Why Read Novels?

Why read novels?  Is reading novels a good practice?

“Just the facts, Ma’am.”  Thus spoke Sergeant Joe Friday (played by Jack Webb) on the classic TV show Dragnet.

The attitude “Just give me the facts and forget the fiction” is a common attitude.

It was my own attitude in high school.  I loved to read, but I didn’t read many novels.  Of course, I read some assigned ones for school and a few others, but I didn’t prefer them.  Instead, I read a lot of history and biography.

Why bother reading novels?

After all, they are just made-up stories (narratives, tales). Why not just stick to the facts?

Here are seven good reasons.

First, there is disagreement about what “the” facts are.  Our perceptions are theory-laden, not theory-neutral.  Instead of perceiving what is really there and then interpreting it, what we in fact do is to perceive what we think is there.

In other words, how we think about the world influences how we perceive it.  We carry our own stories into new experiences and perceive them in accordance with those stories.  That’s how our understanding works.  It’s cumulative.

There’s no serious controversy about this.  Of course multiple witnesses to the same event interpret it differently!  This has been shown repeatedly in, for example, courts of law and psychological experiments.  In fact, for example, police officers often interpret events differently than “civilians” do.

Anais Nin:  “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

Reading novels is one way of reinforcing the idea that living life necessarily involves interpreting it.

Second, since we are already inventing our own interpretative stories as we go through life, it’s easy to understand story-telling as interpreting facts.

If memory serves, it was Thomas Wolfe who wrote that  “fiction is fact selected and understood.”

We are bombarded with so many stimuli that it is impossible to pay attention to them all.  Imagine, for example, what’s actually going on in combat:  it’s overwhelming.

How should we select what is important with respect to an experience of war?  Whether we experience this important human phenomenon in the flesh or vicariously, there’s no doubt that our experience will be selective.  The only question concerns how well we attend to what we select.

The great war novelists such as Erich Maria Remarque, Leo Tolstoy, Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Joseph Heller, Herman Wouk and others show us how to select and understand.

Thomas Mann:  “War is a cowardly escape from the problems of peace.”

Third, often the best way to get at what is true is deliberately to consider different interpretations.  Our legal system is based on this kind of intellectual combat.

Because sticking to our preferred interpretations is deliberating choosing to keep blinders on, it’s the way of the fool.  It deadens the mind.

When I visit a home where there are no books, I’m never surprised to discover that its occupants are still stuck on ideas that are decades out of date.  Since the world is in incessant flux, there’s no standing still:  either you are keeping up or you are falling behind.

Reading novels is an excellent way of keeping up.

Perpetually challenging our preferred interpretations is the way of the philosopher.  It’s true that reading novels is not necessary to do that, but reading great novels is an effective way to do that.  Our brains seem naturally attuned to storytelling.

Fourth, novels educate us.

Gary Snyder:  “The world is made of stories.”

David R. Loy:  “To understand is to story.”

They educate us by enabling us to live vicariously.

How can I have any hope of understanding a Native American’s life without at least walking a mile in his moccasins?  What’s it like to grow up a plain-looking girl?  What’s it like to live stranded on a desert island?  What’s it like to be an adolescent in a war zone?  What’s it like to live in prison?  What’s it like to live in poverty?

Every other person we ever meet has experiences that are different from our own.  Although it’s impossible to live another person’s life, it is possible to imagine living another person’s life.

Great novels stimulate our imaginations and educate us about what the lives of others are like.  Furthermore, unlike psychologists, they do it in an enjoyable way!

Fifth, because of their educational function, the practice of regularly reading novels enables us to identify with people who are different.

For example, I’m an old man, but, reading Jane Eyre recently enabled me to identify with a girl from another country in another century.  The identification is emotional, too, and not just intellectual.

In that way, reading novels opens us up to our fellows.  It breaks down the ignorance, the prejudice, and the conceptual barriers that keep us apart.

In other words, reading novels enables us to love better.  This is its most important function.

