A Confession: Reading Fiction Hurts

Labor Day represents the end of summer and the beginning of the new school year for millions of children. Kids are going back to school with their freshly purchased school supplies and a whirling set of emotions-ranging from excitement to dread. I always hated the first day of school. Summer was the best time in my life because I got to sleep in, watch TV all day, and eat carbs whenever I wanted. I always felt a tinge of PTSD whenever “Back to School” commercials began to inundate the airways. Why did I hate school so much? I always loathed the pointless homework and the assignments that supposedly stimulated our creativity. “Alright class, we are going to learn about George Washington…everyone go home and make a poster-board collage with magazine cutouts that remind you of our first president.” These types of assignments are present in every grade and I even see tinges of them in my wife’s doctorate program. In addition to pointless busy work, we had to read famous literature like Mark Twain, Of Mice and Men, A Tale of Two Cities, The Old Man and the Sea, etc. I was good at reading but I struggled to see the appeal in these books. Sure, I did enjoy some parts of these works but the process of reading fiction was usually tedious. Fiction for me made books unappealing and I saw no point in reading during my free time because movies and TV were so much more entertaining. It wasn’t until I was 24 that I realized nonfiction books were interesting and I could read over 50 of them a year without a ounce of misery.

Fast forward a couple years and I have read close to 100 nonfiction books that have taught me more information than my entire K-12 experience. With my newfound love for reading, I figured I should give fiction another shot. My old roommate loves John Steinbeck so I picked up some of his books-these were doable. My friend from high school loves Ernest Hemingway so I borrowed For Whom the Bell Tolls. I labored through this book like a fat guy running his first mile. In the end, I had to SparkNote the last chapters (sorry Megan) because the overall story line was driving me crazy. This experience has taught me an important lesson about myself and about people in general. Everyone is stimulated differently and likes to learn in their own unique way. It’s okay if you never pick up a 700 page book about George Washington and instead make a collage from magazine cutouts. It’s okay if you haven’t read Charles Dickens and instead you prefer to watch The Muppet Christmas Carol. It’s okay if you love classic literature but can’t stand to pick up a National Geographic magazine. In today’s world there is way too much information out there for us to absorb everything. Read and watch the things that you enjoy because life is too short; with that said, Breaking Bad can be just as academic as classic literature. The only thing I think is important is that you stimulate your brain by discussing things with others. Whether it is a book, TV show, movie, or magazine discuss it with someone else. This way we all learn from each other even though we all have very different tastes. Are my days of fiction over? Not completely. I think with a little more effort and discussion, I will find the books that make that fat-man mile a little easier.

News-The Junk Food of Information

When I was a kid I never worried about scary things on the news. One reason was that I didn’t watch the news and the other is that I knew my parents would protect me from danger. I was more worried about the killer clown in my bathroom or the witch at my bedroom window. Thankfully, these fears could easily be ameliorated by a nightlight or going to Mom and Dad’s room. Today I get scared from watching the news. It seems like every week there is a terrorist attack or world disaster that makes me feel sick about the future. The news is like a real world scary movie. After I watched The Ring I had to cover my TV with a blanket because of fear that it would turn on in the middle of the night. Similarly, after watching the news over the past few days, I second guessed some of my plans because ISIS was on my mind. Both of these examples include irrational fears, but unlike in the past, I can’t run to my Mom and Dad’s room anymore.

So should I give up watching the news? Being someone who loves to read and write, I thoroughly enjoy being up-to-date on the world around me. I don’t like to be the odd man out in conversations and usually I like to know the details so I can better inform my friends and family. There is a price to pay though when using the news to be informed-a negative attitude about the world’s future. Sure, some people will say, “I watch the news and it doesn’t bother me,” but I would argue that it does affect a person subconsciously. I wrote a post on Blink by Malcolm Gladwell that states our brains respond to things in mere seconds based on preconditioning. Among non-racist individuals, studies show that regardless of personal race (black or white), we react more negatively to black faces than to white faces. This phenomenon is obviously apparent between white police and young black men but it is also present in everyday life-what makes you more uncomfortable, a plane full of Arabs or a plane full of Caucasians? This is an ingrained survival method that has helped us make life saving decisions in the past-see snake, run like hell. In today’s world it isn’t the snake but instead images of terrorists, shooters, crazy drivers, scary diseases, and masked men that precondition us. It is estimated that 10% of teens and 40% of adults suffer from some kind of anxiety disorder (Source). I would argue that the news, and its effects on one’s future outlook, is a major source of anxiety. I think we should all look at news like we look at junk food. It tastes so good right at the moment, giving us a slight rush, but afterwards it makes us feel empty and slightly upset.

So what is one to do, be depressed/informed or happy/ignorant? How do we get to the level of happy/informed with the added benefit that planes of Arabs don’t make us subconsciously queasy? First, stop watching or reading online news. If you need to be informed daily, pick up a newspaper. Newspapers give you the information without all the anxiety ridden imagery or hateful comment sections. Second, subscribe to a high quality magazine like the New Yorker, The Atlantic, Time, etc. These are great sources of current material that usually look at multiple sides of an issue. Thirdly, read books about current topics that are affecting the world. Instead of watching the news on shootings read a book like Blink to understand what leads people to shoot in the first place; this will give you added tools when conversing about current events. I fully admit that the news scares me, but I do not admit that by abstaining from it I am less informed. By taking the time to read the aforementioned material, I am able to see the big picture of an event instead of a myopic-instantaneous viewpoint. Discard that junk food news and take in some healthy information-you’ll know what you’re talking about and your stomach won’t get so upset when thinking about the future.