I got to wondering today whether theory isn’t bad for you—whether I mightn’t be a better person if I’d stuck with my original notion, as a freshman at NYU, of majoring in English. The thought is prompted by Martha Nussbaum’s appreciation of the late philosopher Bernard Williams, who I’m pretty sure would go on a list of “top ten intellectual influences” if I were ever to construct one. Williams’s penchant for bringing a literary sensibility to philosophy, for emphasizing the first-personal character of tough decisions between irreconcilable values over systematic theories of obligation, inspired the guilty realization that since starting college (over six years ago) I doubt I’ve read more than two dozen works of fiction… maybe fewer. This is, to say the least, unusual for someone who, through the end of high school at least, fancied himself likely to become a novelist.
I now find myself worrying that this neglect has left me somewhat stunted, wondering whether there’s time to remedy it. Among the books I havebeen reading are Hayek’s, and he was a theorist acutely concerned with the truth that we all know more than we can explicitly articulate; we act on a great deal of “tacit knowledge.” This means that, as a general rule, great fiction is richer in psychological insight than the best psychology text. Our “seething brains” give rise to “fantasies that apprehend more than what cool reason could ever comprehend.” When we project ourselves into a character in a novel, we automatically draw on the pre-verbal resources of our own inner lives in a way that, as Williams makes clear, we tend not to do—to scrupulously avoid doing—in theory.
Anyway, I recently picked up Stephenson’s Quicksilver, but so far I’m afraid that The New Republic‘s review (subscribers) seems spot on: It’s not historical fiction; it’s a core dump of Stephenson’s research crammed into highly implausible dialogue. I’ve got some other, better stuff in my fiction cache (Foucault’s Pendulum, Love in the time of Cholera) but recommendations are welcomed.