TITLE: A Healthy Diet for the Mind AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: January 08, 2011 10:41 AM DESC: ----- BODY: "You are what you eat." You probably heard this bon mot as a child. It encouraged us to eat healthy foods, so that we could grow up to be big and strong. I think the same thing is true of what we read. When we eat, we consume nutrients and vitamins. When we read, we consume ideas. Some are meat and potatoes, others fruits and vegetables. Some are the broad base of a healthy diet, like breads and grains. Others are junk food. Ideas may even occasionally be roughage! There probably isn't an idea analogue to the food pyramid. Even more than with the food we eat, there is no right answer for what and how much of any kind of literature we should read. There are many ways for any particular person to read a healthy diet. Still, there are kinds of literature that offer us ideas in different forms, different concentrations, and different modalities. Fiction is where most children start, whether historical, fantastical, or simply about life. Non-fiction, too, comes in many categories: biography, history, science, ... too many to mention. However, I do think that writer Matthew Kelly is right when he says, "We need a diet of the mind just as much as we need a diet of the body." Just as we should be mindful of what we put in our bodies, we should be mindful of what we put in our minds. Each person needs to find the reading balance that makes them healthy and happy. I tend to read a lot of technical literature in my own discipline. Academics are pone to this imbalance. One of my challenges is to read enough other kinds of things to maintain a balanced intellectual life. It turns out that reading outside my discipline can make me a better computer scientist, because it gives me more kinds of ideas to use. But the real reason to read more broadly is to have a balanced mind and life. I know people who wonder why they need to bother reading fiction at all. It doesn't make them better programmers. It doesn't help them change the world via political action. Both of these statements are so, so wrong. Shakespeare and Euripides and Kurt Vonnegut can teach us about how to change the world and even how to become better programmers! But that's not the point. They also make us better people. Whenever I encounter this sentiment, I always send my friends to Tim O'Reilly's The Benefits of a Classical Education. Most programmers I know hold O'Reilly Media in near reverence, so perhaps they'll listen to its founder when he says, "Classical stories come often to my mind, and provide guides to action". The fiction I've read has shaped how I think about life and problems and given me ways to think about solutions and actions. That's true not only of the classics but also of Kurt Vonnegut and Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke and Franz Kafka. As I wrote recently, I've been reading Pat Conroy's My Reading Life. Near the end of the book, he tells a powerful story about him and his mom reading Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel when he was a teenager. This book gave them a way to talk about their own tortured lives in a way they could never have done without a story standing between them and the truths they lived but could not speak. As Conroy says, "Literature can do many things; sometimes it can do even the most important things." I might go one step further: sometimes, only literature can do the most important things. Sure, there is plenty junk food for the mind, too. It is everywhere, in our books and our blogs, and on our TV and movie screens. But just as with food, we need not eliminate all sweets from our diets; we simply need to be careful about how much we consume. A few sweets are okay, maybe even necessary in some people's diets. We all have our guilty pleasures when it comes to reading. However, when my diet is dominated by junk, my mind becomes weaker. I become less healthy. Some people mistakenly confuse medium with nutritional value. I hear people talk about blogs and Twitter as if they offer only the emptiest of empty calories, the epitome of junk reading. But the medium doesn't determine nutritional value. My Twitter feed is full of links to marvelous articles and conversation between solid thinkers about important ideas. Much is about computer science and software development, but I also learn about art, literature, human affairs, and -- in well-measured doses -- politics. My newsreader serves up wonderful articles, essays, analyses, and speculations. Sure, both come with a little sugar now and then, but that's just part of what makes it all so satisfying. People should be more concerned when a medium that once offered nutritional value is now making us less healthy. Much of what we call "news" has in my mind gone from being a member of the grain food group to being junk food. We have to be careful to consume only the best sources of ideas, at least most of the time, or risk wasting our minds. And when we waste our minds, we waste our gifts. You are what you read. You become the stories you listen to. Be mindful of the diet of ideas you feed your mind. -----