To love is to identify with the beloved.

If I love you, I take you to be myself, to be a part of myself.  I “see” myself in you.  As I begin to love you, I naturally begin to promote what is good for you just as I naturally promote what is good for myself.

It’s easy to withdraw, to close down.  Reading novels reverses this tendency.

Novels do this so well that, sometimes, it’s easier to react emotionally to a character in a story than to someone you actually meet!

Sixth, reading novels is enjoyable.  It’s enjoyable in exactly the same kind of way that listening to a masterful performance of a great symphony is enjoyable or watching great athletes in competition is enjoyable.  Watching masters in action is always enjoyable.

Isn’t being “in the zone” possible for us, too?  Cannot we, too, achieve excellence involving alert and masterful performances devoid of conceptualizing?

Masters remind us of what is possible.  They help us to break free from the routines of our daily lives by inspiring us to do better.  They provide evidence that, sometimes, hope is rewarded.  Masterful performances challenge us to live better.

Watching master wordsmiths is like watching great athletes or musicians.

Seventh, reading novels can inspire us to do better.  Reading novels can be motivating.

For example, if a Joseph Conrad can be in his 40’s when he began writing, why can’t I also begin to follow my bliss when I am middle-aged?

Novels always revolve around conflict, usually a conflict of right and wrong.  Reading novels often provides us with protagonists who are able to rise above their stations by overcoming obstacles.  There’s sometimes no more effective inspiration than communicating that idea.

(It can also be communicated by learning about the lives of the artists themselves.  Novels are a modern art form; there were no novels 1000 years ago.  It seems that all or nearly all of the great novelists overcome obstacles to create their art.

Many overcame physical obstacles such as childhood illnesses.  Others overcame traumatic experiences such as Dostoevsky’s last minute reprieve before being shot by a firing squad.  Everyone has difficult interpersonal relationships, and they all overcame those, too.)

So, there are seven good reasons for reading novels.

I am not claiming that it is necessary to spend a lot of time reading novels in order to live well; it’s not.

I am not claiming that it’s a good idea to spend hours a day reading novels; it’s not.

I am not claiming that you should read my A Dark Time; unless you are just purchasing it for the bonus, don’t buy it unless you already like to read mystery/thrillers.

What I’m claiming is only that regularly reading novels is a good idea.

The effects are cumulative and subtle.  Reading novels for just 20 or 30 minutes daily will, over time, improve the quality of your life.

If you doubt that and have not done it, test it:  do it for a few years!

If you’ve done it, you already understand that regularly reading novels is a good practice.  David R. Loy:  reading novels is able to “teach us what is real, what is valuable, and what is possible.”

Be well,

Dennis Bradford


Recommended Resource:  David R. Loy’s THE WORLD IS MADE OF STORIES.

Best Diet to Lose Weight

Why is there a page on the best diet to lose weight here at ConsultingPhilosopher.com?

It’s a sample of how a consulting philosopher might be able to help you think better about some problem that is important to you.

Coronary heart disease is the world’s biggest killer.  It’s impossible to live well without being alive.

Being overweight or obese is a risk factor for coronary heart disease as well as other diseases of civilization such as type 2 diabetes and hypertension.

Since about 7 of 10 North Americans are too fat, the odds are that you are too fat. Even if you aren’t, it’s almost certain that you have loved ones who are.

Furthermore, and this is very important, nearly all the suffering caused by the diseases of civilization are preventable! That’s right: almost nobody has to suffer from or die from the most prevalent killers among us.

If you are too fat, understanding the best diet to lose weight is obviously important.

The purpose of this page is to help you improve your understanding of the best diet to lose weight. Whether or not you improve your behavior is solely up to you. Please do not make major changes in your diet without the prior blessing of your physician or other licensed medical professional.

Let’s try to minimize misunderstanding before laying out the most critical facts.

