
I am going to imprint those important words on my brain. I don’t want friends pitying or dodging me.
And while I’ve been feeling bad about wanting to avoid the chronic complainers in my life, this book helped me understand the risks of complaining for the sake of complaining.
There was one bright spot amid all the hand-wringing over Facebook and its supposedly negative effects on relationships. Psychologists thought that Facebook allows people with low self-esteem, who typically are wary of the kind of self-disclosure that fosters intimacy, feel safe enough to express themselves, thereby expanding their social networks. People with low self-esteem thought the same thing. Here, they thought, I can open up, show myself, make new friends.
(What’s Festivus? Watch the video here.)
Perhaps I shouldn’t admit to having anything in common with Frank Costanza. And I’d rather skip the Feats of Strength part of the holiday. And I haven’t put up a Festivus pole this year.
But the Airing of the Grievances? I’m all over it.
I’m not good at being a little ray of sunshine. I’m a pessimist and enjoy what I call recreational bitching and moaning. And I have found some good that can come of negative conversation—I wrote about it here.
So to air a grievance, I have to admit that I do get a little weary of people whose Facebook updates are relentlessly upbeat. And this is especially true during holidays.
My favorite is useful gifts. Socks, for example. A nice sweatshirt—nicer than I might buy myself. Something related to one of my hobbies. Food gifts are nice. They always fit and don’t take up space.
My least favorite is gift cards, which stress me out a little because then I have to decide what gift to buy myself. That’s a lot of pressure. And I’m at an age when tsotskes are a headache. I have a house full of stuff already. These are gifts I also rarely give.
Research has found that experiences make people happier than possessions. I like those, too. I don’t remember what gift my husband gave me on my last birthday, but I do remember the fun we had a baseball game that day. A festive dinner with friends is a gift in itself.
Gifts are interesting, when you really stop to think about them.
Dr. Dan Ariely, a Duke University researcher and author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions has a nifty story in the Wall Street Journal about gift-giving.
Rational economists, he points out, think gifts are just like burning money.
It’s Anti-Bullying Week and this year’s theme is Stop and Think—Words Can Hurt.
Interestingly, for all our focus on how to stop kids from bullying each other, we have precious little research addressing what parenting styles are likely to produce bullies. Because, let’s face it, if your nine-year-old child is a bully, chances are very good you and/or the child’s other parent can take credit.
Riders on New York City’s subways were for years irritated by the phrase “Please be patient” at the end of announcements about subway delays.
And the quickest way to get a rise out of me is to tell me, “Don’t be ridiculous.” Oooh, that burns me up.
What makes phrases like these so incendiary?
Some phrases are guaranteed to turn a disagreement into a fight, or make a benign situation toxic. They’re not blatantly insulting, so why are they so irritating?
It was from my old friend Meryl. I hadn’t spoken to her in decades. A few weeks later, we met for coffee.
Later I received a Facebook friend request from a mutual friend. Within three days, we had located three more people from that old gang of ours. Then we were four. Then six. Then nine. Then eleven.
We were far-flung but we formed a Facebook group and shared photos of our childhood summers together. We reminisced about the people, the places, the sounds, the smells. For a couple of weeks, our group spent every spare moment in a memory cloud, remembering together things we had forgotten individually. Memories came to us in dreams and flashbacks as we moved through our days. We gathered in Facebook in the evenings, to reminisce.
The fever eventually passed, but we remain in touch and friendships have been rekindled.
Today’s guest blogger is Irene S. Levine, PhD, author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup With Your Best Friend and co-author of Schizophrenia for Dummies. Irene discusses about all sorts of issues surrounding women’s friendships on her blogs The Friendship Blog and The Friendship Doctor.
Many women write to me perplexed about why they can’t form close friendships. They try new approaches, put themselves in all the right places, see therapists, and read relevant self-help books. They consider themselves interesting, loyal, kind, and friend-worthy people. But for reasons unknown to them, they have a tough time forming the intimate relationships other women seem to have and that they covet for themselves. Many admit to not having even one close friend.
A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology offers some clues as to how both nature (personality) and nurture (experience) impact our friendships.
Researchers at the University of Virginia and University of Toronto, Mississauga studied more than 7000 American adults between the ages of 20 and 75 over a period of ten years, looking at the number of times these adults moved during childhood. Their study, like prior ones, showed a link between “residential mobility” and adult well-being: The more times participants moved as children, the poorer the quality of their adult social relationships.