Why Write and Tell Stories?

I once laughed at this notion, but now I understand it:

“You write and tell stories for one of two reasons: Either out of love, to seduce another human being with your story. Or to save lives, either your own or the lives of others.”

Spoken by Jan Kjærstad, at the Copenhagen Book Fair, 2000.


Impressions from St. John’s The Divine

Today I visited the Cathedral of St. John The Divine for its Sunday organ recital. Here’s what I experienced:

It’s a place where you take your hat off, not only because you have to, but because you want to. Near the entrance are two tables lit with white candles organized in terraces, sad memories or wishes for health written on the glowing glass: “For Kaka, get well and come home soon” or “Mom & Dad, I love and think of you always”. Giant pillars lead you into the church, like a walkway lined with tall trees. Mid-ship is the altar and the main attraction: St. John’s magnificent organ, elevated on both sides of the narrow choir. The sound from the grey-blue organ pipes reverberates all through the church chamber. It is a both solemn and warm tone, mournfully gentle or cascading in violent crescendos.

When you sit down near the altar and the choir, listening, you can see down the road you have traveled from the entrance, and in the bright mid-ship light the rest of the church seems dark and subdued. But above the darkness, above the entrance, is a gigantic, round stained glass window in blues and reds, shaped in almost mandala-like mosaics, with Christ in the middle glowing in the outside sunlight. Even if you do not believe in God, this sight will make you serene for a moment.

David Brooks’ Theory of Human Nature

Philosopher Thomas Nagel tears into New York Times columnist David Brooks’‘ new book, “The Social Animal”. In the book, Brooks attempts to update our ideas of consciousness and the unconscious with the newest results from cognitive science. Nagel is not impressed:

As Brooks observes, these ideas are not new: the importance and legitimacy of sentiment and social influence in determining human conduct was emphasized by figures of the British Enlightenment, notably David Hume, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. Hume denied the dominance of reason, though he also offered brilliant analyses of the complex and systematic ways in which our sentiments, or passions, operate. So what has been added by recent cognitive science? Most significant, according to Brooks, is the accumulating evidence of the many specific ways that our lives and conduct are less under our conscious control than we think.

Brooks seems willing to take seriously any claim by a cognitive scientist, however idiotic: for example, that since people need only 4,000 words for 98 percent of conversations, the reason they have vocabularies of 60,000 words is to impress and sort out potential mates.


Still, even if empirical methods enable us to understand subrational processes better, the crucial question is, How are we to use this kind of self-understanding? Brooks emphasizes the ways in which it can improve our prediction and control of what people will do, but I am asking something different. When we discover an unacknowledged influence on our conduct, what should be our critical response? About this question Brooks has essentially nothing to say. He gives lip-service to the idea that moral sentiments are subject to conscious review and improvement, and that reason has a role to play, but when he tries to explain what this means, he is reduced to a fashionable bromide about choosing the narrative we tell about our lives, “the narrative we will use to organize perceptions.”


Life, morality and politics are not science, but their improvement requires thought — not only thought about the most effective means of shaping people, which is Brooks’s concern, but thought about what our ends should be. Such questions don’t appeal to him, since they cannot be settled by empirical evidence of the kind he feels comfortable with. Brooks is out to expose the superficiality of an overly rational view of human nature, but there is more than one kind of superficiality.

In Search of Memory

I finally got around to watching the last half of In Search of Memory, the enjoyable documentary on Nobel-prize winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel. The title is the same as Kandel’s 2006 book and covers much the same ground, only it makes Kandel’s trip down memory lane real: It takes him back to his childhood’s Vienna, from where he and his Jewish family was driven, to the United States and his youth in Brooklyn, while telling the story of his fascination of memory and the psyche that drove him to become one of the world’s leading neuroscientists.

It’s both a very personal and a very universal story, as all the best stories are, and Kandel himself is really a gift as a central character: He is always laughing his infectious laugh while providing insights into his research in memory (involving large snails and mice with contraptions stuck into their brain; harmless it must be said). Kandel is clearly committed to find out why some memories stick with you your whole life while others fade away. Suddenly, while speaking Yiddish or remembering the Horst Wessel Song, he will begin to cry, not out of pain but simply because old memories and old feelings are awoken. This may make him sound like a squishy borderline case, but I’ve rarely seen anyone come off as so emotionally honest. Recommended.

Charles Baxter: The Cousins

Once, back then in my twenties, all I wanted to do was to throw my life away. But then, somehow, usually by accident, you experience joy. And the problem with joy is that it binds you to life; it makes you greedy for more happiness. You experience avarice. You hope your life will go on forever.

That’s from Charles Baxter’s short story “The Cousins.” It’s in The Best American Short Stories 2010 – a recommended collection.