How and what should you read?

by waxbanks

Someone asked the other day whether the things I read bear directly on the writing I do.

I said somethingsomethingsomething but what I meant was:

You can’t plan knowledge

Learning is association-making, connection, but those connections are capricious (cf. those sexually aroused by feet, those who think they saw the Virgin Mary at Fatima, those who can play twelve games of high-level chess simultaneously without actually loving chess). Human brains aren’t purposefully wired, they’re grown; instead of plans they develop according to tendencies. The phrase ‘perfectly reasonable deviations from the beaten track’ might come to mind here if you’re me.

You can consume information according to a plan. I wanted to know about the influence of Charles Fort on midcentury pulps and comix; I read Kripal’s Mutants & Mystics. I wanted to know what Jacques Vallée actually argued in Passport to Magonia; I read it, simple. But it’s silly and self-defeating to start out wondering what you’re going to do with that information. You can’t know, and in any case the action-arrow points the other direction: as it transforms interpenetratively into knowledge, the reading does something with you.

I mean that almost literally. We can only consciously control our learning with gross imprecision, which is why cramming for tests is a terrible idea (too much too late). You learn in a trickle or a rush, but crucially you don’t decide which, and it’s best to think of learning practice and knowledge-formation (not ‘-acquisition’) as distinct and almost disjoint practices. The making of your mind can go on without you. Good thing, too: it’s what ‘you’ are made of.

Point being, you can control the inputs to the psychotropic process (the books you read, the drugs you take, your adherence to or rejection of the diurnal cycle) but you can’t control the emergent coral-reef forms which knowledge takes in the mind/brain. And this is good, because while you are a sadly limited person living in a sadly limited world, the self-modifying bioelectrical system which epiphenomenally generates ‘you’ is a good deal less neurotic and scared.

And so you should read whatever you’re passionate about, because

  • passion intensifies and accelerates this mindmaking process, while
  • boredom kills it, and since
  • you can’t control whom you turn into,
  • your best bet for generating a robust mind-body ecology is richly varying inputs

Which brings us to the secret central question of all blogposts,

What does this have to do with my D&D campaign?

But the only reason anyone asks this question is that he hasn’t yet internalized the great paradox of our everything-bad-on-demand-everywhere time, which is that

Fantasy isn’t a genre, it’s an activity

If you get that fantasy is something you do (creation connection narrativizing spatializing eroticizing etc.) and not a set of genre markers (elves sorcery talkingswords) then you already know what all this has to do with your D&D campaign — the more and better you know, the more deeply and widely you experience, the richer your fantastic imagination.

False Patrick occasionally looks for D&Dables in James Scott or Geoffrey of Monmouth with superb results — you can see why G. of M. would be a good RPG source, but James Seeing Like a State Scott? Well, read the post. I picked up Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror having heard it described as the book that birthed not only Game of Thrones but a generation of medievalists (who later went on to disavow it as decidedly non-scholarly history), but in the end I experienced it as a kind of hellish postapocalyptic dystopia, the apocalypse in question being the bubonic plague. That, in turn, put me onto William NcNeill’s Plagues and Peoples, a brilliant short book which argues for an advanced understanding of humans as coexisting in complexly evolving predator/prey relationships with, say, syphilis (or bubonic plague, or HIV). That was immensely clarifying as history, but it doubled for me as a kind of SFnal primer on both ‘deep time’ and dystopic transhuman history — a depectively matter-of-fact story about the place of the human species at the center of a slowly tightening ecological net.

Not longer after I finished Plagues and Peoples I picked up Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, the first third of his Southern Reach trilogy, which is a kind of Rendezvous with Rama/Lost/Lovecraft mashup with mushrooms swapped in for tentacles. I liked it, but it was twice the book it otherwise would’ve been, and ten times the dream-fodder, for the way it echoed and weirded-up McNeill’s book.

