On Brains

There was a period, in my early teenperson years, when I became an avid reader of the Reader’s Digest. As far as I recall, the younger of my two elder sisters brought a copy into the house. I suppose I must have seen it before, in doctors’ or dentists’ waiting rooms, but this was the first opportunity I had to pay it proper attention. I was immediately impressed with it as a physical object. It seemed to me like a book rather than a magazine, smaller in size and with a spine. As I write that, I realise that the shape and texture and ‘feel’ of printed matter was always important to me, particularly when I was younger. Anyway, I think I pored over this copy of the Reader’s Digest with such enthusiasm that I somehow convinced my parents to take out a subscription. Copies were then delivered to the door every month for the next couple of years, until I grew bored with it and moved on to other things. I haven’t bought a copy since, and can barely remember the last time I even saw one, so I have no idea if today’s Reader’s Digest (if it still exists?) bears any relation to the magazine I read so keenly.

I used to enjoy doing the word quiz It Pays To Increase Your Word Power, I liked the potted biographies and historical articles, and I was amused by the inevitable monthly piece warning of the evil godless Communist threat to our freedoms. (It would be interesting to re-read those now, when I would probably find my older reactionary self nodding in agreement rather than laughing.) But my favourite feature was the regular series on the human body, invariably with the title formation I Am John’s Spleen or I Am Jane’s Pancreas. Not being of a scientific bent, I don’t think I can have paid much attention to the actual texts. But the titles I found vastly amusing, and still do. Somewhere in the Hooting Yard archive I refer to a supposed Reader’s Digest article entitled I Am John’s Head. It made me laugh when I thought of it and it does so still.

All by way of preamble to the point that my idea for today’s thousandish words was I Am Frank’s Brain, though of course I would have to rejig the words in the title so it began with “On”. But then I thought, oh dear, that is so stultifying dull and self-referential. As any sensible person would, I have a horror of turning into Rachel Cusk, endlessly bashing out solipsistic drivel. Luckily, I stopped myself in time, and took a break to make a cup of tea. As I stared out of the window at crows and clouds while waiting for the kettle to boil, I thought, Aha!, instead of I Am Frank’s Brain I shall write I Am Rachel Cusk’s Brain.

You will be relieved to learn that I soon thought better than to embark on that particular piece of foolishness. It struck me that to enter imaginatively into Rachel Cusk’s brain would be to court invincible inanity, a risk I was unwilling to take. Rimbaud wrote of the “white pointlessness” of the Alps, and I suspect that the vista opened up to me by Rachel Cusk’s brain would be a greyish, off-white pointlessness.

Still, I liked the idea of writing a piece based on somebody else’s brain. I Am Oliver Letwin’s Brain? I Am Heliogabalus’s Brain? I Am Gwyneth Paltrow’s Brain? The possibilities were endless. It would be the devil of a job to pick the most apt brain to pretend to be. And then, of course, other people’s brains can be quite unfathomable. I don’t know about you, but I can’t begin to imagine what strange and unruly shenanigans snap between the synapses in the brain of Julian Assange. How does someone like that manage to get out of bed in the morning? Easier by far, surely, if you are Julian, to just turn over and go back to sleep. Having such a brain might be manageable if it was permanently unconscious.

Spoilt for choice, and having discounted the obvious attractions of I Am Yoko Ono’s Brain and I Am Krishnan Guru-Murthy’s Brain, I wondered if the piece might work if I chose, instead of a real, or indeed fictional, person, a generic type. I Am A Peasant’s Brain. I Am An ‘Occupy’ Protester’s Brain. Both of those would have the advantage of being decisively limited, so there would not be a great deal of material to marshal. On the other hand, neither might make for particularly interesting reading. There may be a few more depths to plumb in the brain of a peasant, what with responses to the changing seasons and perhaps some crumbs of rustic wisdom, but you would probably be better off reading a few passages of Lork Roise To Candleford, or better still, watching an episode of the television adaptation.

At this point I dallied briefly with imagining myself into the collective “brain” of Lork Roise, positing the rustic hamlet as a sort of organic sentient being, but that way madness lies. It would be even more baffling than being the brain of Rachel Cusk, I fear.

When all is said and done, probably the easiest article to write would be I Am A Crow’s Brain. If their raucous cawing is anything to go by, and I hope it is, then crows spend their entire lives being mightily pissed off, at anything and everything. If you don’t believe me, just listen to them. I do, daily, and I have to say I find it very rewarding to do so. No matter how foul my mood, I can listen to that cawing and think to myself that at least I am not as fed up and angry and misanthropic and irredeemably bad-tempered as the crow is.

So we seem to have gone on a little tour of brains, for what it’s worth. This is the kind of thing that would fit quite snugly into the Reader’s Digest. I must find out if it still exists, and, if so, submit this piece to the editor. A whole new career might be opening up before me.

2 Responses to “On Brains”


  • Thank you for this tour round the brain of Britain. I feel a thought coming on…

  • Never having heard of Rachel Cusk, and being something of a contrarian, I immediately ordered a copy of The Bradshaw Variations from the library. I am looking forward to, and slightly frightened by the greyish off-white pointlessness.

    In Moscow they keep having to re-apply gold leaf to one of the onion domes of St. Basil’s cathedral because crows find it fun to slide down the dome, and their claws scrape the gold off.

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