The following thoughts and insights are inspired by the book When We Cease to Understand the World, by Benjamin Labatut. This article is not a review, but I will say this:
Read this book. Preferably, before you read the following.
I am not a critic, and therefore, this is not a review. I like what I like. Some things I like might be considered “objectively good,” although I don’t believe such a thing exists. Other things might raise an eyebrow. My opinion on the creative work of others is as meaningless as anyone’s. I don’t think it says anything about the quality of that work. But when I like something, I try to understand what aspects of it capture my attention, captivate my mind, and often also my heart. I try to learn from the stuff I am drawn to (and sometimes also from the things I keep away from).
So, if you are looking for a review of Benjamin Labatut’s book When We Cease to Understand the World, you won’t find it here unless you are willing to settle with a personal recommendation to grab this book and read it because it is a beautifully written story. But you don’t really need me for that. I will not say much more than that, and I will try my best not to tell you what this book is about (well, no more than a couple of sentences) for reasons that will be clear in a minute.
What you will find in this article are three insights inspired by Labatut’s book. They are insights about reading and writing, derived not only from how the book is written, but also from the experience of reading it. An experience that made every minute I spent with it full of wonder.
Allow Yourself to be Surprised
All of us are flooded with information practically all the time. The competition for our attention is constant and sometimes aggressive. The number of books, articles, movies, TV shows, streaming services, and social media is overwhelming. Even if we concentrate on one type of media, the offering is so huge that we feel a real need for a practical way to decide what to read, watch, or listen to next. Our attention is our most valuable resource, and so we rightfully want to invest it where the investment will pay off. Granted, we rarely do that when scrolling mindlessly on our social platform feed, but when we invest a few hours of our precious time reading a book, we naturally tend to be more thoughtful consumers. We wish to know as much as possible about our investment to make sure we are making the right choice.
This is why reviews, trailers, excerpts, and ratings play an important role in consuming media, specifically creative works. We could have settled with just a binary marking hinting whether to read a book, avoid it, watch a movie, or look for a better one. But this rarely satisfies us. We like to read more detailed reviews by professional critics and people like us. We feel this will make our choice a safer bet. If I buy a book, let alone invest the time in reading it, I’d better know what to expect. With so many options, this seems like a reasonable thing to do. It might not be the best filter to apply, but it is the most accessible one, and often, it does the work.
Relying on what others write and say about a creative work yields two outcomes. The first is the possibility of missing out on some great things we might have liked. Some things that can truly resonate with us might be filtered out because many, sometimes even most, other people just don’t value them. It’s not that we are better than other people. We are just different.
But an even more common outcome of reading reviews and excerpts is that it significantly reduces the element of surprise. And I am not talking about spoilers revealing mysteries and plot twists. I am referring to the genuine, basic level of surprise of visiting a new world. When you know, even in general terms, what a book is about before reading even its first page, you lose some of the wonder of finding it out for yourself. When you read a review about how a book is written, the style, the genre, and what the author has achieved, you lose the ability to discover that as you read the book — page by page and paragraph by paragraph. Detailed reviews set your expectations and prepare you for what you are about to experience. But surprise, discovery, and exploration are inherent parts of every experience. The more you know in advance, the less impact the experience has.
So, as I told you upfront, this article is not meant to be a review of When We Cease to Understand the World. But I will phrase my recommendation in the plainest, even binary way I can think of:
Don’t read anything about this book. Just read the book.
In fact, if you haven’t read the book, don’t read the rest of the article just yet. I know this is not in my best interest, but I’d love you to bookmark this article, read the book, and come back to this text once you are done.
Last checkpoint before we go into details better kept for after the book 🙂
When We Cease to Understand the World is an enigma. It is not a mystery novel, nor does it hide some big secret waiting to be revealed. It is not a riddle designed for us to solve, although we can certainly do that (and we will return to this point later). It is an enigma much broader than any plot twist or surprising revelation. And the less prepared you are for it, the stronger the impact it leaves on you.
When We Cease to Understand the World intentionally blurs the line between fact and fiction. Labatut does that very subtly (at least at first) and the realization of this blend gradually finds its way into your awareness and consciousness. This gradual evolution is part of what makes this book unique. It is not a surprise that suddenly “attacks” you. It is a surprise that slowly sinks in. The first chapter of the book does not resemble the last, and the amount of imagination weaved between the facts gradually increases until we can barely see where the line is drawn. Knowing this in advance, even without knowing anything about the story or the characters, reduces the sense of disorientation and fuzziness, which might ruin part of its effect.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Nothing you know in advance will make this book less than what it is. It will still be a great read and a well-written, unique book. But with each chapter I read, I kept thinking that had I known anything about the book in advance, I would have experienced it differently. Not knowing anything about it elevated my experience and the impression it left on me. As I read the book, I felt like I was visiting a new country or landscape without seeing any pictures or reading about it before the visit. Can you imagine that? Visiting a new country without doing any research, let alone walking the streets with Google Street View, visiting museums online, and looking for the best places to hang out before even buying airplane tickets. Of course, nothing of that is even remotely similar to the actual experience. Still, they create a sense of certainty that prevents us from being genuinely amazed when we experience things for the first time without the mediating screen.
