What Reading Makes of Us – The Power of Stories to Shape our Realities: An Essay.

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By Mark Thornton

(This is an adaptation of a talk I gave to sixth formers at Abingdon School last year.)

© Oxford Mail

This is my tenth year of being an independent bookseller – the equivalent of thirty years in any other business I reckon. Over time, casual conversations with friends, family and random strangers outside the shop have morphed from the questions like “You’ve started an independent bookshop, are you mad?” to “How on Earth do you survive against Amazon?”.

But sometimes the most interesting conversations – outside the shop at least – are the ones in which you quickly realise that the person you are talking to doesn’t read (this happens surprisingly often). People are often slightly embarrassed by this, and get a bit defensive, so my opening gambit is to gently reassure them that plenty of people don’t read, and that whilst they may not read books, they problem ‘consume’ plenty of textual information in the course of their day to day life.

Once they relax and realise that I’m not having a go at them (which I’m not), I then (also gently) explain that it’s not that they don’t read, it’s just that they have fallen out of the habit of reading. Sometimes the biggest readers fall off the wagon when studying for exams, or when they start travelling a lot for their job, or when children arrive.

Unless you have significant eye problems or severe dyslexia, it’s best to think of yourself as a ‘lapsed reader’ rather than a ‘non-reader’. And the best way to get back on the wagon is in a supportive, friendly non-judgmental environment, in which a skilled professional can find out where exactly you were when you dropped off the reading radar, and which books would be just right to re-engage with the written word.

In short – an independent bookshop filled with passionate booksellers.

Now, I’m guessing that if you regularly come to a website like Shiny New Books, you are probably not a lapsed reader. But you may have a friend who is. Or you may just be a bit ‘jaded’ in terms of what you are reading at the moment, and are questioning whether you are falling out of love with reading.


What I would like to do here is to take my experience, understanding, passion, and a whole bag of prejudices I have as an independent bookseller to try to convince you of three things.

The first is that reading is important. I’m hoping that we can all take this as read. Reading is possibly the most important transferable skill. It allows us to assimilate knowledge and wisdom from across the ages, it educates us, informs us, prevents us from falling prey to conmen, idiots and dubious marketing. If you genuinely don’t think reading is important, it’s possibly best to stop reading now whilst we’re still friends.

The second thing I want to then convince you of is that reading fiction is important. This might be slightly trickier. I have talked to enough people in the shop who express the opinion that reading fiction is somehow a ‘waste of time’, that it’s just entertainment, or doesn’t contain ‘truths’ or useful information. I’m going to respectfully suggest that this is dead wrong.

Finally, I want to convince you that reading physical books is important – this means off paper, not on an electronic device. This will be the hardest job because at this point I’ll be straying into anecdotal evidence, or articles of faith that I have as a bookseller, and I’ll probably be doing a bit of technology bashing as well. At this point, I cannot be wholly trusted, and you’ll have to bear with me whilst I try to make a convincing case. As one of my heroes, Amory Lovins, advises ‘Never trust an expert, and never, ever trust as expert who is trying to sell you something’.

Note to reader: I spend my day selling physical books.

Anyway, I thought carefully about all the ways I could do this. I could start off referencing an academic study, or focus on a classic work of fiction and try to tease out the lessons that reading such a book might give us. I could ransack a quote database and pull out a few doozies (my usual strategy).

And then I thought, come on, I’m a bookseller. Why not use the tools of my trade and tell this story using books – as well as some experiences of being an independent bookseller of course.

So here we go.

I’m going to start with a non-fiction book: ‘Sapiens by Israeli academic Yuval Noah Harari. This is no less that an epic, gripping, controversial, swashbuckling, no-nonsense history of our entire species, from the moment we split from the evolutionary path of the five other ‘homo’ species that existed in pre-history – right the way through to a look at when our species will end, either – like 97% of the species that have existed on this planet – because of extinction, or through our transformation into something different (probably in some Faustian pact with augmented technology).

What was it that was different about us that gave us the edge over our other ‘homo’ cousins? It certainly wasn’t our speed, strength, or physical prowess. It turned out to be our ability to imagine. We were able to out-think our competitors, because our imaginations allowed to us come up with different scenarios, plan better, and communicate this amongst each other so that we worked better as a team.

