from the world's big
Why reading fiction is as important now as ever
Novels open us to the nuances of being human.
- "Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth," wrote Albert Camus. It remains an important social and political tool.
- Reading fiction has been shown to increase empathy and understanding.
- In the Instagram age, novels are still a necessary form of communication.
Having a spy as a mother must be challenging, especially if she dumps you off with a strange cast of characters during your influential teenage years. One day you're living with two parents when suddenly your father lands an overseas gig with Unilever; your mother is required to travel with him. The next, a shady man who ferries greyhounds across the channel to participate in dog fights is teaching you how to survive in the underbelly of the British economy. The familial dissolution fractures your relationship with your sister. When your mother returns you never regain that closeness, until one day she is murdered years after the war has passed.
Such an existence is foreign to nearly all of us. Yet the themes present—parental issues, friendship, social confusion, peer pressure, heartbreak—are universal. There are hundreds of volumes of historical nonfiction about World War II. Yet in Michael Ondaatje's novel, Warlight, we shed the macrocosm to home in on how war uproots one family. Though widespread death and destruction is absent, what replaces it is an ability to empathize with the imagined characters.
As relevant as the study of history is, this ability to feel and share the emotions of others is arguably more important. A recent commenter on Reddit argues the reverse, citing Dan Carlin's podcast, Hardcore History, as the catalyst for their intellectual transformation:
Listening to Dan Carlin's podcasts with my 11 year old son is what sparked my interest and took history beyond the names and places I had previously memorized for passing grades. It awoke something in me and made me realize that I have little need for fiction with so many unread historical accounts still out there.
I'd never argue against Carlin. It takes a special thinker to narrate six hours on the Celtic Holocaust and leave listeners wanting more. It's also important that more people study history, a fact Carlin has played no small role in promoting. He's not the only one. In a recent episode of Sam Harris' podcast Waking Up, historian Yuval Noah Harari argues that history is a framing of the present. Without knowing where we come from it is impossible to realize how we've arrived at where we are, a theme especially pertinent to Americans today.
But abandoning fiction for history? The two go hand-in-hand. Mythologies and epic poetry are predominantly fictional accounts influenced by historical events yet have shaped the way we interact as societies, war with one another, and communicate across political boundaries. History requires narrative; a disinterested recording of events has never occurred—most often we're reading the stories of winners, in war and political might. Perception is relegated to the individual writing these events; what we perceive is colored by our experiences. There is no such thing as "pure" history.
As Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid points out, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a text as "real" as Joseph Smith's golden tablets (yet presented as nonfiction), "stoked the fires of European anti-Semitism in the decades before the Holocaust." Uncle Tom's Cabin helped lead to abolition; Things Fall Apart opened many eyes to the tragedies of colonialism; The Jungle led to the Meat Inspection Act. I'm not sure anyone has tracked references of 1984 in the last decade, but it's certainly a more robust number than the years following its publication.
Fiction, Hamid continues, allows us to say what we otherwise would not. While there are certainly men as brazen as Rabbit Angstrom, rarely do you find one so vocal with his inside voice, as if the filter from cortex to mouth was severed. The tenderness an abused mother shares with the son she locks in the closet in Emma Donoghue's Room—though I'll never be a mother or closeted child, I found myself curled into a ball while reading the harrowing details.
Not that fiction need be painful. Wallace Stegner made me fall in love with states I've never set foot in. I've never sipped a cup of Happicuppa by name, but every time the term is invoked by Margaret Atwood an immediate aroma of grinding beans fills the air. Amitav Ghosh's retelling of the Opium Wars pulled from me a romantic longing for an era and culture that can only be imagined.
It is in our imagination that we solve the problems of the world. True, the same imagination creates these issues to begin with, so deeply embedded are our conjured fears. The hero's journey is a series of illustrious tales of us righting the wrongs we cause in the first place. Perhaps that's why redemption, a theme made famous by the world's most circulated story of fiction, is so meaningful: we adore the sucker who transcends their folly.
"Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth," remarked Camus, the man who asked us to imagine Sisyphus happy with his fate. Such a mediation today would be the source of severe cognitive disassociation. In a culture obsessed with self the burden of such responsibility is rarely entertained. It's hard to be absurd when you take yourself so seriously.
