Friday, December 24, 2010

Review of "From Words to Brain" by Livia Blackburne

Disclosure: Livia is a friend of mine, and sent me a free review copy of this essay.  I will nonetheless endeavor to be as balanced as possible in my review.

Livia's essay, "From Words to Brain," is a 7,700 word overview of the scientific literature on how the brain interprets stories.  Using the example of the story of "Little Red Riding Hood," she reviews how the brain recognizes letters and words, visualizes the scenes and actions, empathizes with the characters, and draws moral conclusions from the story.  The writing is tight without being dense, and easily understandable by the layman.  And I, at least, find the subject fascinating.

The essay's weakness is that it is too short.  As a writer always looking for ways to improve my art, I'm certainly interested in what brain science tells us about how people read, and write, stories.  While there were some useful tidbits in the essay, most of them are tricks that experienced writers already know--such as that readers fill in the details in a scene without requiring overdone description. There were a few things which I had never thought about or didn't know, such that women tend to sympathize more with the antagonist than men do, but I feel like there's a lot more that Livia could have shared with us in a longer essay.

This probably wouldn't affect how I viewed a free essay available online, but the publisher is charging over $5 for the essay.  Considering that you can get entire classic novels for free on Amazon's Kindle, this seems like too much for this essay.  I would still recommend it if you are interested in the subject, and would like a stepping stone to more advanced work, such as the literature Livia cites.  But I'm hesitant to recommend it to those on a writer's budget.

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