We Homo Sapiens faced huge challenges in the early part of our history. But the advantage of imagination allowed us to string together our experiences into stories,  and this gave us an extraordinary tool. It led to us becoming the dominant species on this planet, and all the good and bad things that this means.

At the heart of it is trust. Robin Dunbar discovered that in activities involving groups of humans there is an ‘upper limit’ on the number of people we can intimately know and trust, and it’s approximately 150. This ‘Dunbar Number’ and its implications are explored in his book ‘How Many Friends Does One Person Need?‘.

So how do you engender trust for bigger numbers of people? You weave greater and more ambitious stories. Storytelling at its most basic is the mechanism by which we encode, internalise and disseminate experience. And thus storytelling allows us to conjure up myths, religions, abstract concepts like money, corporations and scientific theories that we can leverage without necessarily understanding them. Stories make abstract ideas ‘real’ in a way that bind us together, generate trust and leverage technology that lead to pyramids and moon landings, enormous armies and the creation of vast wealth on nothing but paper.

When this storytelling mechanism breaks, the results can be catastrophic. In ‘Heretics’Will Storr – an investigative journalist in the mould of Louis Thereoux or Jon Ronson – documents his time with people who – in spite of the overwhelming evidence around them, and in some instances the evidence of their own senses – believe things that are at odds with fact. Whether it’s denying the Holocaust, evolution or Climate Change, or hearing voices in their head, Storr demonstrates – powerfully, brilliantly – that we are fundamentally ‘story machines’. When the story mechanism breaks down – often as a result of traumatic experiences, the result of personality disorders or just tragically big egos – the consequences can be comical, tragic or extreme.

It’s worth emphasising the point he repeats again and again in this extremely important book: You are a story machine. Everything your brain does to make sense of the world around it requires the rapid and instantaneous pulling together of a range of sensory information, and matching that information to models of how we believe the world to work. At each stage, and to prevent us from being overwhelmed, we must filter, aggregate and summarise a vast amount of information coming into our brains.

When I am speaking to an audience, I don’t see an ‘audience’ in this room, I actually ‘see’ small packets of light being reflected off a variety of matter in the room, and thanks to millennia of evolution and the development of my brain in my early years, these little packets of light are gathered, sorted, collated, curated and built up – along with signals that I receive in my ear and other senses – finally mapped onto models of how I think the world should behave.

Thus I ‘see’ a room full of people, and because I have spoken to audiences before, I am able to construct even more complex models which set expectations of how I should behave – and how an audience should react. If those models are broken – then my behaviour changes accordingly. When I speak in front of an audience it’s a mixture of nerves and excitement. To a shy person, this becomes an elaborate form of torture. To someone suffering from paranoid delusions, the situation might be terrifying – and even dangerous.

Storr finishes his book with a look at Aboriginal storytelling, and how Aboriginal children are taught ‘dreamtime’ stories, which take many years to learn and involve dance, music, stories and singing. Initially thought to be simply ‘fairytales’, we now know that these are the highly sophisticated encoding of oral culture and experience which teaches children how to survive in one of the most hostile environments on Earth, the Australian Outback.

Even when our storytelling mechanism is in good working order, it gives us a blind spot. In Maria Konnikova‘s lastest book The Confidence Game she shows how our propensity to construct stories and trust strangers sets us up to be conned by the conmen and women who turn confidence tricks into an art. Konnikova draws on an impressive array of research – and jaw-dropping examples of chicanery – that show the Achilles Heel of our story machine brains. Luckily, it turns out that trusting people is still better for us, and an occasional fleecing is what we might have to put up with as a consequence.

So what does this mean for us?

There are two implications, one obvious, one profound. I guess the more obvious one is that the more skilled you are as a storyteller, the more you can generate thoughts and feelings in those you communicate with. Think of a recent ‘Christmas Ad’ from Sainsbury’s or John Lewis that has ‘gone viral’, and you can begin to understand how master manipulators are using every tool in the storyteller’s arsenal, every trick in our shared experience cupboard, to cement positive emotions about a retailers brand into your head.

But the other, more surprising aspect is that these storytelling structures are so powerful that we cannot help but take our own experiences – and map grand story narratives back onto them. We reverse engineer the real world to match the stories.

And so we come to Into The Woods by John Yorke, one of the most remarkable books on stories you will ever read. Here’s an extract from the opening of the book:

A ship lands on an alien shore and a young man, desperate to prove himself, is tasked with befriending the inhabitants and extracting their secrets. Enchanted by their way of life, he falls in love with a local girl and starts to distrust his masters. Discovering their man has gone native, they in turn resolve to destroy both him and the native population once and for all.

