Monday, September 10, 2012

You Are What You Read

I finished my first tutoring session of the year a few days ago and decided to take a stroll across central park to the east side subway. A couple blocks from the train, I found a branch of the New York Public Library. I hadn't been in this one before, so I decided to take a peek. I didn't need any books, I just thought I'd see what kind of things were lying around for future reference.

I really should know some things about myself by now. Like the fact that walking into a library is dangerous. You know the people who can't walk into a bookstore without spending money? Imagine sending them into a bookstore where everything is free.

This picture is of the pile I brought back with me, stuffed in with the two standardized test textbooks I was hauling already. I'm going to need some specialized shoulder exercises if I insist on "just seeing what's lying around" a library on a regular basis.

I grew up on a steady diet of fiction. Mostly what is known as the "Hero's Journey" to story pros. I wrote it up on Backstage as the following: "main character is at home, gets called out onto a quest, refuses, gets dragged out anyway, overcomes trials, conquers evil, saves world, comes home a better character." Sound familiar?

Well I'm still reading a couple good novels along those lines, but as you can see from my pile here, I've strayed into a big set of nonfiction books, mostly on Behavioral Economics, Social Business, and Story Construction. In other words, I've gotten really interested in what actually makes people tick, how you can do something that both makes money and makes a difference, and how stories operate. All of these are very much related.

That along with the TED talks I've recently been watching has gotten me thinking about what kind of things determine our thoughts and actions day-to-day. Because it's election season and an election year, one of the things that this really seems to impact is how people are going to vote. I used to think that Republicans and Democrats identified as such because the values they believe in. Now I'm starting to think that they identify as such because of the facts they believe in. They are much more likely to disagree on facts rather than what's important to them. But that's a huge topic that would be better addressed somewhere else. More important to me is how people generally learn facts and how those facts go on to shape their life.

Here's one of the basic, but interesting things I've learned: people remember stories far more readily than facts in isolation. Seems simple and intuitive enough. But it has special implications for someone like me who pays rent by teaching.

Storytelling at its core is a lot like joke-telling. you have your set up (banana peel on the floor, some jerk you don't like walking merrily towards it, his mind more occupied with how pleased he is about doing something you don't like) and then either your expected payoff (jerk steps on banana peel and bites it) or unexpected surprise and payoff (jerk hops peel, only to cross the path of a gorilla looking for more bananas who smacks the jerk in the face). We remember things with this construction. Especially if they're funny or have an emotional impact. The dry theory is interesting. The example teaches you something.

So if you want to shape the things you spend your life thinking about, talking about, and doing something about, try shaping the stories you take in. I feel like this is one of those things that's obvious to anyone thinking about it, but that few people actually follow that train of thought. You know the phrase "You are what you eat?" Maybe the more accurate one is "You are what you read."

So, what kind of stories are you going to seek out?


  1. Young adult novels tend to have a good measure of the Hero's Journey (the protagonist may not save the world, but deals with serious external issues and ends up a better character). Such stories almost always teach something. I recommend seeking out books on the American Library Association's Banned Books list, such as The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

    Thanks for the thoughtful posts, Joel. What TED talks would you recommend?
    -David R. Stone

  2. If you are looking for books on crafting stories get Brian McDonald's Invisible Ink. It is THE best book on story craft I have ever come across. He sells it on Amazon. Take his workshop if you can, but if not, read and use his book.

    Also recommend The Republican Brain, the Science of why the deny science and reality by Chris Mooney. And The Invisible Gorilla and other ways out intuitions deceive us by Christopher Chablis. I am mostly through a book called The Power of Habit why we do what we do in life and business by Charles Duhigg. It's rather good also with some interesting connections to the Alexander Technique.

    Yes I so know the sweet temptations of books!

  3. David-

    Oof. What TED talks *wouldn't* I recommend! Okay I'm going to keep myself to four here:

    1)Great one for someone who's never seen a TED talk before: YouTube trends manager explains what makes a video go viral:
    2)How a bunch of programmers and hackers are improving government services:
    3)A new, radical, and tough idea about what could fundamentally fix international aid:
    4)An overview of the five moral values that shape our political views, and what matters most to liberals and conservatives:


    I agree, Macdonald is a great place to start. I especially like his likening themes to armature, and he's one of the few people I've seen with the guts to publish something about stories he think don't work, along with his reasoning. (For anyone else looking for MacDonald's book, you can read the whole thing for free, legally, right here: If anyone wants to go even deeper into the craft, my personal favorite remains Blake Snyder and his Save The Cat books. He's formulaic, but he's an excellent writer, and that formula is one of the best I've encountered. But, I've got two other books on the subject I haven't read yet waiting for me in the library (including one that's in comic book format), and even one whose author (who I'm pretty sure will want to remain anonymous) has promised to show me a draft of her book on the subject when it's "ready." I hope that happens.

    I'll check out the Chris(topher) books as well. I've been in a rut with psychologists and economist authors named Dan or Daniel. It'll be good to move up the alphabet a bit. Thanks!