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.

Mining Insomnia for Gold

[. . . ]But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life.
Gerard Manley Hopkins

Back in the day, when the late great Tommy Evatt suffered even the most trivial of disappointments, he would ironically assume a woebegone expression and sigh aloud, “I’m no stranger to heartache.”

Well, brother or sister, allow me the indulgence to channel Tommy, to assume that same sad-sack expression, and announce that “I’m no stranger to insomnia.”

Not only am I no stranger, I’ve been sleeping with Insomnia – check that – lying with her almost nightly for the past 28 years. The times I have awakened in the fell clutch of dark outnumber the kisses politicians of both parties have bestowed upon the ass of the Reverend Billy Graham, the number of recorded malapropisms uttered by former President George W Bush, the combined number of times the Atlanta Braves and South Carolina Gamecocks have broken my heart.

In other words, even Pieter Bruegel the Elder couldn’t cram the personified nights of my insomnia onto one of his grotesque canvases.

BRUEGHEL, Pieter the Younger3


Virtually every weekday morning between 2:54 and 3:57, a circuit breaker trips in the fuse box of my mind, and – zap – I’m wide awake and know immediately there’s no use trying to reenter the dream that has abandoned me, that counting sheep would be the adult equivalent of a letter to Santa, and that I have at least an hour (sometimes two) of wakefulness to endure.

Now, if I were a Northern European, I might very well go all existentialist and project my disability onto the cosmos, but, goddamn it, I’m an American, and Americans are optimists, can-doers, money makers, so, of course, I’ve transformed the water-boarding my mind suffers in the wee hours into something positive. I have alchemized the belladonna of my brain chemistry into an elixir that can cure any disease short of – well, insomnia.

However, even though I haven’t yet found a way to free myself from insomnia’s web-like entanglements, I have developed techniques to transform the excruciatingly slow crawl of minutes into a space where you can do some heavy duty psychic lifting and develop plans for self-improvement.

In other words, I’ve written a self-help book for insomniacs, and because you who are reading this cri de coeur have not abandoned me up to now, I’m going to provide you this sneak preview absolutely free of charge.

mining insomnia bookcover

Click here for Dealing with Yankees for Dummies.

This self-help bible begins with a personality test to pinpoint the chapters that are going to be most immediately beneficial to you. You know the tests I’m talking about, those fill-in the bubble surveys high school seniors take to determine if they’re better suited for engaging in armed combat or opening an antiques shop.

Here’s an example from the book:

Which one of the following activities is most likely to provide you with the most satisfaction?

1. Taking a long walk with that special someone on a pristine South Sea beach beneath a full moon.

2.Flying in your private Lear jet to address an auditorium teeming with adoring followers.

3. Enjoying a couple of lines of uncut Columbian cocaine.

4. Reorganizing your hopelessly disorganized friend’s lifestyle habits.

5. Reading and correcting reams of inexact writing from entitled adolescents prone to magical thinking.

Just for fun, let’s see if you can match those choices with the chapters most likely to benefit the chooser.

A. Starting up a Televangelism Empire

B. Careers in Pharmaceuticals

C. Overcoming Abusive Diaper Training

D. You, Too, Can Write Romance Novels

E. What If You Had Majored in Business Instead
Answers: 1. D 2. A 3. B 4. C 5. E

Each chapter provides a series of progressive mental exercises that are at once simultaneously mind-numbing but provide a foundation for steps up a staircase that leads to success.

For example, the first step in each of the chapters is “Writing Your Own Obituary.”

The next time you awaken in the middle of the night and realize that sleep, like the proverbial father who goes out for a pack of cigarettes, isn’t coming back, rather than flailing around fruitlessly cataloguing the mundane tasks that must be completed tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, compose in your head your own obituary. This positive exercise not only helps put those mundane tasks in perspective, but it also offers hints as to how you ended so fucked-up that now, even though you possess the godlike power to conjure on a whim whatever movie you want to watch at any moment, you’re so maladjusted that you can’t sleep six hours in a row.

Of course, I provide, an outline for an obituary:


[euphemism for dying]*

cause of death [optional]

spouse if any

date of death


short bio

  • DOB
  • education
  • career and/or marriage
  • accomplishments


preferred memorials

and also a model:

After a cowardly skirmish with cancer, Wesley “Rusty” Moore, husband of Judy Birdsong, entered the godless realm of oblivion on Thursday April 1 2023.

A son of the late Wesley E Moore, Jr. and Sue Blanton Moore, Wesley/Rusty was born 25 December 1950 in Summerville, where he attended public schools.  Upon earning his BA from the University of South Carolina, unable to find gainful employment, he immediately entered graduate school where he met his future wife Judy Birdsong at a bar where they both worked.  It was, as “Rusley” liked saying, “a marriage made in Milwaukee.”

After the wedding, the Moores relocated to Charleston, South Carolina.  Although a graduate school dropout with a checkered transcript, “Rusley” was able to secure employment at Porter-Gaud School, thanks in part to his hobby of hypnotism.  At Porter-Gaud he spent 30 years reading and correcting reams of inexact writing from entitled adolescents prone to magical thinking.

Wesley never met a stranger he wasn’t leery of and always had something cynical to share with the few friends he cultivated during his life.

Surviving in addition to his wife of Folly Beach are two sons, Harrison Moore of Washington, DC, and Ned Moore of the Khovsgol Province of Inner Mongolia.

In Lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the American Communist Party, 44 Ginsberg Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11209.

Each specific chapter offers exercises that could possibly lull curable insomniacs to sleep but also provides incurables with a chance to turn a typical time of anguish into something positive. For example, an early mind numbing exercise for aspiring romance novelists involves cataloging chronologically people they’ve kissed. One later visualization exercise guides the initiate to imagining cinematically the first kiss of her catalogue blooming into the 52nd shade of gray.

The general idea is to transform wasted hours into time well spent.

Let me seal the deal. This very blog post is the fruit of last night’s insomnia, and, presto, already, I’m climbing that stairway to stardom.

Photo on 10-31-13 at 2.40 PM