Ever finished a book? I mean, truly finished one? Cover to cover. Closed the spine with that slow awakening that comes with reentering consciousness?
You take a breath, deep from the bottom of your lungs and sit there. Book in both hands, your head staring down at the cover, back page or wall in front of you.
You’re grateful, thoughtful, pensive. You feel like a piece of you was just gained and lost. You’ve just experienced something deep, something intimate… Full from the experience, the connection, the richness that comes after digesting another soul.
It’s no surprise that readers are better people. Having experienced someone else’s life through abstract eyes, they’ve learned what it’s like to leave their bodies and see the world through other frames of reference. They have access to hundreds of souls, and the collected wisdom of all them."
Beautiful read on why readers are, “scientifically,” the best people to date.
Perhaps Kafka’s timeless contention that books are "the axe for the frozen sea inside us" applies equally to the frozen sea between us.
Creative types can’t stop thinking, can’t stop second guessing and revising, and aren’t much fun to be around. But new studies show it’s not like they have a choice.
A few months back, Andreas Fink at the University of Graz in Austria found a relationship between the ability to come up with an idea and the inability to suppress the precuneus while thinking. The precuneus is the area of the brain that shows the highest levels of activation during times of rest and has been linked to self-consciousness and memory retrieval. It is an indicator of how much one ruminates or ponders oneself and one’s experiences.
For most people, this area of the brain only lights up at restful times when one is not focusing on work or even daily tasks. For writers and creatives, however, it seems to be constantly activated. Fink’s hypothesis is that the most creative people are continually making associations between the external world and their internal experiences and memories. They cannot focus on one thing quite like the average person. Essentially, their stream of ideas is always running—the tap does not shut off—and, as a result, creative people show schizophrenic, borderline manic-depressive tendencies. Really, that’s no hyperbole. Fink found that this inability to suppress the precuneus is seen most dominantly in two types of people: creatives and psychosis patients.
What’s perhaps most interesting is that this flood of thoughts and introspection is apparently vital to creative success. In Touched with Fire, a touchstone book on the relationship between “madness and creativity,” Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychiatry professor at Johns Hopkins, reported that successful individuals were eight times more likely as “regular people” to suffer from a serious depressive illness.
If you think about it though, this “mad success” makes sense. Great writing requires original thinking and clever reorganization of varied experiences and thoughts. Whether it’s Adam Gopnik’s first piece for The New Yorker that related Italian Renaissance art with the Montréal Expos or Fitzgerald trailblazing the “Jazz Age” with his combination of Princeton poems and socioeconomic class sensibilities in This Side of Paradise, a writer’s job is to reshape a hodgepodge of old ideas into brand new ones. By letting in as much information as possible, the brains of writers and artists can trawl through their abundance of odd thoughts and turn them into original, cohesive products.
It’s not a surprise then that Tim Burton, Quentin Tarantino, and the most wildly creative writers of our generation have such bizarre ideas: they cannot stop thinking, and whether pleasant or macabre, their thoughts (that can turn into masterpieces like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Pulp Fiction) are constantly flowing through their minds.
Although this stream of introspection and association allows for creative ideas, the downside is that people with “ruminative tendencies” are significantly more likely to become depressed, according (PDF) to the late Yale psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema. Constant reflection takes a toll. Writing, editing, and revising also requires are near obsession with self-criticism, the leading quality for depressed patients.
Letter from Proust to Georges de Lauris, whose mother had just died (1907).
Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary (2010)
The Bechdel test (/ˈbɛkdəl/ bek-dəl) asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The requirement that the two women must be named is sometimes added. Many contemporary works fail this test of gender bias. On average, films that pass the test have been found to have a lower budget than others, but of comparable or better financial performance.
The test is named after the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel. In 1985, she had a character in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For voice the idea, which she attributed to a friend, Liz Wallace. The test was originally conceived for evaluating films but has since been applied to other media.
Gender portrayal in popular fiction
All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. […] And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. […] They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen's day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that […]
In film, a study of gender portrayals in 855 of the most financially successful U.S. films from 1950 to 2006 showed that there were, on average, two male characters for each female character, a ratio that remained stable over time. Female characters were portrayed as being involved in sex twice as often as male characters, and their proportion of scenes with explicit sexual content increased over time. Violence increased over time in male and female characters alike.
The Bechdel test
What is now known as the Bechdel test was introduced in Alison Bechdel's comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. In a 1985 strip titled “The Rule”, an unnamed female character says that she only watches a movie if it satisfies the following requirements:
- It has to have at least two women in it,
- who talk to each other,
- about something besides a man.
Bechdel credited the idea for the test to a friend and karate training partner, Liz Wallace. She later wrote that she was pretty certain that Wallace was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own, reproduced in part above.
The test, which has been described as “the standard by which feminist critics judge television, movies, books, and other media”, moved into mainstream criticism in the 2010s. By 2013, an Internet newspaper described it as “almost a household phrase, common shorthand to capture whether a film is woman-friendly”, and the failure of major Hollywood productions such as Pacific Rim (2013) to pass it was addressed in depth in the media. According to Neda Ulaby, the test still resonates because “it articulates something often missing in popular culture: not the number of women we see on screen, but the depth of their stories, and the range of their concerns.”
Even now that the world is mapped over, and even the farthest reaches paradoxically familiar—people still travel, and still find their lonely selves out there. This is a theme of Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel.
In 1951 the English writer Norman Lewis travelled to a Burmese village, on the Irrawaddy River, where the monks in a local monastery kept fish as pets. They had trained the fish to surface on command to receive a blessing, a patch of gold foil applied to their heads for the sake of karma. Tourists were delighted, not just with the ritual but also, in time, with the opportunity: they figured out that tame fish are also ridiculously easy to catch. Soon the fish were eaten almost to the point of extinction. But the monks fought back. They built canals, “and the fish,” writes Lewis in Golden Earth, “were trained upon a danger signal given vocally or by the beating of the banks, to swim up into the monastery enclosure, where the good men stood guard over them, cudgel in hand.” Whenever a boatload of strangers arrived they’d sound the alarm.
Now, you can book a trip to this village online through Exotissimo. Price includes an English-speaking guide with a private, air-conditioned car, lunch in a local restaurant, a “refreshing towel.” No indication if the lunch includes fish. “So many young people here,” says a review on foursquare.com. “Good for sightseeing if you’re a guy.” This is modern travel: accessible, crowdsourced, without the cultural tension of Lewis’ time if you book smartly and follow the beaten track, which by now covers most of the planet. Put a pin in a map, and a German architecture student has already been there, filmed it with GoPro, rated it one to five stars. In fact there’s no practical reason to go at all: save your money, watch Burma on YouTube. And yet the impulse to travel is so strong that most developing countries have evolved into living theatre to accommodate it. The monks don’t carry cudgels, but brochures. In her poem “Questions of Travel,” Elizabeth Bishop wonders where the impulse comes from:
What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way round?
“Long afterwards, when Ravi thought back to those endless summer days, what he remembered was loneliness. No one spoke to him. No one knew where he was.” This is the flip side to the openness of the global village: when all destinations are the same, adapted to the traveler (whether she travels by choice like Laura, or by necessity like Ravi), the idea of community dissolves. You are on your own.
It’s possible that travel, at least, gives us opportunity to be lonely somewhere else.
Six volumes of Dictionary of American Regional English digitized with over 4000 sound clips.
"When love arrives" by Sarah Kay & Phil Kaye.