Yet this might hint at the most useful role of fiction in our age: a resurrection of the lost art of debate. The Stranger is effectively the story of a mind warring with itself. To wage a successful campaign, you must contemplate competing narratives with equal gravity before arriving at a decision. Nothing in contemporary society champions such an honest appraisal. To even think the other side has a point is heresy. Few histories capturing this moment will be free of deeply ingrained bias.
There is no escape in fiction, though it offers something we so desperately need: time. Stories require an investment, the type of sacrifice tweets and selfies are not equipped to offer. The arresting power of a beautiful sentence; the captivation characters evoke, especially messy ones. To travel well with another's mind is a necessary form of communication. Without it, we lose our humanity, as blasts of puerile emotion shuttled through cyberspace in the form of reactionary fragments are teaching us.
We need history. Without it, we have no foundation for understanding today. But we need fiction as well. When we refuse to wrestle with our demons they always win. And America, despite what Twitter announces, is not tired of winning given how little of it we're accomplishing. The fiction we're living through has no elegance, no depth, nothing of the character of a good novel. We're just growing tired.
Why read fiction? Because of the 'Jihadi Sandbox Principle'
Eric Weinstein explains that if your mind isn't running contradictory programs, you're not thinking deeply enough. Fiction can help you imagine some of those dangerous and alien ideas, and learn from them.
Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
In more than a dozen countries as far apart as Portugal and Russia, 'Smith' is the most popular occupational surname
- 'Smith' is not just the most common surname in many English-speaking countries
- In local translations, it's also the most common occupational surname in a large part of Europe
- Ironically, Smiths are so ubiquitous today because smiths were so special a few centuries ago
Meet the Smiths, Millers, Priests and Imams - the most popular occupational surnames across Europe.
Image: Marcin Ciura<p>Although very few people are smiths by profession these days, there are millions of Smiths by surname the world over. It's the most popular surname in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, as well as the second most popular surname in Canada and the fifth most popular one in Ireland. And they're a thriving bunch, at least in the U.S.: the 2010 Census (1) counted 2,442,977 Americans called Smith, 2.8% more than in 2000.</p><p>Curiously, 'Smith' also is one of the most popular surnames across most of Europe –translated in the various local vernaculars, of course. This map shows the most common occupational surnames in each country. By colour-coding the professions, this map shows a remarkable pro-smith consistency across Europe – as well as some curious regional exceptions.</p>
‘Smith’ popular throughout Europe<p>'Smith', in all its variations, is the most popular occupational surname throughout Europe. Not just in the UK, but also in:</p> <ul><li>Belgium (<em>Desmet</em>) and Luxembourg, (<em>Schmitt</em>);</li> <li>France (<em>Lefebvre</em>), Italy (<em>Ferrari</em>) and Portugal (<em>Ferreira</em>);</li> <li>Slovenia (<em>Kovačič</em>), Croatia (<em>Kovačevič</em>), Hungary (<em>Kovács</em>), Slovakia (<em>Kováč</em>), Poland (<em>Kowalski</em>), Lithuania (<em>Kavaliauskas</em>), Latvia (<em>Kalējs</em>) and Belarus (<em>Kavalyov</em>);</li> <li>Estonia (<em>Sepp</em>); and</li> <li>Russia (<em>Kuznetsov</em>).</li></ul>
‘Miller’ on top in many Germanic-language countries<p>'Miller' is the most popular occupational surname in many Germanic-language countries, but also in Spain and Ukraine (perhaps because the grain in both countries is mainly in the plain):</p> <ul><li>There's <em>Müller</em> (in Germany and Switzerland), <em>M</em><em>ø</em><em>ller</em> (in Denmark and Norway) and <em>Möller</em> (Sweden);</li> <li><em>Molina</em> (in Spain – the map also shows the most popular surname in Catalonia/Catalan: <em>Ferrer</em>, i.e. 'Smith'); and</li> <li><em>Melnik</em> (in Ukraine).</li></ul>
