Sunday, November 06, 2005

At first glance, reading is a waste of time, turning us all into versions of Don Quixote, too befuddled by our imaginations to tell windmills from giants. We would be better off spending the time mating or farming. Darwinists have an answer - or more accurately, many possible answers. (Literary Darwinists like multiple answers, convinced the best idea will win out.) One idea is that literature is a defense reaction to the expansion of our mental life that took place as we began to acquire the basics of higher intelligence around 40,000 years ago. At that time, the world suddenly appeared to homo sapiens in all its frightening complexity. But by taking imaginative but orderly voyages within our minds, we gained the confidence to interpret this new vastly denser reality. Another theory is that reading literature is a form of fitness training, an exercise in "what if" thinking. If you could imagine the battle between the Greeks and the Trojans, then if you ever found yourself in a street fight, you would have a better chance of winning. A third theory sees writing as a sex-display trait. Certainly writers often seem to be preening when they write, with an eye toward attracting a desirable mate.

-- D.T. Max, in today's NY Times Magazine, on Literary Darwinism.

(Are there selection pressures on mooncalfs and sprites?)

And three cheers for literarians!

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