“How to read…a mind” – my MOOC experience

I have just completed a creative writing (vaguely) related MOOC – FutureLearn’s “How to read…a mind”. This was…

…an introduction to what has come to be known as cognitive poetics. Taking our best current knowledge of how our minds and language work, this course takes you through key questions of literature and reading: why do we feel anything for fictional characters? Why do we get angry, moved, irritated, annoyed or sentimental about imaginary people in imagined worlds? Why do the lives of imaginary minds living in fictional bodies seem to matter so much to readers? The answers to these questions are surprising and empowering.

A model of a head with brain sections on it

This was a relatively short MOOC at just two weeks with a pretty reasonable amount of work involved. They say 3 hours a week – I didn’t spend that but I managed to get through the material in a fairly superficial way. I didn’t mean to be superficial but it was that or nothing!

Was it useful for writing? I’m not sure. The course looked at what happens when we read and how people have studied that. I found it strangely reassuring to be told that for readers, fictional characters could be more real than real people. It also looked at what pushes our buttons when we read and how we deal with the process. It didn’t do so much in the way of analysing how an author can manipulate that which may have made it more relevant for writers specifically.

It certainly incarnated aspects of the reading process which I had never really thought about before. It also made me have some rather unkind thoughts about the extent that academics analyse (and endlessly label) what is best enjoyed as a magical process. I’m not including Professor Peter Stockwell in this as he was a great host and explainer but some of the further reading was impenetrable. I came away feeling it was rather like music theory – it’s all very well to have your favourite song diagnosed as containing certain chord progressions and harmonics but does it make it sound better? Probably not. It was already full of all its magic. It was also probably created by someone who had no understanding of that either, they were just a great magician.

Reading back over this post, I’m veering to the negative! I don’t mean to – it was a great little MOOC, very well put together and with lots of interesting comments from fellow students. I’d recommend it as an experience. I also suspect it may inform my reading more in the future once the ideas have percolated into my brain a bit more!


My Favourite Reads in 2013


I rarely buy freshly published books so my top books from last year are not books published last year. The only point of my list is to remind myself what gems I found to enjoy and inspire. I only managed to read 14 books, a very poor showing from someone who once read 5 Famous Five books in one day, but with no commute and no bedtime reading it’s all I can manage. Still, must do better…less internet, more paper.

Will you enjoy them? Bear in mind I can no longer read anything harrowing so that rules out a whole world of good stuff. Nowadays I seek feel-good and happiness and good writing and a world that I want to inhabit for a while (i.e. nowhere too grim). Too tired for anything hard-going but chick-lit makes my skin creep in a way that horror rarely does. 

Here they are:

  1. The Dig – John Preston: a slight little book but it was a joy to read and all about archaeology, a subject very close to my heart.
  2. Small Island – Andrea Levy: I can’t wait for enough time to pass so I can read this again. 
  3. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand – Helen Simonson: sweet, funny and not nearly as old-lady-like as I’d feared. Nothing makes me happier than a book that’s nice to its core.
  4. Music and Silence – Rose Tremain: my book of the year. Never read any Rose Tremain before but plan to read more after this. I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction but this was quirky, fun and satisfying. Loved it!

My to-read pile is full of good stuff for the year ahead. As always, too many books and not enough time…