Clergy surnames rule in the Balkans<p>Catholic clergy must remain celibate, so 'Priest' as a surname is rare to non-existent throughout Europe. Except in the Balkans, where Catholicism is largely absent. Here, the Orthodox and Islamic clergies have passed on the title from father to son, eventually as a surname, to popular effect. Orthodox clergy are addressed as <em>papa</em> or <em>pope</em> (which means 'father' – so the surname rather redundantly translates to 'father's son'). Islamic teachers or imams are known by the Turkish/Persian term <em>hodzha</em>. An overview:</p> <ul><li><em>Popov</em> (in Bulgaria), <em>Popovic</em> (in both Serbia and Montenegro), <em>Popovski</em> (in Macedonia);</li> <li><em>Popa</em> (in Romania); </li> <li><em>Papadopoulos</em> (in Greece); and</li> <li><em>Hodžić</em> (in Bosnia-Herzegovina), <em>Hoxha</em> (in both Kosovo and Albania).</li></ul>
Landowners and other professions<p>Austria and the Czech Republic have different national languages but are neighbours and share a lot of history. Could that explain why they have a similar most popular occupational surname, for 'landowner'?</p> <ul><li><em>Huber</em> (in Austria) and</li> <li><em>Dvořák</em> (in the Czech Republic).</li></ul> <p>Just four professions, that wraps up all but five countries on this map. Those five each have their very own most popular occupational surname:</p> <ul><li><em>Bakker</em> (in the Netherlands): 'Baker'</li> <li><em>Kinnunen</em> (in Finland): 'Skinner'</li> <li><em>Ceban</em> (in Moldova): 'Shepherd'</li> <li><em>Avci</em> (in Turkey): 'Hunter'</li> <li><em>Murphy</em> (in Ireland): 'Sea Warrior' </li></ul>
Even more Smiths<p>Judging from the popularity of these surnames, your generic European village of a few centuries ago really couldn't do without a smithy. It was a much more essential craft even than that of the miller (or the baker, who put the miller's flour to good use) – except in the Balkans, where spiritual sustenance apparently sated a greater need. On the outskirts of <em>Anytown, Europe</em> live the shepherd and the hunter, the skinner and the pirate.<br></p><p>A bit too simplistic? Perhaps not simplistic enough. This map could have been dominated by even more Smiths. As the original poster explains, he always picked the most frequent version of an occupational surname, even if multiple variants point to a more popular alternative. </p><p>In the Netherlands, for instance, people with the surnames <em>Smit, Smits, Smid, de Smit, Smet </em>and <em>Smith</em> collectively outnumber those with the surnames <em>Bakker, Bekker, de Bakker</em> and <em>Backer</em>. So, the Netherlands could be considered another win for 'Smith' – except that the variant <em>Bakker</em> is more frequent than any other single variant.</p><p>Same story in Germany: added up, there are more people named <em>Schmidt, Schmitt, Schmitz </em>and <em>Schmid</em> than <em>Müller</em>. Ditto for Spain: <em>Herrero, Herrera </em>and <em>Ferrer</em> together outnumber <em>Molina</em>. Also in Finland, where <em>Seppä</em>, <em>Seppälä</em> and <em>Seppänen</em> together have a higher count than <em>Kinnunen</em>. </p>
Smiths in other cultures<p>'Smith' was a crucial occupation in other cultures too, judging from the familiar ring it has in these languages:<br></p><ul><li><em></em><em>Demirci</em> (Turkish)</li><li><em>Hadad</em> (Syriac, Aramaic, Arabic)</li><li><em>Nalbani</em> (Albanian)</li><li><em>McGowan</em> (Gaelic)</li><li><em>Faber</em> (Latin)<span></span></li></ul>
Other most popular surnames<p>Take note, though: 'Smith' may be the most popular surname in in the Anglosphere, this map does not mean to show that its variants in French, Russian and other languages also are the most popular surnames in the countries marked grey. They are merely the most popular <em>occupational</em> surnames.<br></p><p>As this sample of most common ones for each country shows, surnames can refer to a host of other things. Personal qualities or physical attributes, for example:</p> <ul><li>Russia: <em>Smirnov</em> ('the quiet one')</li> <li>Turkey: <em>Yilmaz</em> ('unflinching')</li> <li>Hungary: <em>Nagy</em> ('big')</li> <li>Italy: <em>Rossi/Russo</em> ('red', in northern and southern Italy, respectively)</li></ul> <p>Another option: the origin of the name-bearer (be it a place or a person):</p> <ul><li>Sweden: <em>Andersson</em> ('son of Anders')</li> <li>Slovakia: <em>Horvath</em> ('Croat')</li> <li>Kosovo: <em>Krasniqi</em> (refers to the Krasniq tribe and their mountainous home region)</li> <li>Portugal: <em>Silva</em> ('woodland')</li> <li>Latvia: <em>Bērziņš</em> ('little birch tree')</li> <li>Estonia: <em>Tamm</em> ('oak')</li></ul> <p>But sometimes, even for the most popular ones, the exact origin of the surname is lost in time:</p> <ul><li>Spain: <em>Garcia</em> (originally Basque, possibly meaning 'young', 'bear' or 'young bear')</li> <li>Finland: <em>Korhonen</em> ('hard of hearing' or 'dim-witted'; 'village elder'; 'proud'; 'upright'). </li></ul>
