You Are what you read

Have you heard “You are what you eat?”

Well, since books are brain food that feed our inner selves, “you are what you read” should make perfect sense.

Humans are amazing creatures, you know? We not only are very adaptable, but we can learn from other’s experiences.

There are historians and anthropologists who think that the reason Indo Europeans conquered the limits of their possible world was because they told really good stories. Mostly long sagas, describing the great deeds of their ancestors and their tribe. Even if it wasn’t their tribe, and they were just aggregating to it.

But culture was transmitted through those stories (like a virus) and everyone wanted to be indo-European. And convinced themselves they were.

And this is the point: You are what you read.

I know very few, hard-core devotees of horror who are happy people. And most devotees of post-apocalyptic are steering a course for something like that.

Think about it. No, seriously. Think about it a moment.

You live through the experiences of the characters. Fiction is a brain hack that gives you the benefit of lived experiences you never had.

Sure, it’s also fun, but don’t be mistaken about what else it is.

I’m now at that age where memory becomes unreliable. Not just in the sense of “where did I put my keys” (I can and have lost things in a completely empty room, while doing remodeling. Which is why I own something like 10 hammers.) More in the sense of “did this happen, or did I see it/read it somewhere.”

It’s usually trivial stuff, since I try to be awake for my own life, having decided to do so when I was 18. But for instance, I can’t remember if the marching cadence “I don’t know but it’s been said, Navy wings are made of lead; I don’t know but I’ve been told, Air Force wings are made of gold” is something I heard when I was teaching at the air force base, OR if I read it in a book. Stuff like that is slippery.

Because when you read things, and you’re really in it? You’re living it. It goes in your brain as part of your lived experience.

People have found in studies that humans frequently confuse books and movies for things they lived.

The problem, of course, is that books and movies aren’t. They’re not even — by and large — someone’s lived experience. They’re an intellectual construct, sometimes coming from someone’s experience, sometimes merely from the exigencies of the “puzzle” that informs the book.

What do I mean by that? Well, for a post apocalyptic story, danger and scarcity are going to be there, even if the author never experienced them. It’s part of the setting and in setting up the ‘puzzle’ you have to put them in. (Puzzle because all good books have something that has to be solved.)

So what happens when you absorb a lot of horror, or a lot of post apocalyptic, or whatever?

You start to think within the parameters of what is, to your back brain, “lived experience” and not just that but your most common lived experience.

Most horror fans I know (by which I mean people that read almost exclusively and obsessively horror) become paranoid, convinced that everyone is out to get them, and also absolutely sure that whatever they do will end up in disaster.

I’d almost call John Ringo’s Black Tide books anti-post apoc, because while it is post apoc, not only the characters survive, but society gets rebuilt. So it’s very uplifting in a tight place, which is where we were when we read it.

But still, how many people who are fans of that series reacted to the covidiocy with more alarm than warranted, because they had “killer plague” in the back of their minds. In fact, how much of the overreaction was the result of people liking post-apoc so much in the last few years?

Humans can survive almost everything, because they adapt. But what happens when they’re adapting to something that’s not true?

What about politically correct fiction who makes it a point of having all the right victims, and demonizing people in flyover country?

Remember the guy who used to comment here, but instead of asking us about Liberty Con went and asked the left — the people who read the same fiction with the same flaws; heck, the people who write it — if it was safe for him to attend, given that he’s gay and in an interracial same sex marriage.

Those of us who are habitues of LC would have said, “oh, you’ll be fine, provided you don’t start screaming insults at anyone. But you might have trouble getting tickets now. Here, let me see if they’ll take you as panelists.”

And he’d have been fine, and have a great time, because…. well, because there are interracial couples and gay couples at that con on the regular. In fact when I had my renewal of vows at the con, a gay, Jewish friend came to the con to “support” me, and he loved it. He left with a reading list and a bunch of new friends.

BUT asking people who’d never been there, this poor idiot ducky was assured that he’d be lynched/tortured/killed.

And it never occurred to him these people not only didn’t know any more than he did, but were prejudiced in the exact same say he was: because they’d read the same books, where all of the South is mired circa the fifties, when it was still a democrat and therefore racist (sorry, but the record speaks for itself) stronghold, instead of the laid back, cosmopolite place it now is.

Instead he piously believed them, because of course, it accorded with his “read” experience which fits in with what his back brain thinks he lived.

So, you are what you read. Part of the reason the post apocalyptic trend worried me is that I’d already seen my generation trying to bring “rusty future” about.

Oh, sure, as a writing trend, the idea that the future would be a rusty, scarcity-riddled place was exciting and different in the 70s. At least if you want to read really depressing crap.

