Brian Christian is an author, whose book The Most Human Human was named a Wall Street Journal bestseller as well as a New Yorker favourite book of the year, and would go on to be translated into ten languages. In 2016, Brian Christian followed up his first book as a co-author (along with Tom Griffiths) of Algorithms to Live By. Another great success, the book was a #1 Audible bestseller and an Amazon best science book of the year. Brian Christian also writes for a range of well-known publications which include The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Wired, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Paris Review, and scientific journals such as Cognitive Science. Brian Christian has also been featured on popular shows, such as The Charlie Rose Show and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. If all of that is not enough, Brian has also lectured at Google, Microsoft, the Santa Fe Institute, and the London School of Economics. An extremely well renowned writer, with a bundle of awards, I was extremely excited to be able to welcome Brian Christian to our project. Please enjoy my interview with Brian Christian…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I’ve just started the latest collection of essays by one of my favorite living essayists: The Ghosts of Birds by Eliot Weinberger.
When you think about your childhood, what book comes to mind?
The first one that comes to mind from my grade-school years is A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, just a wonderfully imaginative and mind-expanding book. Relatedly on the nonfiction side I also remember adoring A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking: I had an illustrated edition with all of these wonderful diagrams of black holes and so forth.
Can you remember the first story you ever wrote?
When my mother first showed me her typewriter, I insisted on spending the entire afternoon typing a narrative poem on it, despite the fact that I had to hunt for every single letter. It was called “A Dog Went Up a Tree” and is full of all sorts of delightfully bizarre and surreal plot twists: the effortless postmodernism of youth.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
For a while I imagined becoming an illusionist like David Copperfield, and I also recall “roboticist” being up there on the list for many years.
What do you think your school aged self would think of the present day you?
By about the fourth grade I was writing short books and binding them by hand, and making my own screen savers and simple games on our Commodore 64 computer. I think nine-year-old me would be pretty content with the through-line from himself to 32-year-old me.
If you could wrap up a single book and gift it to yourself as you left education – which book would it be?
It’s hard to say that I ever really left education! Honestly I think most books have come into my life at the right time to have the impact they did. Having said this, the book that comes to mind is The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin, which is about the history of knowledge-making and of discovery itself—a perfect text for leaving the academy and staying both hungry and humble about all we have learned and all we still don’t know.
Does your reading have routine? Is there a particular time or place that you like to read?
My apartment in San Francisco has a bay window in the back that hangs over the back yard and faces east into the morning light. When my fiancée moved in, we literally designed and decorated the entire apartment around that area. Coffee and a good book in the loveseat in that window, on a long weekend morning: it doesn’t get better than that.
Probably Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter. It’s just this utterly unique, sui generis book, an 800-page tour de force that charts this web of intersections across number theory, art history, and music theory, all done in this incredibly mischievous and clever style, and amounting to an argument about the nature of human consciousness. There’s really nothing like it. My high-school sweetheart gave it to me for my 19th birthday and it just completely lit me up. The wild interdisciplinarity, and the mixture of deep rigor with profound and jubilant whimsy, have very much inspired and motivated me in my own work.
What two pieces of advice would you give a young aspiring writer?
I’ll give three, each of which was given to me.
(1) Be an estuary. Have a discipline to draw from that’s not your literary work itself. Double-major. This will give you a vocabulary and arsenal of metaphors that will make your work both verbally and intellectually unique.
(2) Swing for the fences and jump the turnstiles. In my college the introductory writing workshops were so overbooked that they were enrolled by a lottery, and people waited years to get in. The intermediate workshops required you to apply and submit a portfolio. The secret was that people were so convinced they weren’t good enough to get in that most people didn’t even apply. In fact, fewer people applied than the number of spaces available, which meant that literally everyone who applied got in! While my peers were queuing up for the introductory-level lottery, I just vaulted straight in to the second-level course, and it was just 7 of us and the professor. This had a really big impact on the way I thought about my career in general: we’re taught that there is a track, a ladder, but in fact, so many people opt only to strive towards “realistic” goals that sometimes the outlandish ones are in fact easier to achieve. Try everything simultaneously. After graduate school, I was still collecting rejection slips from obscure literary magazines the week I landed a book contract with Doubleday.
