Are we what we read? Many people apparently make this assumption - especially criminal investigators. I was led to this observation after reading news accounts of the FBI's file on Bruce Ivins, a US army bio-defence expert who killed himself in 2008 and who the agency now believes was the perpetrator behind a series of anthrax-tainted letters mailed in the US that killed five people and caused widespread fear shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The FBI has built a massive case of circumstantial evidence against him but has no smoking gun. Equally interesting is that its agents tried to create a psychological profile of Ivins, who began as a scientific adviser and became the prime suspect. The FBI apparently found it highly significant that he was once observed throwing away a copy of Douglas Hofstadter's cult classic Godel, Escher, Bach in the dead of night! A good deal of that philosophy and computer science book has to do with coding; the FBI theory is that Ivins embedded in the notes, mailed with the anthrax, a complex coded message based on DNA biochemistry, as an allusion to two women colleagues he was obsessed with.
Poetry is a kind of coding, too, so on the FBI theory, the letters containing anthrax spores were sent as deadly love poems written in the language of science. I make no judgment on whether the FBI has fingered the right guy. But this love-science-murder theory sounds like a plot from the postmodern novels of Paul Auster and Umberto Eco. But should it qualify as a piece of the puzzle to help identify a (dead) killer? It's hard to say.
Hofstadter, a tad defensive after being hounded by the US media, called any connection the FBI drew between the case and his book 'a red herring' and denied it could have had any influence in the crimes. It probably does take a kind of twisted mind to be interested in those endlessly recurrent optical illusions of M.C. Escher and the recursive logical reasoning of mathematician Kurt Godel. But it may be too fanciful to think Godel's incompleteness theorems could inspire anyone to murder. Since the anthrax murders required highly technical knowledge, reading Hofstadter's book with its endless musings on coding might fit Ivins into the killer's profile. The danger is that you fit the evidence to the theory and ignore data that doesn't fit, instead of building a theory to fit the evidence. Psychologists call it confirmation bias.
The same logic that made the FBI think the anthrax killer could have been motivated by Hofstadter has also led to an oft-repeated observation by police, tabloids and some feminists that most serial killers and rapists are influenced by violent pornography. Lam Kor-wan, Hong Kong's worst serial killer, was an avid porn collector and often redid porn magazine shots to improve on the angles. Did porn make Lam a killer? Many men own violent porn and most are not criminals, just harmless perverts. Correlation is not causality, but it is often mistaken for an explanation.
The dark night of the soul is so unfathomable that it is naive to think porn, or any undesirable literature, alone could cause it. We are always more and less than the books we read or pictures we look at. Yet, 'we are what we read' - or what we read as a clue to our personality - is a common belief. Young people often try to define themselves by the books they read or authors they look up to. Often, even many adults think there are books they ought to read but actually have zero interest in them. People shouldn't feel guilty if they don't care for reading.
For serious readers and collectors of books, there is, indeed, a relationship between personhood and reading. It is best summed up by Eco and Nassim Tableb, the essayist and financial guru. The point of owning books is, they say, not to boost one's ego but to develop an expanding research tool over a lifetime. The more books you read and buy means that the more you know, the more you don't know. As Tableb writes: 'The growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly.' Your library grows as the knowledge of your own ignorance expands. Readers are defined by what they don't know and haven't read.
Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post