Because before that, we’d been going onward to an ever brighter future. So depressing futures was NEW.

The problem is a whole generation grew up with it. And the modes of thinking it instilled are taking us there, in a way. If you think everything is dangerous, you’ll ration gas, you’ll be afraid of nuclear, you’ll think it’s best if humans go extinct.

In the same way if everyone in the books you read is evil or even (just) a weasel and dingy, you’re not going to trust anyone in real life. Everything, including your closest relationships, is going to spiral to hell. Because you internalize that way of thinking.

So, what am I saying? Shouldn’t you read fiction?

Oh, hell no. And no, I’m not saying you have to read “realistic” fiction, because that one isn’t either, and tends to be way more insidious, since it pretends to be “real world”. (It’s also, usually, grey goo where everyone is dingy.)

I’m not saying not to read all polyannish, sunny fiction either.

I’m saying to think instead of what modes of thinking and being in the world you’re getting from your fiction, and the ways it’s making its way into your thinking.

I’m saying to be aware that books are highly simplified and compressed. Yes, wheels come off societies, but I’ve yet to see a book that portrays that realistically. Be aware, for instance, that as bad as Venezuela is, some of my relatives (though opposed to the regime) have CHOSEN to go back in. Because they have lives and careers there.

Yes, people are starving, but they are the vulnerable people, the lowest in savings and ability to survive. My family is finding it at WORST “inconvenient” and “uncomfortable and while they’re angry, it’s still easier to live there than in a place where they’re total strangers and don’t know how to survive. Even if that place is in better shape.

Which means even when the wheels come off, some people are still relatively okay, in their little pockets. But you’d never know that from post-apoc fiction. Which is why a lot of people are both shocked that we haven’t collapsed yet, and convinced we’ll never fight back because we haven’t so far. Both of which are on the stupid/insane axis. Because societies don’t work that way. They’re slow to turn. But in post apoc books and movies, they turn on a dime.

(In post apoc books/movies the mob also takes to the street and changes the world. Which is what the left keeps trying to jump start, poor bunnies. They have no idea what they’re ACTUALLY doing or what comes next. Sigh.)

Be aware of what’s fiction and what’s reality. Leavening your reading with a dose of history or economics written before, oh, 1980, might not be a bad idea either.

And try — try really hard — not to read just one genre or one sub-genre. Because you are what you read.

Becoming a regency female would be very weird, and yet it might still be more functional than becoming a post-apocalyptic “hero.”

The same way you must be aware of what you put in your body, be aware of what you put in your back brain.

The life you save might be your own.

49 comments

  1. But still, how many people who are fans of that series reacted to the covidiocy with more alarm than warranted, because they had “killer plague” in the back of their minds. In fact, how much of the overreaction was the result of people liking post-apoc so much in the last few years?


    I had pretty much the opposite reaction. I compared the hugely-inflated death rates for COVID19 to the H5N1 flu in The Last Centurion and the H7N3 zombie virus in Under A Graveyard Sky and said, “It’s the common F-ing cold! Why are you idiots spreading doom, gloom and panic?”

    Not that anybody listened.

    I’m writing a story in which a character calls COVID19 a bio-weapon in early 2020.

    “This is a manufactured virus. I was an elite soldier from a civilization two thousand years more advanced than yours, OF COURSE I can recognize and analyze biological weapons, even one as primitive and ineffective as this one.”

    There are, of course, protests and objections from the ‘experts’.

    “If this were an effective bio-weapon, a billion people would be dead by now, and four billion more dying. What you have here is a slightly enhanced version of the common cold.”
    ———————————
    Some folks can be taught. Others can learn from example. The rest have to piss on the electric fence for themselves.

  2. I’ve also noticed that main characters are becoming … less. Less everything – less successful, less articulate, less “good” (for lack of a better term; maybe less like people I would want to spend time with in real life)? If it’s true that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with, and if it’s true that our brains don’t always distinguish fiction from real life … let’s be careful who we spend time with, too, not just the worlds we visit.

    I’ve been DNF’ing modern books (and frequently ones with TONS of positive reviews) by the bucketload lately because the characters are so off-putting that I don’t even make it far enough into the book to see what SJW-craziness is in it. I find myself longing for the “old” books because the characters weren’t just plain horrible people. Very sad.

    1. They’re becoming flat. And mono-dimensional in bad ways. Yea, Jack Reacher might not be the most…nuanced of people, but he does have nuances. Interesting ones, too.

