David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Inquest on Left-Brained Literature

Excuse me while I get all Franco Moretti on you readers here. I work among engineers, and many of them are voracious readers who, nonetheless, have little connection to any prevailing literary trends. Rather, there appears to be a parallel track of literature that is popular specifically among engineers, which I’ll call “left-brained literature” for lack of a better term. The provisional definition of the term is simply those books that fall into the category of my having empirically observed them being read by a multitude of engineers with a literary bent. My conclusions are tentative, but I think that it’s valuable just to construct this sort of list.

I’m excluding all genre science-fiction from the category, because I don’t find it particularly revelatory. I’m interested in that subset of “mainstream,” “non-genre” fiction (these relative terms having been established by social consensus), and within that set, which novels of some notoriety and good PR happen to attract members of the engineering professions.

(Another scholar who also works amongst engineers produced near-duplication of this list when queried. Some affinities were further verified by use of the “similar items” feature on Amazon. Give me a research grant and I’ll confirm further and conduct a less ad hoc census.)

After each name I’ve given a list of a couple general elements of the author’s work, which I think might be useful in considering their inclusion.

Richard Powers. Uses “science” (and scientists) with a minimum of “science-fiction.” Yet of course this does not explain his comparative left-brained success. By far the most popular of his works amongst engineers: The Gold Bug Variations and Galatea 2.2. Emotionally pathos-laden works. Clear stylistic and thematic affinities with Douglas Hofstadter (see below). A key figure in that he appears to be more popular with engineers than with almost anyone else.

Umberto Eco. Only popular for his fiction, and mostly for his first two novels. Use of generic material (mystery and suspense) towards metafictional and postmodern ends. Rather dispassionate.

Milorad Pavic. Portrays history, myth, and religion as game. Most popular for Dictionary of the Khazars, but this is also his most famous work, a self-described “lexicon novel.” Emotionally sterile, but historically panoramic. Experimental means but clear empiricist ethos.

Georges Perec. Life: A User’s Manual is the ur-text for many spatially architected novels to follow. Mathematical (and other Oulipo-esque approaches) methodologies deployed in fields of the humanities. Hesitant about traditional psychology, abandoning it after the early work A Man Asleep. Controlled emotion, especially notable in W: The Memory of Childhood.

Haruki Murakami. Genre-elements of science-fiction and mystery used in psychological phantasmagorias. Imaginative but construction is often less than rigorous. Linear plots with plenty of momentum. Heartfelt and sincere, if sometimes clumsy. Literal writing sytle.

Colson Whitehead. Quite popular just on the basis of his first novel, The Intuitionist. Not yet categorizable, but shows a tendency to sublimate emotion in allegorical assemblages. Pristine, detached style belies strong messages.

David Mitchell. Heavily influenced by Murakami and has lived in Japan. Also heavy use of phantasmagoria, complemented by very sophisticated narrative construction. Prefers simple, visceral, classical themes approached in flashy, novel way. Heavy use of pathos.

Don DeLillo. Highly acclaimed by literary establishment, but not as popular amongst engineers as some of those above. Heavy allegorization, usually irony-laden. Socio-political commentary, often delivered through the voices of characters who tend to sound the same. Virtuosic stylist, but the prose can drag.

Italo Calvino. Favored mostly by engineers for post-1965 experimental work reminiscent of Borges such as Cosmicomics, Invisible Cities, The Castle of Crossed Destinies, and If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Heavy mythological content; light math/science content. Some “new novel” influence via Robbe-Grillet. Wonderful, breezy stylist.

Douglas Hofstadter. Non-fiction writer, but importance of Godel, Escher, Bach, which partly uses fictional forms, is too great not to list. Brilliant computer scientist and popularizer, but suffers from a glib, punny style and a lack of verbal taste (see his translation of Eugene Onegin) that render his works unreadable to many. His ideas, drawn from logic, music, mathematics, and elsewhere, suffuse the works of many other American authors on this list.

Nicholson Baker. Obsessively detail-oriented. Near-autistic categorizing and cataloguing of quotidian material, especially in his early work. Baroque style, flattened emotions.

Neal Stephenson. Crossed-over from science-fiction into information-laden historical epics of chiefly science history. Most beloved for Snow Crash, but Cryptonomicon is also important. Appropriately-titled Baroque Cycle remains unread even by most engineer fans of his. Competent stylist, light on character and emotion.

William Gibson. Another cross-over. “Cyberpunk” tendencies disguise lack of rigorous science content. Aggressive use of technology, but fundamentally rhapsodic and character-driven. Innovative, influential stylist, but often narratively lax.

Bruce Sterling. A third cross-over who may not yet have crossed over. Parallel career to Gibson, but weak style, emotional shallowness, and lack of character development may have hindered mainstream acceptance. Compensates with greater science and technology content.

Jorge Luis Borges. Literary genius who wrote conceptual, highly-compressed short stories. Not as widely-read as some of the others on this list, but has influenced so many of them that he must be included. Lack of emotion, character, and plot; stories are often driven by a single, revelatory idea.

