Reading Fiction as a Utilitarian Exercise in Self-Improvement

I’ve always been contemptuous of commercial self-improvement because it so smacks of the time clock — protestant fear of predestined damnation meets hedonism lite.

On the one hand, who but a churl would be against sharing good advice?

On the other hand, who but a charlatan — a snake oil salesman — would seek pecuniary profit from enlightening the masses?

buddhaAndJesusAnswer to above question (in chronological order): not Siddhartha, not Jesus.

After all, in the age of the Internet, good advice can be disseminated at no cost. No longer is it necessary to decimate acres of loblollies to inform the huddling masses of the magic steps/habits/protocols that successful/happy/thoughtful people take/inculcate/follow to achieve a less fucked-up state that they have been muddling through.

So in the spirit of altruism, here’s the title of my unwritten masterpiece in the genre:

7 Steps That Sentiment Beings Sick with Desire and Fastened to Dying Animals Take to Get the Most out of the Ever-Foreshortening Days Left to Them.

Climb aboard!

Here are the 7 Steps in chapters:

MetamorphosesOvidChapter 1: Step 1: Sunday

Sequester yourself for an hour — especially you non-church/temple types — and read from various myths — good translations of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Native American trickster tales, Irish folklore, e.g. — and think about how what you’re reading relates to the universal human condition.

Chapter 2: Step 2: Monday

Take a half-hour off after having done something you have dreaded but have completed –e.g. gone to work, to court, to hell in a hand basket — and then listen to thirty minutes of the Blues, and by listen, I mean not only to the instruments, but also to the lyrics.

 Delia, Delia.

Poor girl, she’s gone.

With all I hate, she done left me all alone.

She’s all I got; it’s gone.

Blind Willie McTell by R Crumb.

Blind Willie McTell by R Crumb.

Chapter 3: Step 3: Tuesday

Put down for at least an hour your cell phone, joystick, remote control, and unhand that mouse.

Get into a non-escapist novel. When’s the last time you’ve read Huck Finn? If you’re reading this blog, I goddamn guarantee you’ll enjoy Huck (not to mention it’s time better spent than reading any blog).

Chapter 3: Step 3: Wednesday

Read slowly, carefully and out loud a ballad, which shouldn’t take up any more than 15 minutes.

I’d start early with folk ballads like “Lord Randall” and steadily work my way up chronologically to literary ballads like XJ Kennedy’s “Down in Dallas.”

Down in Dallas, down in Dallas,

where the wind has to cringe tonight,

Lee Oswald nailed Jack Kennedy up

on the cross of a rifle sight.

Chapter 4: Step 4: Thursday

Spend 45-minutes to following up on something you’ve discovered so far in your reading.

Chapter 5: Step 5: Friday/Saturday

Watch a universally acclaimed motion picture or attend local theater (and by that I mean see a play).

* * *

If you were to so regulate your animal spirits, it would cost you ~6 hours of time you otherwise squander lost in social media, trapped in the repetitive sturm und drang of video games, or seated in front of the flat screen.

Of course, I’m being facetious by suggesting this regimen. This regulation of dabbling in the arts would be destined to fail for the same reason diets fail. After a while, the spirit rebels against the assembly line sameness of eating healthy vegetables or reading outloud every Wednesday quatrains of tetrameter.

However, I can tell you this, reading good fiction can provide invaluable vicarious experience because it creates characters true to life. Cynical Mr. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, despite his delightful wit and clever putdowns, suffers mightily for his detached parenting and refusal to listen to good advice, and his suffering certainly could have been catastrophic if not for Mr. Darcy.

This ARTICLE my friend Ed Burrows sent me scientifically supports the idea that good fiction can also increase your “moral intelligence.”

Dig this:

A 2013 study by the psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano explored the causal relationship between reading high-quality literary fiction and the ability to take the perspective of others, as measured by one of several well-tested tools, such as judging others’ emotions and eye-gaze directionality for interpreting what someone is thinking. The researchers found that participants who were assigned to read literary fiction performed significantly better on these “mind reading” tests that measured where subjects were looking and how they judged the emotions of others than did participants assigned to the other experimental groups, which did not differ from one another.

Think of reading good fiction and poetry as discovery, not escape.

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