      I’ve flipped through a few new series out there when I hate myself enough to go to Barnes&Noble and I know Creative Writing teachers that might give them a “pity C” for how lacking in anything the characters have. They don’t have to be Mary Sues and the best at everything…but, they have to have something that makes me want to read about them.

    2. There’s a reason why, when I wrote my “post-apoc” sort of story, I made it about survival of civilization and decency, not Grey-Goo and ick. [Fountains of Mercy in the Colplatschki series, if anyone’s curious.] I don’t do Grey-Goo. Dark and grim sometimes, yes, but there is always, always hope and eventual success.

    3. I used to read a lot of police procedural and mystery. But it got to where the plots were stupid (hard to do within the limits of the genres!) and the characters… you had the bad guys, and the not-so-bad guys. The authors probably thought it was “edgy”, but I was channeling Kissinger; “It’s a shame someone has to win.”

      1. Rather than the Ed McBain type, where the main characters of the police had full lives and moral character, the current ones are one-dimensional and barely better than the criminals.

  3. Remember the guy who used to comment here, but instead of asking us about Liberty Con went and asked the left — the people who read the same fiction with the same flaws; heck, the people who write it — if it was safe for him to attend, given that he’s gay and in an interracial same sex marriage.

    Well, it probably wasn’t safe. You’d break his world view.
    Now, Milo showing up? Even before he went chaste? Also not safe, he might drown in the offers to buy him a drink…..

    (Yes, I am being silly. Exactly because such ignorant bigotry is not funny, but there’s nothing I can do to fix it.)

      1. Oh lordy, I’d pay lots of good money to watch that! 😀 He’d have sooooo much fun, and so would everyone else.

  4. Crank back the news and TV for the last ten to twelve years. We’ve been primed to have a disaster happen, and have it All Fall Apart, so that it can be rebuilt by the Right People, keeping the Wrong People away from things so that they can never change things back to the terrible, terrible world that was before.

    I can watch this creeping fungus of the utopians on far too many books, TV series, and movies. It all falls apart, the center cannot hold, and only after everything is destroyed can we rebuild in a new and perfect world that will be right and correct forever and ever.

    And, I sit here, watching, and I am just appalled. And scared. Because the mechanisms of social disorder are being cranked, ready to launch the world into craziness…and we’re all going to have to run like hell to avoid having it fall on our heads like a ton of bricks.

  5. Oh, non-fiction was part of the feeding the panic– what horrifies me is nobody paid attention. The Spanish Flu was a very obvious scene setter, but they paid no attention at all and MADE ALL THE SAME MISTAKES.

  6. I can and have lost things in a completely empty room, while doing remodeling. Which is why I own something like 10 hammers.
    Whew! It’s not just me!

    1. You’ll appreciate this.

      We just got a new AC system.

      The THREE GUYS (one installer, two trainees) looked it over. Saw nothing.

      I looked it over. Saw nothing.

      The Husband looked it over. Saw nothing.

      Kids are all inside.

      We walk inside. We walk outside.

      There is now a crescent wrench on top, so I make a crack about if it’s free, and the main tech recovers his wrench.

      Nobody came outside, we have no close neighbors, and he’d used it down stairs.

      HOW THE FLIP DID IT GET OUTSIDE?!?!?

      1. A minor glitch in the interwoven timelines of the multiverse.

        I’ve had it happen too many times for it to be a joke any more.

        [example: car has 5-bolt wheels. Remove right front wheel to check brake pads. Reinstall wheel. Five lug nuts; installed. One lug nut, in hubcap. Pull other three hubcaps and look. 20 lug nuts on wheels, one left over. The Lug Nut Fairy dropped off a spare?]

  7. Interesting timing: I’m currently rereading a post-apocalyptic trilogy set about a quarter century after the zombies started. But it’s not about the zombies. It’s about the culture of fear, and political theater, and the lengths some people are willing to go to in order to maintain control (including making mistakes that lose a freaking STATE to infection because they’re trying to bury a bad news story.)

    What’s interesting is that the author has said she’d have trouble writing this series today, because the way people reacted to COVID-19 makes her think she was overly optimistic about how people would react, and yet her own text shows the understanding that a lot of people are set on “stupid” instead of “survival.”

  8. So when I mainline a combination of Dyce, The Kildar, Tyler Vernon, Honor Harrington, and Owen Zastava Pitt, what does that do to my brain?

  9. Reading is the taste of someone else’s thoughts. It’s the closest we’ll come to telepathy.

    I do read (or did) read post-apocalyptic and what it made me do was increase the size of my pantry while wondering why everyone in the book was so incompetent.