There were a few other candidates that I excluded from the list either for lack of confirmation data (Cortazar, Pynchon, Auster) or due to the work falling into the realm of “trash,” to use the term descriptively (Danielewski, Coupland). I’d be willing to reconsider. And as much as I racked my brains, I could not come up with a single woman writer that fit.

One obvious conclusion is that engineers tend to like novelists that deal in math and science material, but that does not explain many of the names on this list, notably those that use science in a “soft” form, such as Calvino and Gibson. Certain common traits do seem to recur, such as verbal literalism and a lack of irony, but even these are contradicted by some members of the list above.

I have no definite conclusions to draw at the moment, but I do believe that this is more than just an exercise. Within this overlap, I believe one can observe two different forms of reading, one more particular to engineers and one more general. While they may not be discrete, I think they separate cleanly enough to merit deep investigation.

[How do you all like the new list-making Waggish? It’s only a temporary phase, probably brought on by reading Finnegans Wake, which contains many, many lists itself, particularly the list of names of ALP’s letter (i.e., the book itself) and the list of titles for
HCE. These tendencies will be further explored in a forthcoming post
on listmakers and architects.]

Update: more suggestions and hypotheses from readers in the comments.


  1. Very interesting list and discussion. Uniquely apt and hilarious descriptive tags! My favorite writers on the list include Powers, Perec (I find myself increasingly obsessed with Perec), Murakami and the Stephenson-Gibson-Sterling cluster; I am pro-Whitehead and modestly anti-Mitchell (and extremely anti-DeLillo). I think you are right to exclude Pynchon, Auster etc. because they have other constituencies that would distort your results.

    I am not an engineer, but am the (female) child of one. I’m curious whether your engineers were mixed male and female or predominantly/all male? Also I feel surely there are a handful of female authors or at least specific books written by women that could make a list like this, although I take the point of the way it skews male: what about Katherine Dunn’s GEEK LOVE?

  2. How about Moravia and Auster? I’m curious why they didn’t make the list.

  3. Let me cast a vote for Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey Maturin series. They’re genre books, but not necessarily what one would associate with engineers. I used to work with a lot of ex-military folks, so that may be skewing thing, but I think the constrained environment of manly, problem-solving men has a certain left-brained appeal.

  4. I don’t know very many engineers, but is perhaps a common thread the reflection a lot of detailed research on some particular time/place/milieu on the author’s part, or the facsimile thereof?

  5. Your list is extremely interesting to me as my husband is a reading engineer (notably left-brain) and a real challenge to buy books for. I’ll consult your list from now on. He also loves John Irving, Julian Barnes and J G Ballard.

  6. I’ve taught Borges and Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game at an institution that trains many engineers, and some of them seemed to enjoy the conceptual difficulty. Lem would fit as well (please don’t say anything about “genre science fiction” here). The “lack of character, emotion, and plot” re Borges is not altogether accurate. “The South” is only one instance of many.

    The Wallace of Infinite Jest, also. I’m also not comfortable with Danielewski being placed in a set with Coupland more specific than “human beings.”

  7. Also, the Ali G system/empathy stuff is more defensible than hemispherical metaphors at this progression of the world-spirit.

  8. Excellent idea, well done.

    A complementary point: the Stephenson/Gibson/Sterling cluster, so aptly named by another commentator, points to another aspect of this readership you don’t discuss, which is technology. Engineers work at the junction of science and technology, hence their interest in writers such as these, especially Gibson, who is notoriously unscientific but technologically precise and evocative, even when wrong.

    Also, another datapoint about the Stephenson Baroque Cycle: I’ve seen techies, at least some of whom are engineers, reading it with enthusiasm. And I can’t resist noting, I think it’s by far the best thing he’s done.

  9. Thanks all for commenting. Very informative!

    Jenny: the male/femlae ratio of the engineers I know more or less skew to the general ratio of 80+% male, but I was sure to pay close attention to the women I knew and weigh their tastes accordingly. Among them, I didn’t find any particular concentration of female authors. (No moreso than amongst male engineers, and, for example, I only knew men and no women who had read Zadie Smith.) In general, though, I didn’t see much difference at all between male and female tastes. The women almost universally ignored “chick lit,” and the men correspondingly had little interest in the testosterone-laden fiction of Roth, Updike, etc.

    Geek Love is a good one. I think at this point it may be too old and obscure of a book, but there’s a literalness to it that it shares with some of these other authors. It may also be too deviant. My coworkers are pretty straight sorts, but I’ll keep an eye out of bookshelves the next time I’m around punk/ex-punk/hippie engineers.

    I wouldn’t have been surprised to encounter Byatt or Atwood frequently amongst female (and not male) engineers…but I just didn’t.

  10. Miranda: Moravia is simply too obscure to be widely read amongst any group of non-bookish types. But he does seem to fit parts of the paradigm in his architectural psychologizing.

