The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness is likely to remain my favorite Ursula K. Le Guin novel. It is a great example of the saying that fiction reveals truths reality obscures.

I will probably try writing about it again at a later date. For now, I want to write about just one thing: the challenge of understanding another person. To see the world the way another person does, in terms of knowing what predictions they make about the future, is to know the mechanics of the world, as understood by that person. It does not tell you what it feels like to be that person, faced with that understanding. And to be able to list the person’s preferences and goals may mean you can predict how that person will behave. But can you make the person feel understood?

Separately, because I want to remember it, here’s a great quote from the book:

“A man who doesn’t detest a bad government is a fool. And if there were such a thing as a good government on earth, it would be a great joy to serve it.”

Dogs Don’t Tell Jokes

There are, as always, more lessons than can easily be listed in a good Louis Sachar novel.

Here are some great ones from Dogs Don’t Tell Jokes, cross-referenced with some examples of people repeating the same advice from someone more famous than Sachar (e.g. Warren Buffet) but making the point less well, rather than better.

1. Don’t invest in things you don’t understand. This piece of advice is common, but rarely given the emphasis it deserves, with the result that the number of times people have heard this advice serves to inoculate, rather than persuade people of how important this is. Don’t invest in things you don’t understand; how deeply this cuts! For example, oftentimes people say (or brag on their own personal policy to always), “sit out a round or two before you sit down at the poker table.” That’s not bad advice, but it doesn’t explain well how these situations really work… because how do you know if “a round or two” is a good amount of time?

The central character in Dogs Don’t Tell Jokes is named Gary Boon. He is a bit of a nerd, and he doesn’t have any friends at his middle school, which sucks a lot because it’s where he spends most of his time. (He does have a pretty awesome friend he plays croquet with on the weekends, and his family seems cool enough.) His life at school is actually pretty miserable–the closest he has to friends at school are the people he forces into interacting with him at all by telling bad jokes at his own expense. His “friends” pretty consistently seem to laugh at him, rather than at his jokes, and the best the teachers or people who seem to mean him well can do is mostly just to ignore him outright, rather than notice his embarrassing misbehavior. A good example is him trying to make a “joke” out of being shoved and dropping his ice cream sandwich by (painfully) shoving an entire ice cream sandwich that had fallen in the dirt into his mouth. Ha ha.

Gary collects hats–he visits a thrift store close to his house about once a week, to see if any new hats have arrived. And at the end of the story (no major spoilers, of course!) his understanding of hats allows him to use a hat that cost him just a few bucks in a very valuable way, that few people would have thought of. That shows the value of investing in things you understand. But a lot of his “friends” collect baseball cards, and at one or another point, they tell him he “should” collect baseball cards also. No, no he shouldn’t. He should do what he is good at, and what he likes, and he doesn’t like baseball cards.

The embarrassments and losses that follow seem totally predictable, after you read them. First, some minor embarrassments naturally follow from Gary trying to conceal that he doesn’t understand baseball card collecting, but trying to talk to his “friends” about it anyway. Then, out of insecurity or just to try and fit in, he buys some cards (taking a half-hour out of his day, and forgoing an opportunity to get the hat that ends up being so valuable, because, luckily it was still there a week later). Then he gets taken; he makes some trades with one of his “friends”. His inference that because he got 5 cards, and only gave up two, is that he must have “done something right” but the fact that he doesn’t even have a theory what the something was shows how little he actually knows about his trade, and lets the reader make the obvious-to-the-reader inference, which is that he is so totally clueless about trading baseball cards that his “friend” felt a little bad for him and gave him five value-less cards, instead of four value-less cards. His other “friends” are newly eager to trade with him, after they learn that he has started collecting, which he takes as a sign that he is making friends. They also mention that he doesn’t have the problem of duplicates, which lets the reader perceive the opportunity they’ve all recognized: here is someone who will soon be making a lot of bad deals, so it might as well be with them. What’s crazy about this is, if some of them are really good kids who mean well, and others are just out to trick him, it doesn’t even matter. If any of them trade him a valuable card, he’ll trade it away too easily, so even his friends can’t do much but take advantage of his ignorance. Finally, they are joking with each other about how much time it must cost Gary to get the cards, in baseball-speak, in a way that means the joke completely soars over Gary’s head (although he seems to recognize he’s the butt of the joke). For a guy for whom humor is a key interest, that’s a huge burn–he doesn’t even get the joke!

2. Commitment is valuable.

Giving up, even temporarily is expensive. But it’s more than that–if you aren’t committed, you can’t invest. The units of measurement of commitment is effort and sometimes pain or sacrifice–it’s the time you spend trying, not the time between when you sign up and when you go on stage. In other words, you can go your whole life without committing to anything, or you can commit to something right now, and follow-through on it until it is done. Gary experiences first-hand that many–maybe even most–setbacks are internal, not external. They’re the result of insufficient or wavering commitment.

3. Stories are better than advice. The exception is when the person giving advice knows you better than you know yourself. (For example, Gary’s father advises that he try not telling a single joke for a whole month. When Gary stops making himself the butt of constant jokes, he gets to know himself when he’s not giving in to an urge to seek attention. Advice worked because he learned something about himself that he didn’t know. That’s the kind of situation where advice is powerful–when you are getting it from someone who knows you better than you know yourself.) But it’s an exception that proves the rule: stories are better than advice. Imagine trying to give Warren Buffet investment advice. That’s going to be hard, huh? In order to give Warren Buffet advice and be pretty sure it’s good advice, you’d have to already know what he was going to do, and all the reasons he has for doing that, and be able to offer some tip that you know will steer him from being an extremely-effective-investor to being an even-more-extremely-effective-investor. Giving advice to someone you don’t know as well as they know themselves is like suggesting ingredients to someone who is working from a recipe you’ve never cooked with. It’s hit and miss, to say the least.  Unlike the successful advice Gary gets from his father, most of the advice he receives (like that he should quit trying to learn comedy, or that he should take up playing baseball cards) is the opposite of helpful–regardless of whether he follows it or not. And that’s the problem with advice. Stories are contours against which one can sharpen one’s own mind. Advice is a threat, not an example.

4. Effort is essential. This needs little explaining, and this post is getting long.

5. People who know you well can best help you by noticing when you aren’t doing well, and giving you insight into your problems. But it’s up to you to solve them, and keep trying until they are solved. 100%, whatever it takes.

6. Something something something something jokes something something something something humor something something something preachy something something something ba-da-bing-ba-da-boom something something something learning and community and fulfillment. Maybe you just need to read Dogs Don’t Tell Jokes, and learn this one for yourself.

Edit: I have written another version of this elsewhere. I also lightly edited this post 24 Jan 2017.