    The underlying issue for me with so much post-apocalyptic is the idea that people and societies won’t change their behavior. Quite a few of us, when faced with the zombie hoard, will run in the opposite direction and change how we do things to remove the menacing hoard.

    Maybe that’s the definition of today’s elites: they’re so helpless and incompetent at practical stuff that when the zombies do show up, they’ll collapse into gray goo.

    1. ARRGGHH!! It’s a ‘zombie horde’! Nobody would hoard zombies! AND you made me think of those ‘Hoarder’ shows, but with zombies. You Bad!! 😛

      1. Nonsense. Zombies make excellent workers. A large hoard of them lets you get a lot done. You just have to ensure that no one smuggles them the salt that will let them escape.

      2. Ack! Well, in my defense, there are a lot of zombies in a horde so that makes putting immense quantities of them together hoarding.
        Or stockpiling, since if you do it in advance of needs, you are not hoarding.

      3. Nit: my d&d character keeps undead in a bag of holding

        Sent from Workspace ONE Boxer

      1. Have you ever watched those ‘Hoarders’ shows? Some of them have rather menacing hoards. You could get buried in there and not be found for years.

        1. That happens regularly, most often to the paper hoarders. A stack falls over on them, they’re killed or immobilized, (paper is heavy!) and they remain until either the neighbors complain about the smell or the landlord sends in people to clean out the non-payer’s apartment. And in one famous New York case, it actually was for years, when the tax people came by to value the property when putting a lien on it. The elderly woman had died under a stack of newspapers some years previously.

  10. Reading old (fiction) books helps. Different crimes and places are foolish in different ways.

    The best part of post apocalyptic fiction is the “how they coped” and “made it through”. It’s why fairy tales with dragons, knights, and fairies and suchlike are so important for kids. Monsters are real, and they can be defeated, and quite a lot if the world will *never* make sense or be fair AND you still can have a happy ending.

    That’s more true than realistic fiction and why I re-read the Lord of the Rings every year.

    1. I just checked and all the John Brunner novels got purged a while ago. I’d rather not dance the Apocalypso, so the dark books have a light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not the oncoming locomotive. (Makes note to pick up Ringo’s Graveyard Sky and Red’s Colplatski novel.) My current favorite post-apocalyse is Ringo’s (got it right this time!) The Last Centurion.

      I’ll read occasional books with the world going to hell (Peter Nealen’s Triarii, Kurt Schlichter’s People’s Republic series fit this), but not as a steady diet. Actually, the humor and surrealistic scenes in Schlichter’s books can be fun. It’s my somewhat askew sense of humor that finds dropping the Golden Gate Bridge on a highly appropriate target greatly enjoyable. ‘Sides, I like the hero’s ability to lose his heart to (usually stray) dogs worthy.

      I gave up on most of the TV detectives, because grimdark and the Troubled Detective Trope, though we picked up DVD sets of some of Vera and Midsomer Murders. The Veras tend to be sad, but though she’s broken, she’s good at self-kitsugi. While the body count in a MM episode ranges from high to (“Sam Peckenpah’s Garden Party” by Monty Python), Tom Barnaby is usually a bright cheerful character, while the world goes crazy around him. We trade off…

      1. One detective story we’ve been binging is Sub Thomas, FBEye. Very uplifting, strong focus on people of decent character. Completely UNLike the current inhabitants of the bureau, but a great show to spend time with.

  11. “Remember the guy who used to comment here, but instead of asking us about Liberty Con went and asked the left — the people who read the same fiction with the same flaws; heck, the people who write it — if it was safe for him to attend, given that he’s gay and in an interracial same sex marriage.”

    The same guy that got mugged by his own side because he wasn’t Woke ™ enough? Yes, I remember. He’s still around, and still talking shit about us at every opportunity. Like he tried to break his programing but couldn’t do it. Maybe if he gets mugged a couple more times he’ll try again. I won’t hold my breath.

    Lela Buis is doing reviews of all the Nebula noms again, and the political correctness is -thick- this year. So is the recycling of themes. They have zero new ideas. It’s almost comical.

    1. The SFWA has declined from “not very useful” to “sign of meh” to outright poison.

      It’s a beautiful example of David Burge’s “Find a respected institution…”

  12. Dammit, Sarah, you’re going to give away my plan! I’m writing determined, competent adults for a reason but if you tell people about it, they’ll stop thinking I’m part of the fall of Western Civilization and actually read the books they’re complaining about!

  13. I’ve barely been able to read any fiction for the past year and it’s taking a toll on me. My immersion drive is broken, and I keep scrolling endless comment threads instead.

    Maybe I can fix it by this kind of gardening. Worth a try

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