    I mentioned Auster, but excluded him because he didn’t seem popular enough amongst engineers, and even those engineers who liked him tended to enjoy only a subset of his work (specifically, the New York Trilogy).

  11. Steve: I’m with you on O’Brian. I’ve run into them, but I suspect that the hyper-masculinity might actually turn off engineers, or at least the non-military ones. (Though not the problem-solving!) With the exception of physicists (don’t get me started), engineers do not seem to embody Harvey Mansfield’s favorite qualities all that often: self-deprecation is far too common.

  12. redfox: I feel that historical research may be helpful, but is not necessary; some of the most favored books are pure fantasy and invention (and of course science-fiction’s popularity amongst engineers is paradoxical, since “hard” and “soft” varieties are both popular).

    It may be, rather, the “fact-chunking” aspect of it: books that require one to assimilate tons of information and then portray a synthesis of it. This sequence is analogous to engineering processes as well. (See Stanislaw Lem’s “The Chain of Chance” for a good example. It’s a detective story that throws nothing but pure data at you for 3/4 of its length, before wrapping it all together.)

  13. litlove: Fascinating choices! While I ran into Barnes a couple times (some of his works definitely fit with the names I gave) and Irving is popular enough to be read by many, Ballard was conspicuously absent from the shelves of my coworkers. He’s one of the softest of s-f writers, and I wondered if there was something about him, perhaps his psychological symbolism or inexplicable surrealism, that made him less popular. (Or maybe he’s just not that well-known here in America.) Does your husband prefer one period of Ballard’s over others? Does he care for the more extreme 70s work like Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition?

  14. Tom: I got nowhere with the Baroque Cycle, not being much of a Stephenson afficionado myself, but those Stephenson fans who got fed up with it seemed to do so out of exhaustion rather than alienation from the work per se. It may just be too much of a good thing for many people.

    Your point about “incorrect technological precision” is very well taken. I need to think about it more, but there’s definitely something there. Wish fulfillment? The sense of speculation? Logical evaluation of possibilities?

  15. Jonathan: Lem definitely fits. I excluded him because, genre or no, he’s classified in the “science fiction” section of the bookstore, which is no longer true for Stephenson and Gibson. I love Lem more than all those listed except Borges (who admittedly is one of Lem’s most looming influences), and yet I’ve never met a single engineer who could get through “Golem XIV.” Lem is tricky to categorize, and I think his philosophical side can scare engineers off. His Master’s Voice is one of the greatest books about science and the practice of science, but many scientists don’t seem to read it!

    Re: Borges. I should clarify and say “relative lack.” There are certainly characters and plots (“Death and the Compass” is the first that comes to my mind), but they are usually subordinated to the delivery of an idea. Only when the idea is psychological (“The Secret Miracle”; “Funes the Memorious”; “The House of Asterion”) does the character come to the front, but I find these scenarios too abstracted to really qualify as character studies.

    A lot of people I respect think highly of House of Leaves, but I confess I regard it as a gimmicky thriller, lacking the substance of the included authors. But I’m open to dispute on his inclusion.

  16. Further thoughts: (1) Surely Ballard’s omitted because of little-known in US rather than anything about the fiction? I feel sure that in the UK he would be high up there. (And also Iain Banks? M. or no?) (2) I couldn’t face the Baroque Trilogy either, though I really love Stephenson (esp. “The Diamond Age,” but I thought “Cryptonomicon” was an excellent read); it’s because I work on eighteenth-century stuff, I am too sensitive to the pastichey thing and tend not to find it at all funny (“Good Omens” is a book I love, but then the language there is beautifully well handled, Pratchett/Gaiman have a better ear for sentences than Stephenson who has other strengths); (3) I am not surprised to find Atwood-Byatt absent from the list. (Thanks for clarifying on gender ratios.) Byatt in spite of natural-history content is almost aggressively literary/novelistic; and Atwood for some reason doesn’t exactly find the readerships I’d expect, I think her work is unfairly associated with, you know, the kind of thing we think our mothers’ book groups would read, though her best books are fabulously good. I am going to rack my brain and see what I can think about other books by women that would fit well here. The trouble is that mostly they’re too obscure: I can think of a lot of ones that I like for the same reason I like these, with very clinical and subtle-intellectual-power-behind-it prose, but they often have quite deviant content (Jenny Diski, Heather Lewis).

  17. Hmm, I wonder if engineers are simply scared off because a woman is the author of a novel? Othewise, surely Ellen Ullman’s novel, the Bug, would have made this list. I think it is the best novel about the nineties software engineering culture I’ve ever read.

  18. Excuse me for mentioning books I’ve never/hardly read, but let me throw out two names: Pynchon and Leitheiser.

    Also, certain books which have an “encylopedia of knowledge” aspect. I’m thinking Eco’s Name of the Rose. There’s a kind of book (and I’m not coming up with names here) that seems to interleave story with factual detail.

    Also, I think antiutopian/apocalyptic fiction is popular among these types.

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