On reading novels and living the life you cannot live

I’m an avid reader, but have grown up reading almost exclusively non-fiction.

Not because I don’t enjoy them, or think any less of fiction than I do non-fiction; it’s mostly because I can never remember the names of all the characters! (Especially in novels…)

In non-fiction, the cast of characters tend to be ideas. And ideas I can deal with – most of them already exist in some shape or form in my head, so it’s a matter of associating or hooking these new ideas to existing ideas.

For example, the first time I read about machine learning, I hooked it onto existing ideas in my head related to data mining, as well as ideas related to probability. When I first read about baseline happiness (did you know our happiness tends to be somewhat set regardless of circumstance? And that the happiest among us tend to be those who have won the predisposed-to-happiness genetic lottery?), I hooked it onto ideas related to Buddhism, psychology, and biology.


And since I’m writing about this already… to me, it’s true: I find that the more I know, the easier it is learn. How about you?

On the flip side, it’s also true that the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. Which can make you sad.


Back to the names of characters though…

I remembered once reading through a novel and thinking it didn’t really make any sense. I just couldn’t understand why the main character was treating his wife (ex-wife?) in some way, and his mistress in another, while it many other parts of the story it seemed to be the other way around.

Frustrated, at about the halfway point I googled the plot summary and realised I got both characters mixed up; and they weren’t the only ones.

I decided to re-read the book, armed with the plot summary and the full cast of characters.

This time the book made all the sense in the world, and was an intensely satisfying read.


Armed with the newfound power of the internet (newfound for me), I’ve recently taken up reading novels again. Remembering who’s who is no longer a problem!

And that has added a wonderful dimension to my life. Novels really create this “mind space” unlike anything else. Well, sort of like movies, but one in which you’re much more involved. When you’re spending hours upon hours with a book, it’s hard not to be.


What I especially like about about novels is that it gives me a chance to live a life I never/cannot live; or lives I choose not to live.

Novels have given me a chance to feel what it’s like to:

They break the mundanity of everyday life.

Used to be: to work; back from work; to work; back from work; into weekend; out of weekend; etc.

Now it’s: to work; back from work; become POW working on the Death Railway; get flashback committing adultery; to work; back from work; get transformed into insect; into weekend; work on Death Railway; out of weekend; etc.

It’s quite a varied life now.


Rreading novels is not just the “escapism” part of it, though.

It’s also about learning how your mind reacts to different circumstances.

“What would I do? What would I feel?” are two questions that constantly pop up when I’m reading, and answering those two questions makes me far more aware of who I am, and the kind of life I would like to live.


Just to end on a rather depressing note, this time courtesy of the non-fiction that I’m reading: The problem with being more aware of who I am is that who I am may well be a bunch of algorithms.

My being more aware may just be a feeling of being more aware, which despite sending a hit of dopamine does little else.

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