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If you’re interested in understanding human behavior, you could do a lot worse than reading novels and fictional short stories.

The worse thing you could do, I suppose, is to read instruction manuals on how to assemble Ikea furniture, astrophysics, or the nature of chemical reactions, anything in which no human need be present. The second worse thing would be to read heavy handed self help books or even handed psychology texts. The information there is often correspondingly one sided or thin. Reading journal articles about human behavior would the the third worse thing to read. They may help you drill down into specifics, but they all contain far more about statistics and experimental design than any student of the humanities has patience for.

indexFor my money, and to conserve my time, I would go to the fiction section of the library and load up on books that showcase the actions and interactions of people. One of the best of recent books that can teach you a lot about humans is Freedom by Jonathan Frazen.

Frazen clearly should’ve been a shrink. The entire book is a virtuoso performance in head shrinking without any of the technical language that many shrinks use to keep you from understanding what they’re talking about. Jonathan Frazen is like the George Eastman of head shrinking, making it available to amateur shrinks, just as Eastman introduced the Kodak camera to the general population.

Frazen’s narrative follows the development of individuals within a single family; how they grow, the choices they make, and their interactions with each other and the surrounding culture. You could read it as a study of the conflicts and misunderstandings between America’s “Flyover Country”, the people who elected Trump, and the liberal sentiments of the educated elite.

For my tastes, I prefer my novels to be less explanatory and more demonstrative. I dislike being told what to think and how to interpret people’s behavior, maybe because I like to do my thinking and interpreting on my own. As I read Freedom I couldn’t help but consider how differently I would have tried to write it. There would be more show and less tell. I wouldn’t have called it Freedom, either; for the book seems to be more about devotion and the effects that devotion has on others.

If you, too, are not interested in being told what to think about human behavior, but find yourself in possession of Frazen’s Freedom, then I would suggest just reading the last chapter; actually, just the first part of the last chapter. It could stand alone as a very entertaining short story about a neighborhood on the front lines of said conflicts between two cultures. Read it and weep; or, perhaps, long for freedom from all those ossified misunderstandings.