Wednesday, June 5, 2013

memory and coming home: why I care

Literature is about evoking a world in the mind of the reader. If the author fails to do that: what genre writers call "world-building," than he or she has arguably failed the task.

I am very interested in neuroscientific research. I didn't come from a Humanities background. I worked in a DNA sequencing lab for two and a half years; I will be working for a medical software company; I read at least as much non-fiction as fiction. For several years, a key interest of mine has been the brain, and Stanislas Dehaene's work on how children (or illiterate adults!) learn to read touched something in me that few made-up stories can. How we learn to read, in a post-industrial, highly textual society, is basically how we learn to think, how we learn to be.

Another avenue of thought is Kahneman's work on how we think. We have a lot of heuristics we apply to everyday situations—shortcuts, really—and we are often unreliable narrators, even to ourselves.

I've always been a voracious reader, and through first-rate teachers, have always been comfortable with analysis.

So, reading Stegner's work, it was this incredible aha moment. Now, Stegner is no cognitive scientist, but man, he has such insights into human nature. I had two professors in the French department obsessed with the idea of "reading" architecture, much as one would read a text. Paris is full of beautiful architecture; just think of the history of medieval cathedrals.

Y a-t-il une vision spécifiquement « littéraire » de la ville, différente de la vision de l’architecte, du peintre, de l’hygiéniste, du photographe, du politique ? Hamon, "Voir La Ville"

Yes, Virginia, there is a specifically "literary" vision of the city, and Stegner has perfectly captured what it is like to live through a city, within a city, and without (both outside and deprived of) it.

Really, we can never directly know ourselves. I made a sketch of what Stegner talked about with its grid system and mountains. I'll post it, and hopefully it will explain the reader as observer (maybe inverted from what we typically think about!) and the writer as builder.


  1. Cool! I always thought that reading has a formative influence on children, and this is one reason why. I would not be the person I am today--certainly one with less empathy, creativity, and scope-- if I hadn't been an avid reader as a kid.

    1. Definitely respond to my next post, if you would, about this very cause/effect claim. You'll find it quite controversial! :-)

  2. I like that! Reader as observer and writer as builder. That will be interesting to see your paper. I love your thesis and your ideas. I can tell you have been a voracious reader (I can tell Leah has been too!) Shows in your thinking and speaking.