John Yorke then asks us to guess the story. Which did you guess? Avatar? Well, it could also be Pocahontas, because as stories they’re almost identical.

What John Yorke tells us in this powerful book is how everything – from Alice in Wonderland to The Apprentice – share certain rules of storytelling, and they all hark back to a single archetypal story of ‘the journey into the woods’. It’s the hero’s journey, who is pushed out of his or her comfort zone, and must journey deep into the forest to find something that can be brought back and save his or her kinfolk from a great danger.

Encoded into this archetypal tale are clues to how we resolve challenges and move forward as a species. We are constantly faced with dilemmas, and through (reluctant) action we upset the status quo, and retrieve a solution that allows us to resolve it. It’s tightly bound up in our history, our genes and our evolution as a species.

(Incidentally, if anyone out there has any goals to become a filmmaker, a scriptwiter, or any kind of writing – you must, must read this book. I can also recommend you setting aside 45 minutes of your time to watch Yorke’s Google talk here.)

But what has this got to do with fiction?

If we understand the world in terms of models which we construct, based on experiences which we have, encoded as stories which we tell, then reading fiction is a way of massively – and I do mean massively – expanding our ability to make those models, draw on other people’s experience, and strengthen our intuition about how to do the right thing and resolve the dilemmas that face us in life.

It is difficult to overstate what reading fiction does to us.

It expands the territory in our minds onto which we map experiences. It enlarges our capacity for empathy and tolerance, whilst at the same time giving us a structure to support critical thinking that means we are less easily fooled. It subverts and reframes our own experiences, creating space for the polar opposite of what has been called ‘the unexamined life’, revealing blind spots and character weaknesses that are the sovereign road to self-knowledge, ethical behaviour and resilience. It also allows us to become more creative in every area of our lives.

We are talking about the tools and confidence to do the right thing and lead a worthwhile and rewarding life.

When you read fiction, you are rehearsing real life. You are experimenting with everything and trying numerous paths less travelled. You are profoundly expanding your brain to improve how you map narrative structures onto your own experiences, but you also incorporate other people experiences and knowledge into your own.

To use another metaphor, reading fiction (good fiction) uncovers resources in your Minecraft landscape, from which you will craft your own world.

This is astounding. This is Neo from The Matrix. You read a book. You know Kung Fu.

There are so many fiction books that it’s difficult to pull out a few as examples, but this is what we do in the shop – so pop in if you want to get the full effect of having some recommends pulled from the shelves and pressed into your hands.

Many people didn’t get on with Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (largely because they were bounced into reading it as part of a bookgroup) but for those who stuck with it over the first fifty pages, it would be my vote for the finest novel published in the time I have been a bookseller. Rarely has a writer so successfully mapped empathy and made the reader inhabit a character so fully as Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell, a man called the first civil servant, and regularly facing so many ‘impossible’ tasks in the service of his King, that to this day, I occasionally find myself facing a problem and think ‘what would Cromwell do?’.

Elliot Perlman‘s The Street Sweeper binds the American civil rights movement to The Holocaust in a way that leaves you under no illusion as to why racial prejudice – indeed any prejudice – must be fought wherever it’s found. (Warning: It will devastate you emotionally).

The Book of Memory (Petina Gappah) and Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) have protagonists (two women, one Nigerian, the other Zimbabwean) that are a million miles from my own life, and yet both books – steeped in Nigerian and Shona culture respectively – tease deep truths about memory and belonging that make the heart burst with joy, even as injustice, prejudice, regret and death stalk the pages. Both are amazing books by two incredibly talented authors that everyone should read.

The Goldfinch Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch drives the reader on through the despair of drug addiction to get to sunny uplands, and the importance of art and its appreciation on the human soul. God, is it worth the journey. David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet rockets you up into space above Japan, and allows you a precious, omnipotent view of the world as it existed just as the 19th century – and the British Empire – really get started. You’ll never view the flow of knowledge and machinations of power in the same way again.

