Travels by Michael Crichton

I have mixed feelings about Travels, Michael Crichton’s collection of autobiographical anecdotes.

On the one hand, Crichton is an intelligent, educated and interesting person with stories to tell that are exotic and absorbing, and he’s a good storyteller. On the other hand, a third of the material is about his rocky medical career, and another third of it relates to paranormal stuff, and in a couple of the non-medical, non-paranormal chapters, Crichton relates some nearly lethal experiences of the kind that involve water and thus cause me disproportionate anxiety.

In short, I like how he writes, but I didn’t like much of what he wrote about in this book.

For more on what stood out for me as well as more on Crichton’s oddly unscientific treatment of paranormal phenomena, see below.

What stood out when I read Travels

Crichton says a number of reasonable things.

He says even if we cannot be said to have caused an illness, we should still take responsibility for it, because it’s psychologically healthier and more practical, and anyway, doctors aren’t magic, or always right. All they can do is give you advice about how they think you can get better (66).

He says lectures take ten to twenty hours to prepare per hour of lecture, otherwise the lecture stinks (73).

He finished medical school but didn’t become a doctor because he objected to the way people in the medical community often behaved and the way they approached medicine in general (75). I think a lot has changed since then.

He wasn’t into any new age nonsense at first. When people asked what his sign was, he would say “neon” (104). I love that answer, but I don’t think anyone will, anytime soon, give me the opportunity I’d need to be able to use it myself.

In explaining divers’ unreasonable fear of sharks, he says: “In America, every year, sixty thousand people die of auto accidents, a possibility no one fears. Some seven people die of snakebite every year, and everyone is terrified of snakes” (254). I’m quite the exception to “no one” and “everyone”, then: I hated learning to drive when I was a teenager because cars are so obviously dangerous, whereas in contrast I’ve loved snakes as far back as I can remember. Go figure.

He says that the fortunes in the I Ching are designed to be able to mean anything because they’re a tool to help you find an answer in yourself, rather than tell you something you didn’t already know (292–93).

He defends giant faceless corporations, which are perennially attacked for bad behavior in the third person plural, by saying that this ubiquitous “they” people are always complaining about are not a bunch of evil masterminds bent on defying common sense and common kindness, they’re individuals who have their own lives and concerns, same as anybody else (322–23). I’ve always felt it’s an abominable failure of imagination at the root of all such vague blaming, and I’m glad someone has put the thought into words. We’d all be better off if we assumed that “they” are people remarkably like “us”.

Crichton’s Paranormal Tales

I’m inclined to believe that Crichton’s paranormal tales are just that: tales. Crichton is an expert author of fiction. Now go on, convince me that these autobiographical stories aren’t also invented, or, more likely, altered, for the sake of entertainment. Occam’s razor says: writers gonna write! Being a storyteller is about telling the most dramatic story you can. Research in the field of psychology indicates that we change the stories we tell about what has happened to us whether we mean to or not. Wouldn’t a novelist be especially prone to making changes?

Crichton’s characteristic anti-establishment stance could explain his interest in paranormal phenomena. Those who play devil’s advocate don’t necessarily have a reason to do so apart from sheer perverseness. “Science doesn’t support the idea of auras? Well,” the logic goes, “maybe they’re real but everyone’s too prejudiced to realize it. So I’ll drop my prejudice and treat them as if they’re real. I’ll be objective.” But you’ve already chosen a side: that of the underdog. After that, confirmation bias ensures that you see what you want to see. Thus it’s entirely possible that Crichton is sincere but misguided in his advocacy.

I am quite hesitant to conclude that “auras are real” or that “Crichton laughed all the way to the bank after selling me a book in which he pretends he thinks auras are real”, but I can easily believe “Crichton saw auras as real because he wanted to, and he wanted to because a lot of people don’t.”

Of course, maybe that’s just my own confirmation bias speaking.

When and Why I Read Travels

I have a whole shelf’s worth of mass-market paperbacks by this big-name author. I’m not sure whether when I bought this one I realized it was non-fiction because the cover makes it look like time-travel sci-fi!

Genre: non-fiction (autobiography)
Date started / date finished:  08-Apr-17 to 10-Apr-17
Length: 417 pages
ISBN: 0345359321 (paperback)
Originally published in: 1988
Amazon link: Travels