Come to that, there’s no reason Lovecraft’s ‘cosmicist’ vision requires tentacles in the first place — the creepiest thing about ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ is the bat-winged things in the swamp, and frankly the Cthulhu statue itself only creeped me out to the extent that it recalled the statue of Mbwun from Lincoln/Child’s Relic, which I read in middle school because I’d heard that ‘If you liked Jurassic Park‘ and of course I did, but then I only picked up Jurassic Park because there was an article about it in a science newsletter we read in our Earth Science class, and if we’re in honest-confession mode then the fact that my godfather went to MIT (Course 2, class of 1924) made me wanna attend that school slightly less than the fact that Michael Crichton had spent a year as Writer-in-Residence there…


Evolutionary weirdness

The least interesting thing about fantasy is its content. (Have you ever had to listen to someone else tell you about last night’s ‘amazing’ or ‘hilarious’ dream? Soporific stuff.) What makes fantasy fantastic is its visionary quality, the way it animates primal urges and throws light on hidden mental corners. Worthwhile art is deeply personal: the work of a strong ego seeking out egolessness. The best stuff is necessarily at least a little inaccessible, mysterious, resistant to analysis, however welcoming its formal presentation; great art always proceeds according to an intuitive logic that’s inexpressible in rational terms. And because it speaks to a unified (continuous, cohesive if not logically coherent) vision, it could only have been made by the person or people who made it.1 Good, in other words, is always strange.

But ‘strange’ is the last thing central planners want to deal with — cf. the aforementioned Seeing Like a State. The inescapable, essential fallacy of the central-planning ethos is this:

Orderly processes do not necessarily produce orderly results.

Indeed the one’s got little or nothing to do with the other except by chance.
Working artists get this, hence the irritation/frustration/disappointment writers evidently all feel when asked when their ideas come from. Critics, meanwhile, tend not to understand this — if the disjunction between aesthetic means and ends were widely understood, entire schools of criticism woulda been strangled in the crib. I think of the weird mismatch between Joyce’s literary dreamworlds and his pedantic fan-critics, and (because I’m me, and have written the books I’ve written) of the way Phish’s most hyperrational practice exercises have generated their wildest improvisations while their most deeply structured longform improv has come at moments of surpassing looseness and intuitive responsiveness. (The same goes for other rational/ludic/dreaming improvisatory scholar-artists — think of Johns Zorn and Coltrane.)

I want to have The Right Information at my fingertips when I write, but I also want to experience and share strange knowledge, a Weird innerworld which only I can see but which through my craft I can make knowable to others. And I aim to build deep written structures through intuitive improvisatory methods — so that, for instance, the structure of my 33-1/3 book mirrors the structure of the album it discusses, and the fractal form of my Allworlds Catalogue embodies/allegorizes the Big Themes it bangs on about, etc., though both those formal arrangements were arrived at with those pretentious-sounding purposes in mind.

And I find that the best way to achieve these tight-loose performances, this particular pleasing-to-me dreamlike relationship between form and content and private experience, is to immerse myself in material and see what forms spontaneously appear.

We forget that evolution isn’t just a winnowing process of natural selection — it’s punctuated and catalyzed by far-from-equilibrium self-organization, which can altogether shift the topology on which the selection process works, ‘skipping tracks’ in terms of descent. This is biological innovation, and its absence from the standard schoolhouse evolutionary narrative is just one more expression of (and reinforcing element in) a dangerous, thoughtless cultural conservatism, a pseudosci retelling of the myth of heavenly bureaucracy. Evolution isn’t a one-way road running straight, it’s a network of migrations through an ever-shifting topology toward no particular destination — the endless fitness gradient scarred with switchbacks, channels, deep caves, inscrutable truths spelled out in the bones of lost travelers…

Back to the start

‘No one can see beyond a choice they don’t understand,’ said the Oracle in The Matrix: Revolutions. Put another way: you’re trying to get from one stable equilibrium (not exercising, say) to another (being in the habit of exercising daily) but between them is a hill down which you can backslide all too easily (forcing yourself to exercise daily for a few weeks until the habit has formed). The zone of extreme flux — of frustration, worry, pain, seemingly endless struggle — of uncertainty — between equilibria is a hard place to be if you can’t handle uncertainty. If you need to know the outcome before you begin the process, you’ll never do anything new. Everything truly new is a risk.

So how and what should you read?

My sincere answer:

Keep reading until you figure it out.

  1. Reasoning through the ethical implications of this paragraph for the art-consumer and the DIY creator is left as an exercise for the reader.