I’m using the word ‘diet’ in the phrase ‘the best diet to lose weight’ to mean ‘nutritional plan.’ It does not mean a short-term or temporary eating plan; in that sense, the diet described here is not the best diet to lose weight quickly. (Usually, a ketogenic diet is.)

The word ‘weight’ in the phrase ‘the best diet to lose weight’ really means ‘fat.’ There’s a difference between losing body weight and losing body fat. The goal here is the best lifelong nutritional plan for achieving and maintaining a healthful percentage of body fat.

To eat well is to eat to maximize health and longevity.

Since it’s easier to lose body fat than it is to maintain a loss of body fat, it’s important to distinguish two phases: losing fat to achieve the desired percentage and maintaining that fat loss.

Using the best diet to lose weight quickly is likely to be counterproductive. The faster you lose fat, the more difficult it is to maintain the fat loss. For that reason, I recommend losing weight at the rate of about 2 pounds weekly.

Notice that that is weight loss rather than fat loss. Losing one pound of fat equates to losing about one and one half to two pounds of weight.

That is the goal for the best diet to lose weight:  1 pound of fat loss weekly, which is a loss of about one and one-half to two pounds of body weight weekly.

What’s the best way to do that? What is the best diet to lose weight?

Since there are two groups of humans to model, we don’t have to guess. All we have to do is to understand their behavior and emulate them.

The first group is your own ancestors. Humans have been around for about 250,000 years and proto-humans have been around for several million years. Your ancestors were not fat. What did they do that we don’t do?

They ate differently and they moved differently. Let’s here temporarily set aside how they moved (exercised) differently and focus on how they ate differently.

They never ate unnatural foods. In particular, they never ate refined, processed carbohydrates. They were hunter-gatherers.

Your ancestors didn’t start eating mostly grains or potatoes or legumes or dairy products until the First Agricultural Revolution about 10,000 years ago. These days, the three top sources of human calories in the world come from three grains and the fourth source is potatoes!

Unfortunately, our bodies haven’t had time to catch up to that huge dietary change. Our genes are 99.99% the same as our ancestors prior to the First Agricultural Revolution. That’s a chief reason why our modern diet is killing us unnecessarily quickly.

The second group is natural fitness models, bodybuilders, certain athletes such as swimmers and gymnasts, and some movie stars. They are not fat. They have strong, trim bodies. (‘Natural’ here refers to those in this group who have never used anabolic steroids.)

These people pay attention to their diets. If they do eat carbs, processed foods or lots of protein at all, they are used up doing exercise (rather than getting stored as body fat).

Furthermore, there is a third group to emulate: our tree-dwelling, pre-human ancestors who ate a lot of leaves, which is why eating plenty of leafy greens is still good for us.

The best diet to lose weight is a diet based on the diets of these three groups.

NOTE:  If you don’t value flourishing physically, you won’t benefit from continuing to read here.  If you do value maximum health and longevity and are willing to eat more like those three groups, you should benefit from continuing to read here.

There’s no guesswork involved if you want to lose body fat. Just understand the eating habits of these three groups and emulate them by eating more like they did. Then tweak what you are doing by examining the results you obtain.

Here are the seven specific recommendations concerning the best diet to reduce your percentage of body fat:

1. What you don’t eat is more important than what you do eat.  Stop eating what our prehistoric ancestors didn’t eat.  So, for example, stop eating grains (e.g., wheat, soy, oats, rye, rice, corn, popcorn, and quinoa), potatoes, and all products made from them.  Stop eating all legumes such as beans.  Except for avocados and small amounts of organic berries in season, stop eating all fruits (and all fruits have seeds including cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, squashes, eggplant, zucchini, and pumpkin.  Stop eating dairy products made with cow’s milk including yogurt, ice cream, frozen yogurt, cheese, kefir, and cottage cheese.  Stop eating sugars.

2. Keep your daily carbohydrate intake to 25 grams or less.  It’s likely best to ensure that calories from carbohydrates don’t contribute more than 5% of your daily calories.