Smith popularity theory<p>So why exactly is Smith – and not Miller, for example – the most popular surname in many English-speaking countries? The theory propounded by historian C.M. Matthews in <em>History Today</em> (July 1967) probably also holds for the other-language variants so popular throughout Europe:<br></p><blockquote>"The reason for (the) multiplicity (of the surname 'Smith') is not so much that metal-workers were numerous as that they were important and widespread. On the skill of the smith, both rich and poor depended for the most essential things of life, the tools of husbandry and the weapons of hunting and war. Every community in the land must have one, every castle, every manor; and so distinctive was his trade that he would seldom need another name".<em></em></blockquote><p>That does not mean all people with the surname have a forefather who forged iron into weapons and farm tools. Especially in North America, 'Smith' was adopted by many people precisely because it was already common – as a secret identity or to blend in, for example by natives, slaves and immigrants.</p>
A recent analysis of a 76-million-year-old Centrosaurus apertus fibula confirmed that dinosaurs suffered from cancer, too.
- The fibula was originally discovered in 1989, though at the time scientists believed the damaged bone had been fractured.
- After reanalyzing the bone, and comparing it with fibulas from a human and another dinosaur, a team of scientists confirmed that the dinosaur suffered from the bone cancer osteosarcoma.
- The study shows how modern techniques can help scientists learn about the ancient origins of diseases.
Centrosaurus apertus fibula
Royal Ontario Museum<p>In the recent study, the team used a combination of techniques to analyze the fibula, including taking CT scans, casting the bone and studying thin slices of it under a microscope. The analysis suggested that the dinosaur likely suffered from osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that affects modern humans, typically young adults.</p><p>For further evidence, the team compared the damaged fibula to a healthy fibula from a dinosaur of the same species, and also to a fibula that belonged to a 19-year-old human who suffered from osteosarcoma. Both comparisons supported the osteosarcoma diagnosis.</p>
Evans et al.<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The shin bone shows aggressive cancer at an advanced stage," Evans said in a <a href="https://www.rom.on.ca/en/about-us/newsroom/press-releases/rare-malignant-cancer-diagnosed-in-a-dinosaur" target="_blank">press release</a>. "The cancer would have had crippling effects on the individual and made it very vulnerable to the formidable tyrannosaur predators of the time."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The fact that this plant-eating dinosaur lived in a large, protective herd may have allowed it to survive longer than it normally would have with such a devastating disease."</p><p>The fossilized fibula was originally unearthed in a bonebed alongside the remains of dozens of other <em>Centrosaurus </em><em>apertus</em>, suggesting the dinosaur didn't die from cancer, but from a flood that swept it away with its herd.</p>
Dinosaur fibula; the tumor mass is depicted in yellow.
Royal Ontario Museum/McMaster University<p>The new study highlights how modern techniques can help scientists learn more about the evolutionary origins of modern diseases, like cancer. It also shows that dinosaurs suffered through some of the same terrestrial afflictions humans face today.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Dinosaurs can seem like mythical creatures, but they were living, breathing animals that suffered through horrible injuries and diseases," Evans said, "and this discovery certainly makes them more real and helps bring them to life in that respect."</p>
Join the lauded author of Range in conversation with best-selling author and poker pro Maria Konnikova!
UPDATE: Unfortunately, Malcolm Gladwell was not able to make the live stream due to scheduling issues. Fortunately, David Epstein was able to jump in at a moment's notice. We hope you enjoy this great yet unexpected episode of Big Think Live. Our thanks to David and Maria for helping us deliver a show, it is much appreciated.