Is there a reading version of a double take? I suppose instead of a turn of the head, it’s a flick of one’s eyes back over what they just read. It’s a jolt of familiarity, a sense of déjà vu. In that moment, you feel all your synapses light up, forming new connections of understanding.
I’m referring to those magical moments when you read something that harkens back to a different book, and it enhances both experiences. I think some of the best of these convergences involve intersections of nonfiction and fiction. However, I believe well-crafted fiction alone can do the same.
Allow me to provide some personal examples. Around the beginning of 2022, I was finishing Cosmos, by the incomparable Carl Sagan. It was a weighty endeavor which took me over a month to finish. But Sagan made the topic of astrophysics digestible, and he served it with a side of wonder.
Around that same time, I also picked up “Time Thief” by Sir Terry Pratchett. Having read other works in the Discworld universe, I was familiar with Pratchett’s style of zany humor, satirical world-building, and moments of unexpected wisdom. I felt the title of this installment made it a fitting choice for the turn of the new year.
I enjoyed reading about how the Monks of History kept order in the world of “Time Thief”. An old master and his precocious novice were on a quest. They needed to prevent an all-to-gifted clockmaker from making a clock that could trap, and stop, Time. Then, out of the blue, there was PHYSICS! As the monks ran faster and faster, they saw their surroundings bathed in crimson. This is an accurate portrayal of an actual scientific phenomenon known as red shift, which I learned about in Cosmos. As two astral bodies move apart from one another, the light wavelengths are stretched longer. Our human eyes perceive them as red.
Let’s not stop there! As physics was to that last fortunate happenstance, neuroscience was to another. In Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind by Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire, the authors showed how creativity could be influenced by play, new experiences, and adversity. Then, in the sci-fi classic Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, I noticed that the child genius’s advanced empathy skills, something that Kaufman and Gregoire discussed the benefits of, played into his tactical aptitude. In the novel The Elegance of the Hedgehogby Muriel Barbery, I witnessed similar trends in the two brilliant members of the intergenerational friendship the story centered on.
But wait, there’s more! I also like to nerd out about the topic of linguistics. The language that we think in and communicate in can shape our reality, perspective, and perceived possibilities. I don’t have a nonfiction reference in the mix with this one, but bear with me. Two stories in Ted Chiang’s award-winning story collection, The Story of Us and Others, displayed how particular speech can limit or expand one’s ability to process and manipulate the world.
In “Understand”, Chiang depicted a medically enhanced genius who had to write his own new internal language in order to fully think as expansively as he had the capacity to. His new creation was a hybrid of traditional vocabulary, math, and 3D geometric rendering. In The Story of Us, which inspired the movie Arrival, Chang had an alien species teach a human linguist their form of communication, in which there were no tenses. Everything happened simultaneously. Subsequently, this allowed her to view her own life events in a nonlinear way.
A recent read, “Promises Greater than Darkness” by Charlie Jane Anders, her last installment of her Unstoppable trilogy, provides an additional example. The alien species, the Grattna, have three eyes, three limbs, and three wings. They see all decisions as having three possible outcomes, and their grammatical structure weaves together three comparisons or relationships throughout. As the human characters learn the Grattna language, and to respect their civilization, they too can open up their black-and-white thinking.
Oh man, this kind of thing makes me downright giddy, but I’ll stop there.
The thing is, once you are in tune with the possibility of these beautiful convergences happening, you see them more and more often. It starts as a little tingle, dancing there at the edge of your awareness. Before you know it, it’s jumping off the page at you as if it is written in neon lettering. So keep your eyes peeled and your mind open. You’re in for a treat.