(3) Be dogged. A certain minimum level of talent is requisite for success in almost any field, but beyond that minimum level, I think you’ll find that success is more strongly correlated with obstinacy and perseverance than with skill. “You’ve got to be like a dog on the bone,” a mentor once told me. It’s the truth.
Do you have any books that you strongly associate with someone important in your life?
When I was a kid, my dad had Shelby Foote’s epic 3,200-page Civil War novel on tape—literally boxes of tapes, something like 60 cassettes. I can still hear Foote’s Mississippi drawl animating these lovely sentences—“Whatever lack of nerve or ingenuity […] the city of Vicksburg, which shuddered under assault and languished under siege…”—which were the soundtrack to many father-son road trips as a kid.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
Lately that has to be Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse. It’s another one of these totally peerless, unique, sui generis books. You can read it in a couple hours and it will permanently fix itself into the way you think about the world around you.
Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
I’m partial to nonfiction, having spent most of my career writing the stuff. I probably read more poetry and playwriting than fiction, but for sheer mind-stretching imaginative virtuosity, it’s hard to get better than Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges or Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme. These books perhaps more than any others have really shown me the possibility of what can be done with language.
Do you think reading is important?
Of course. We think of the printed word as a static medium but in terms of the reader’s relationship to the text it’s arguably one of the most interactive media there is – far more so than film, video, music, or performance. This degree of control – the ability to skip ahead, backtrack, speed up, slow down, pause, reflect – makes print one of the best ways there is to engage with challenging or unfamiliar ideas. There is something considered about the acts both of reading and of writing that make it, I think, essential to the cultivation of thinking itself. And because the use of language comprises so much of the way we interact with each other, as well as our own internal monologue that drives both sense-making and decision-making, anything that sharpens our sensitivity to and facility for language is a critical, life-enhancing, society-enhancing thing. It’s also really, really fun.
Do you prefer real books or digital books?
I can’t abide digital books, actually. The lack of distinct recto and verso pages (left and right), and the variable typesetting where there are no definite tops or bottoms of the pages, creates just a devastating mnemonic effect. I believe that human memory is basically spatial, and so stripping away these spatial cues is actually a big deal for me. I just can’t seem to remember anything I read on an e-reader. I am also something of a typography-phile. Fonts too have a mnemonic effect – I can recall the font of a passage and work backwards to the book it must have been from. And if I pick up a book, I can usually tell immediately what decade it’s from just based on the design conventions. This becomes immediately useful in contextualizing the text. Again e-readers tend to standardize all books to the same font, and this seems like a minor point but for me it’s really not.
In some ways, the canon is wasted on the young. We have all these justifiably great works that we are mandated to read, but at an age where we can’t appreciate them. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway is about a late-twenty-something reflecting on his itinerant partying years and expressing profound ambivalence about whether they were the best days of his life or a shameful waste of time. A fifteen-year-old high-school student writing a paper about how bullfighting symbolizes masculinity is missing the entire emotional payload. I’ve been surprised at how much better many of these compulsory books turned out to be upon a second reading, which of course most adults never give them.
The other books in this category are ones about American history. Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen did a great job at showing my just how less I knew about American history than I thought I did—and I didn’t think I knew particularly much. Whether or not you agree with all of Loewen’s conclusions, the mutual inconsistencies and conspicuous gaps he finds in American history textbooks is irreversibly eye-opening. Here too I think timing as much as content is partly the issue. Consider that the years in which we commit time to learning about our democracy, and the years in which we are permitted to participate in said democracy, are non-overlapping sets!
Lastly I think everyone should read at least one book by a living poet. When I was teaching poetry workshops to undergraduates, I was staggered by the number of people who wanted to become living poets who had never read living poets. Imagine an aspiring musician who didn’t know about living musicians, or an aspiring actor who didn’t know about living actors! These books are about a decade old by now, but in the 2000s, I prescribed books like The Man Suit by Zachary Schomburg and The Lichtenberg Figures by Ben Lerner. Students were electrified to see someone making high-level art out of their English, their political concerns and alienation, their self-consciousness and hipster irony.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
I’ve always been fond of the polysemy of the word Curious—as meaning both “deeply interested” and “slightly unusual.” (It even does triple-duty as an interjection.) I identify as someone who’s both, and I wouldn’t mind an autobiography that played with that.