TITLE: A Healthy Diet for the Mind
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: January 08, 2011 10:41 AM
"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
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.
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
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
You are what you read. You become the stories you
listen to. Be mindful of the diet of ideas you feed