Why I Read

There are uncountable articles online about why reading is good for you, and specifically about why reading fiction is good for you. I’m not going to repeat any of the empirical evidence or clinical facts about how reading is good (although it definitely does exist). Instead, I’d like to share my own personal experience with reading.

Reading, for me, began as a way to alleviate boredom. As a young child, I grew up in a sheltering home that provided everything I could want, but also simultaneously shielded me from risk. This shielding at times hampered my childish curiosity and desire for risk and adventure. I would often sit at home, staring up at the northern Utah mountains, wishing I was trekking through the high forest groves, finding unexpected nooks and crannies, climbing trees, making friends with bears, etc. However, my parents didn’t really have time to cater to those fantasies, and so I mitigated my yearning with reading.

As time went on, I settled into the circumstances that my life lead me into, and I became more independent so I could fulfill more of my own desires. As a young adult, I have gone on many mountain adventures, explored many nooks, and even met exactly one bear. The initial desires that drove me to read have been satisfied (and continue to be satisfied on a regular basis), but I had formed the habit. I continued to pick up books and chug through them on a regular basis, and I began to notice an interesting effect that reading was having on my mind.

Like so many people, I live in an over stimulating environment. I eat tasty food, listen to music with emotional riffs, play exciting video games, get involved in passionate discussions, worry about bills, and watch interesting films. Most of my life, I am in a state of emotional excitement of some kind or another. My mind is an anxious torrent of ideas, each displacing the last more quickly than I am capable of inspecting them.

The medium of literature demands that you focus your eyes and mind on the words and ideas of another person, that you take the time to figure out what they’re saying. When I read, my chaotic emotions are pushed to the periphery of my attention. There they can rest and, basically, just chill the heck out. It’s very similar to mindfulness meditation (which I also recommend for quieting the anxieties caused by overstimulation), except that you also get to have some fun while doing it.

There are a couple things you have to bring in order to have this benefit though. First, you have to read deeply. This means reading every word, comprehending every sentence, and building up the entire meaning of the author in your mind. Avoid reading first sentences and then skipping through the rest of the paragraph. To enjoy the calming benefits of reading, the reader has to try and fully comprehend the text.

Secondly, read books that don’t dumb it down. Get books that require in depth reading, that ask a little bit more of you. I don’t mean that they should be difficult or confusing to read, but instead that they simply ask that you pay full attention. Read books that require more than minimum effort to get the point of the story.  This doesn’t mean they have to be literary classics (although I do encourage reading those too). Something as fun and easy to get into as Harry Potter will have the same desired effect if read closely. Just read something that respects you and expects you to be smarter than a bag of bricks.

In my life, I’ve found that the ability to turn down the stimulation and put my anxieties out to pasture has been really helpful. Reading novels according to these two guidelines has helped me do that in an enjoyable and consistent way, and I hope it works for other people as well.

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AI Art

A while back I saw a video of some Japanese animators trying to do a similar experiment, and both of these experiments have gotten me thinking.

When AI can create characters that are human enough, when they can render scenes that are realistic enough, and they can stumble into interactions between these objects that are interesting enough, will they completely replace human artists? Will entertainment basically become just watching an AI play a system like Minecraft (with much higher fidelity)?

On the one hand, it’s an exciting idea. Set up the right systems with the right kinds of actions and interactions (or heck, let an AI figure that out too, why not), and let the AI loose to explore all the different possible things that can happen. Create another AI that can recognize which of the possible set of actions would be interesting to an audience, and boom, you have an infinite content machine. You could do things like create a model of Middle Earth and have millions of stories about dwarves and hobbits (but not elves; they’d be removed by the interest recognition system).

On the other hand, it would rob the humans of the joy that comes from creating media. Like it or not, anything we can train a machine to do, it will do better than us. This is the whole reason we made them. I don’t think that the automation of media would effect the “high arts,” because the idea of high art is based entirely upon a social construct*.  The people who would suffer would be the people who do the media jobs that effect us all. It would harm animators, film makers, and game creators. It could very easily be a blow to illustrators, pop musicians, and novelists as well. These jobs require audience attention and retention in order to function, and if there are infinite content machines that can be tuned to create content that is massively appealing (or–even more dangerous–content that is specifically appealing to every individual), I find it very hard believe that human creators will be able to keep up.

A way to work against this potential outcome is that audiences come to value the people that are creating things as much as they value the thing being created. This may inoculate the pop music industry, for example, because pop music isn’t about artistic appeal, but human interest. The obvious problem with this, is that when value of media is determined only to the person performing it, you’ll end up with objectively simplistic media. Once again, see pop music. The media being created isn’t the product, the person is. The media is just an excuse for the audience to throw money at the one sided relationship with an idol.

Another thing that may happen is that human made media will continue to be consumed by niche audiences that follow it specifically for the meta-content that it contains. The story of how a piece came to be in the context of the culture and media tradition are what they’d really be consuming. I also find this troubling, however. I prefer as little context as possible when consuming content, because I like to let content speak for itself. I want to bring my own context, and have content speak to me on its own without being bogged down by meta analysis.

Anyway, it’s reality, and it’s problematic. Media creation has already been made crazy by the destruction of local markets, why not add some more craziness in by introducing robot creators as well?

 

* The AIs wouldn’t be able to prevent people from wanting to show their differences in class based upon their art consumption.

Word Choice

When I was in middle school, I read a biography of J.R.R Tolkien. The biographer took a few pages to describe how fastidious Tolkien was when choosing the exact wording for his writing. This is probably the only detail from that biography that has stuck with me over the years. Compare:

  • “Dwarf doors are invisible when closed.” -Gimli, The Fellowship of the Ring, film directed by Peter Jackson
  • “Dwarf-doors are not made to be seen when shut.” -Gimli, The Fellowship of the Ring, text from the book

I find the differences here interesting. The first is definitely simpler to understand and faster to say, but the second feels much more evocative to me. Just compare the word “shut” vs “closed.” Shut feels more decisive and exclusive (from phrases like “shut out,” “shut up,” etc). I don’t feel like my writing skills are advanced enough yet to make much use of this observation, but it’s something I’ll be keeping in mind as I proceed.