3. The other 95% of your calories should come from fats and proteins, preferably from natural sources.   (Fats, proteins, and carbohydrates are the three macronutrients.)

4.   If you want to reduce your percentage of body fat, consider a modified ketogenic diet.  If you are unfamiliar with it, here’s a post to introduce you to keto.  By ‘modified’ I mean modified in accordance with The Plant Paradox by Steven R. Gundry, M.D.

5.  In general, it’s usually wise whenever possible to avoid or severely restrict consuming the products of farms and ranches.

6.  Don’t neglect the micronutrients either.  Drink plenty of clean water.  As a starting point, consider drinking in ounces half your body weight in pounds.  For example, if you weigh 200 lbs., drink 100 ounces of water. Tea is fine.  A cup or two of coffee in the morning is fine.  (Use organic stevia as a sweetener if you want.)   No more than 1 alcoholic drink daily for women and 2 for men (and, sadly for me, since it’s made using grains, it’s probably best to avoid beer).

Sensible supplementation matters.

Furthermore, it’s best to minimize anti-nutrients such as lectins as well as to maximize nutrients when you are planning your diet.  (The best book I’ve read on this is Gundry’s The Plant Paradox.)

7. It’s best to exercise regularly. I recommend 1 or 2 brief, intense weekly strength training sessions (see my Weight Lifting as an introduction) and intense weekly aerobic sessions (see P.A.C.E. if you need a good program).

Brisk walking has psychological as well as physiological benefits.  [A brisk walking rate on a flat surface is just under 15 minutes per mile.]  As long as you are also doing P.A.C.E.-style workouts, feel free also to walk 1 to 5 miles once, twice, or thrice weekly.

We have metabolic flexibility in the sense that we are able to fuel ourselves primarily with either fats or sugars.

Our bodies will burn sugars before burning fats.  So, if we eat plenty of both, our bodies will burn the sugars first and store everything else as body fat.

So the best strategy for losing body fat is to stop consuming so much sugar to put our bodies into fat-burning mode.  This is the justification for low carb diets.  It’s why not all calories are created equal.

Incidentally, starvation is natural.  I recommend at least 2 or 3 consecutive days of starvation once every six months.  It’s a water fast in which you may and should consume water, tea, and supplements.

(First,  though, get the go-ahead from your health care professional in advance based on a thorough physical examination as well as instructions on how to do it properly.  In fact, it’s a good idea never to make major changes in your dietary or exercise programs without the prior consent of your primary care physician or other healthcare professional.)

If you reduce your percentage of body fat to below 15% for healthy men and below 20% for healthy women, your chances of having to endure overweight or obesity, coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cancer, and the other diseases of civilization will decrease.

So there is good news here:  it’s possible to maximize your chances of flourishing physically while still enjoying the benefits of civilization, which were unknown to our prehistoric ancestors.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of confusion about how to eat well.  Partly that’s the fault of institutions such as the American Heart Association and medical schools, which train physicians to treat diseases rather than to prevent them.

Ultimately, it’s your responsibility to determine for yourself the most effective ways for you to eat well, exercise well, and reduce stress well.

I wish you well!

Frustrated? Angry? Dissatisfied? Worried?

If you are a Baby Boomer facing retirement, you don’t have to lose your peace of mind or freedom.  Instead, why not increase them?

Don’t know how?  Why not get some help?

Why not gain more serenity and freedom?  Why not reduce the obstacles ahead?  Why not make old age the best time of your life?

Living better really is possible for you, and there are both free and paid resources available from this site to help you.

First, (after checking out the terms of  use and privacy policy) please click on the “About Me” navigation bar button above, which will enable you to learn a little about me. That will give you an indication of my credibility.  There’s a second suggestion at the bottom of that page about using the resources available here.

It’s fine to be hopeful, even excited:  this could be the beginning of a very beneficial experience!

I genuinely hope that you enjoy it.

Dennis E. Bradford, Ph.D.