More than a statement about this particular book, this is a statement about reading and even how we generally experience things. The less prepared we are, the more surprising our discoveries can be, and their impact on us is vital. Not knowing what is to come makes the experience brighter.
A couple of years ago, I saw Hamilton in London. It was 2019, and by then, Hamilton was already a global phenomenon. But somehow, I managed not to know anything about it before watching it. I can’t say this was a deliberate choice, and in retrospect, I can’t even say how I managed to avoid that. But the fact is that until the lights in the theatre were dimmed, the only thing I knew about what I was about to see was that it was a musical revolving around American history. Nothing more than that. I didn’t know anything about the plot, the characters, the cast, the kind of music that was about to overwhelm me, or how Lin-Manual Miranda and his team created the show. Nothing at all.
When the first actor entered the stage, and the orchestra in the pit played the first couple of notes, I was amazed. My jaws dropped and remained in that awkward position for the entire show. I felt like someone dropped me into a parallel universe without preparing me for what was about to happen. The awe and wonder swept me as I realized I was amid a hip-hop musical about the founders of the United States, played entirely by people of color. Every bit of Hamilton is excellent, and I enjoy it now, years later, and after seeing and listening to it multiple times. But the surprise I had experienced — not being ready for any of that — made the impression so intense and the experience much more profound. Every time I watch the recording of the musical, I relive the surprise I felt when I first saw it. This sense of wonder became an inherent part of what I experienced that day and, therefore, an integral part of this artwork.
Like everybody else, I read reviews, look at ranks, and obviously watch movie and TV trailers. It takes great effort to avoid it altogether, and it wouldn’t be practical to do so. Our time is indeed limited, and we can’t just randomly read, watch, or listen to anything that comes our way. But now and then, I intentionally try to dive into something without knowing anything about it. It can be a book, as in the case of When We Cease to Understand the World, a movie, a TV show, or a theatre play. Occasionally, I would get disappointed, but most of the time (assuming the choice wasn’t completely random), I find it magical. My ignorance turns whatever happens in the text, on screen, or stage into a surprise, and the feeling of surprise and wonder become part of the experience.
My advice to you: save a special place in your read- or watch-list for something you know nothing about. You won’t be sorry.
Create Your Own Rules
When it comes to novels, I am no more than an average reader. I am certainly not a professional critic. I don’t have formal experience analyzing creative fictional works to support the following statement, so take it as is: nothing more than my insights.
When We Cease to Understand the World is nothing like any book I’ve read before, if only for the fuzziness between fact and fiction. This blurred line, which keeps shifting as the book progresses, prevents categorizing Labatut’s creation using terms like biography, documentary, popular science, or fiction. I already used the term novel, which indicates it is a work of fiction, but you can’t stop questioning it when reading the book.
The book starts with what seems to be an accurate account describing events, discoveries, and inventions from the early 20th-century (with occasional trips to earlier centuries). It is written as a non-fiction text, and it all sounds (and probably is) authentic. But gradually, you start to question that as the author begins to go deeper inside the characters’ minds (all of them, by the way, are real people). And just when you decide you are deep inside the imaginary realm, Labatut injects again some actual historical facts that make you wonder if you happen to be reading a non-fiction book. At some point, these two worlds become one, and you can no longer distinguish between the two. By that point, you are so immersed in the story you don’t care which parts of it are real and which aren’t. You just enjoy the ride.
Knowing the rules is part of being a professional. Anyone who ever learned to paint, photograph, dance, or write knows that. You start with the basics, with clear definitions that make everything fall in place. And you don’t just learn the rules in theory. You practice them, and you follow them. Until you don’t. At some point, any professional knows that sometimes you must break the rules. Creativity relies on breaking the rules now and then, not for the sake of breaking them but to explore new territories, challenge the boundaries, and discover new ways of doing things.
In When We Cease to Understand the World, Labatut took that one step further. He didn’t just break the rules — he created a new set of rules. He didn’t just challenge the rules of a genre — he imagined a new genre altogether. While breaking the rules can start with arbitrary experimentation, creating a new set of rules is delicate work. I don’t know whether Labatut has done that consciously, but he couldn’t have pulled this out by chance.
Most of us don’t dare to do that. We are drawn to templates, familiar patterns, predefined practices, and proven schemas. Learning from the experience of others is a good practice, and reusing or applying things we know to work is undoubtedly the most efficient method of producing new things. We would rather not reinvent the wheel or start from scratch every time, and we certainly don’t want to fail where others have already learned how to avoid common pitfalls. But at some point, all these artificial rules are just not enough. At some point, we need to do thing differently to break through and create something nobody has made before. Or at least try to. If we strictly follow predefined rules and practices, breakthroughs will rarely happen. Playing with the rules (rather than within the boundaries of the rules) and inventing new ones is a much more exciting and promising way to achieve breakthroughs. Maybe ceasing to understand the world is just a trigger to reinventing a new set of rules that will describe it, hoping to open a gateway into a new universe of possibilities. That is what all the characters in the book have done and what the author managed to do as well.