Steve Toltz (A Fraction of the Whole) taught me about being a better parent (whilst showing me one of the baddest Dads – and Uncles – in modern literature – to be read with Steve Biddulph’s Raising Boys), and Glen David Gold (Carter Beats The Devil) shows how technology utterly transforms us as humans with the greatest sleight of hand I’ve ever read. Kate Atkinson is simply a genius. Life After Life takes bold risks and multiple lives to give us big clues as to how to live the right life, and the consequences and catastrophe of war.

I could go on – and frequently do in the shop. We should be incredibly grateful that authors like this are writing, and that we can read their words for the price of a couple of Starbucks Lattes.

So now to the final – and most tricky – challenge. Why read physical books?

Let me say first of all that I love technology. My background is as a computer scientist, then as an engineer. When people voice their fear of technology – the shallowness of social media, the ephemeral nature of the Internet – I always counsel against pulling the plug, the electronic equivalent of trekking out into the woods and building a log cabin.

Don’t pray for the wind to blow less, get the skills to set a better sail, etc.

But there are inevitably dangers of our increased over-reliance on electronic devices. And one of the most reasoned and well-informed accounts is that of an American psychologist called Sherry Turkle. She is Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and in the late 90s she could be found on the front cover of Wired magazine praising the liberating effect of the Internet and our improvement as a species because of it.

But after a decade of study, she now offers a more cautionary note. As technology has improved, miniaturised, become all pervasive, it is beginning to have a detrimental effect on our ability to connect with other human beings.

There is a paradox at the heart of technology, which means that as we become more connected, with more people, than ever before – we are becoming more isolated because we are using technology to ‘edit’ and tidy-up the messy interface that exists between each other.

Looking at your mobile phone whilst in the middle of a conversation has gone from being rude to being the norm in a frighteningly short amount of time. We seem to have a dual existence, both here and in cyberspace. As you read this article on a laptop or a phone, your concentration may have wavered as you skipped around, or become distracted by a text message – or checked email or social media. The constant use of technology creates a creeping anxiety characterised as ‘FOMO’ – the Fear Of Missing Out.

What Sherry urges us to do is to create firewalls or breaks with technology. Cutting ourselves off from the ‘Hive Mind’ regularly, creating space in which to think, or have real conversation, or read with focus and deep understanding.

We can do this with fiction, reading off a page.

Author Jonathan Franzen says ‘The first lesson reading teaches is how to be alone.’. Being alone is essential to our mental well-being, it allows us the time for introspection, and the assimilation of experience and ideas. Reading off of digital devices does not allow us to disconnect completely, because it offers us a promise – a hope – that we will receive some sort of distraction, a connection or update from things happening elsewhere.

Recent studies show something called ‘haptic dissonance’ when reading digitally (link here). This is a fancy term for the conflict (and unpleasant sensation) that occurs because many of the cues of reading – touch, weight, smell, sound and an awareness of location with respect to beginning and end of the book – are missing in eBook form. Something similar is being seen in note-taking by students between digital devices and writing things down (link here).

Some of this may disappear in a generation or two as digital natives grow up – but Turkle thinks that as all our devices become ever more interconnected, the act of reading and writing on a device will be the same as half-listening to a conversation whilst browsing the footie scores – you miss big chunks of what’s going on.

When you isolate yourself with a book, you are drinking deeply from alternative experiences. You create a space into which new ideas will inevitably emerge as you make connections within your own brain. Brain scans seem to show that ‘taking the slow lane’ in this way is the sovereign path to creativity, curiosity and new ideas. It builds empathy and trust. It allows you to break from the world, take a deep breath, and reengage with superior energy and enthusiasm. You just feel better.

Yuval’s book Sapiens ends on a pessimistic note. The balance of probabilities is that the human species will not survive. As we look around at the plethora of problems that face us, it doesn’t look too good. This will be the greatest tragedy of our species, and it is beholden on all of us – particularly the younger readers amongst you – to ensure that this doesn’t happen.

If we are going to survive, we are going to have to do two things – safeguard our planet with one hand, whilst progressing out and off our planet with the other. And we’re going to have to do both of these things at the same time.

We will have to make our own journey deep into the woods to discover the new technologies and solutions to resolve this dilemma. But many of these answers might be found in the landscapes of fiction, and solutions will emerge from where they always have come – from the brains of those that are curious and caring.

Switch off, open a book and drink deeply. Fill yourselves with stories, then go tell your own. The fate of the world may depend upon it.

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(At the time of original publication) Mark Thornton was the founder and owner of Mostly Books independent bookshop in Abingdon.