One example of the difference between working with the rules and inventing new ones is how Labatut fuses non-fiction and fiction. All creative works are built on fusions: taking different pieces of raw material, sometimes from other domains, and melting them together to create something new. Any book you’ve ever read, fiction or non-fiction, is made of numerous bits of raw material blended together. But in his book, Labatut took fusion one step further. He has managed to create a new way of fusing things. That is the reason we can’t ignore this fusion, even though the line between fact and fiction is getting increasingly blurred as the book progresses. It is present throughout the text, and in some sense, it is even an actor in the text. The characters keep moving between what they see and can empirically prove and what they can only imagine and not even fully comprehend.
It is a bold experiment. Any creative should play and experiment to such an extent. I can guarantee that not all such experiments will work. Most of them will probably fail. But creativity will always be limited without the courage to imagine new rules to follow (and eventually break).
It is often said that restrictions and limitations are the fuel of creativity. This does not imply, though, that these restrictions are constant. Reshaping our borders and extending the universe we play in is like finding a new type of energy source that enables us to achieve things we didn’t imagine possible before.
Let Your Imagination Play
Curiosity is critical to creativity. We can’t create anything (or even learn anything for that matter) without being driven by curiosity — by things we don’t know and wish to know. But with the infinite amount of information accessible to us nowadays, we often confuse curiosity with certainty — we confuse the importance of asking with the need to get the correct answer.
We got used to getting what we wanted without delay. When we seek something, we need it now. We know questions drive us forward, but we want the answer to just pop immediately. We feel comfortable asking questions, but not being in a state of not knowing. As long as the questions are an interim step toward certainty, we are fine, but when we are lost or confused, we treat it as an emergency. We don’t enjoy not knowing. All these behaviors and tendencies can certainly fall under the definition of curiosity, but they carry only a fraction of the potential curiosity has.
As I read When We Cease to Understand the World and gradually became aware (or suspicious) of the blend between facts and fiction, I started to wonder: what part of what I am reading really happened and what details were the creation of Benjamin Labatut? At first, it was more than just a question in the back of my head — it was a question I felt an urge to know the answer to. At some point, I almost didn’t resist the temptation to run some google searches after each paragraph I read because this fuzziness between historical facts and figures and the imaginary realm Labatut has created made me curious.
But I didn’t.
Reading this book reminded me that I don’t have to know the answer to every question I have. Asking questions is good — sometimes even essential. But the state of not knowing is not necessarily bad. I don’t have to rush and fix it as soon as possible. Curiosity is great, but wondering is often better. You cannot wonder without asking questions, but the state of wondering does not mandate knowing the correct answer. It is a platform that can trigger the act of imagining. And that’s precisely what I did numerous times as I read the book. I tried to imagine whether some details were authentic and if they were, how could they be known to the author? What could have been the alternative in the character’s reality if these details were imaginary? I didn’t try to get it right. That’s not the point of imagining. It was just a thought exercise that has sent me on an exploration inside my mind. And that was an essential layer in my reading experience: I haven’t been a passive reader, but an active and imaginative one. The way the book is written invited me to play, and I was happy to join the game, not to win, but just for the sake of playing.
All this didn’t prevent me from being immersed in the story. It was liberating because I wasn’t bothered with the question of fact vs. fiction all the time. I thought of it and imagined it every once in a while, but I didn’t feel an urge to know for sure. The sense of wondering was more important than the answer to my questions.
Enjoying not knowing does not mean favoring ignorance over knowledge. That would go against curiosity and will not allow any progress whatsoever. But delaying finding the answer (or deciding which questions can be left unanswered) makes curiosity a true trait of creativity. And, of course, this book is only an example. We can also delay answering real-life questions in some cases. If we slow down and delay the need to get the real, accurate answer, we can quickly come up with new insights and discoveries. Nobody can guarantee that they will be relevant to our real-life problems, but even when they aren’t, they stimulate our imagination and strengthen our creative muscles.
The imaginative road is often slower than just searching for the answer online, but it has the value of exploring, imagining, and sometimes discovering an unexpected path leading to an outstanding creative result.
We learn about creativity and our creative potential from the work of other creatives. We enjoy their creation, and often it has real value for us. Sometimes, this value lies deeper than the concrete content we read, watch, or listen to.
Whenever you read a book or an article, watch a movie or a play, or have any other kind of experience, take some time to reflect on it. Don’t settle with processing its content, but look deeper into how it was created and how you have experienced it. Any creative work can teach us something about creativity in general and our creativity in particular.
Reflect on a time you have intentionally created new rules and whether it resulted in unexpected breakthroughs.
Alternatively, consider a time you could have done so and what prevented you from creating your own set of rules.
Explore any list of recommended books, pick one you know nothing about, and read it.
As you read the book, consider the experience and what part of it you can attribute to being surprised.