Category Archives: Reading

Magic and Loss

Magic and Loss: The Internet as ArtMagic and Loss: The Internet as Art by Virginia Heffernan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I decided to read this after hearing the author on the Recode Media podcast and reading some of her shorter pieces in the Times over the years. There’s a lot to think about in Magic & Loss – I enjoyed the lucid language and often insightful commentary. The homage to the death of the telephone was wonderful, and the quick take on ‘science’ writing in the mainstream media was funny – but there were also a share of flimsy moments (did she really just try to summarize a billion photographs on Flickr by talking about the style of two users?) I found myself occasionally waiting for more substantive technical discussion (maybe I’m conditioned to expect it in any writing about the internet) but I guess the ‘internet as art’ premise doesn’t leave room for grubby engineering stuff. Unfortunately, the end of the book veered into esoteric academia. It’s impressive to see someone versed as equally in obscure Youtube clips as they are in Wittgenstein, but wrapping the book’s closing chapters in personal academic history (something about Tweeting to a physics professor?) left me feeling disconnected. I may eventually give this book another try, but next time I’ll go for the text (instead of the audiobook) so I can pause and follow up on the many arcane references.

Freedom, Concrete Island, & Richistan

The three books I’ve finished in the last few days initially seem disparate in theme, but if I dig, I might find a way to associate them and forge a coincidence in completing them around the same time. For some reason each of their unique stories caught my attention, after all. It’s a fun game to pick out three diversely categorized books and try to connect the dots between them, reading each at a completely different pace, thinking about them as various events unfold in my own life, and maybe looking for similarities I wouldn’t otherwise have been interested in. This fumbling investigation is the side effect of having no structured agenda when I decide which book to pick up on any afternoon.

On the surface, the novel Freedom is a long and gossipy portrait of modern love and grief in post-9/11 America, and Concrete Island walks the line of science fiction with the tale of a man stranded between two highways after crashing his car. The argument against looking for coherence in the works is sound; they are set in different times at different places, one spanning over twenty years of events and the other just a few days, one deeply probing the psychology of an entire extended family, the other acting as witness to the brute actions of three strangers. The reportage of Richistan further eschews comparison, it is a colorful piece of long-form journalism chronicling the lives of 21st century America’s newly minted (and apparently plentiful) million-and-billionaires.

The only theme that seems to flow through all the works is money. The power and appeal of wealth is explored in Freedom through Walter and Joey Berglund, who both seem to find their titular ‘freedom’ by providing financially for their family. In Freedom money is both gift and curse, leading to Walter’s moonshot political and romantic disasters, but also to the construction of Joey’s sense of moral responsibility. Contrarily in Concrete Island, money is dissolute. The wealthy architect on his way home from an illicit rendezvous ends up a lost soul stranded on a traffic island: as he nears death, he’s seen throwing greasy bank notes into the air like confetti as he tries to persuade an unsympathetic vagrant hobo to help him escape.

Richistan could be seen as expressing both the positive and negative ideas from Freedom and Island’s fictional narratives: in some interviews, the nouveau riche paint a disorderly picture of affluence by describing their lost sense of identity, responsibility, and common connection with society; in other chapters the prosperous subjects are seen as icons of decency who channel their fortunes into charity, or back into the markets from which it came.

One of my peeves with Freedom was the hunch that Joey Berglund was an unbelievable character. Hardly a freshman in college, he was brokering million dollar arms deals with weapons contractors in post-9/11 Iraq, despite otherwise being described as a generally ‘chill’ stoner who spent all his time chasing girls. Yet in Concrete Island, what hooked my attention was that the apparently ridiculous and impossible scenario of the main character Maitland being trapped on a traffic island in the middle of the city of London was actually written to be a completely coherent and believable situation.

So in one case, there’s a character who the author wants to be believable, but isn’t. In the other, there’s a character who the author can’t expect to be taken seriously, but who I actually did. Maybe it’s this inconsistently plausible complexion in fiction that drives me to also read books like Richistan, which takes no liberties of imagination with its subjects, only laying out facts about living, verifiable people.

The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up

It was the never-discarded trail of breadcrumbs left behind by my browsing on Amazon.com that led to Marie Kondo’s “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” getting stuffed in a cardboard box and mailed to my apartment. With precision, Amazon remembers everything I’ve ever looked at, how long I looked at it for, and what I looked at next. It really wouldn’t benefit them to “tidy up” that history, nor would it anyone else who is enamored with the idea of “big data” and harvesting trends from massive collections of information.

So it’s in this age of everything digital lasting forever, and giant mountains of digital ’stuff’ being heralded as the holy grail of information, that a book about throwing things away has become an international bestseller.

Despite the celebrated promise of data hoarding, my past browsing led the magical website to believe that a book about cleaning (or ’tidying’ as Kondo calls it) was something I’d be interested in. The machine recommendeth, and I taketh away.

I’ve never paid much attention to cleaning. When I was a teenager, the floor of my bedroom often wasn’t visible beneath all the piles of crap that I had accumulated. It’s not something the average guy considers a skill – house cleaning just doesn’t have the panache of most other activities that one can get better at with practice or study. I’ve improved since I was young, but flotsam still collects in my wake and lives on in my closets. A giant styrofoam donut, ancient t-shirts, graduation cap & gown, nine year old pay-stubs. Things I haven’t touched or thought of in ages.

Kondo has a very simple philosophy: Take stock of every single thing you own. Touch each thing with your hands, and ask yourself if it gives you joy. If it gives you joy, keep it. If it doesn’t, get rid of it.

This might seem pretty vague. Whether not a thing is “giving me joy” doesn’t seem like a quantifiable measurement, and at first I didn’t expect the process would produce any results. But surprisingly, as I began going through my closet, touching things one-at-a-time made a tremendous difference in my ability to calculate that thing’s worth. Just glancing at a pile of books on the floor, or pausing to stare for a moment into the closet doesn’t call up the value of each item as plainly as if they’re picked up and handled individually.

In a single morning I filled eight trash bags with clothes ready for donation. My wardrobe now takes up about half the space that it did, and I feel confident that I would actually wear every single article I made a thoughtful decision to keep. Magic, indeed.

But life-changing? Like the measurement of whether or not an object gives you joy, to determine if something has “changed your life” is subjective. To really be “life-changing” like book’s title suggests, this exercise in “tidying” would have to affect the possessions that I really cherish, and that take up the most space – books.

For the last decade (or at least since Amazon Prime was invented) the size of my book collection has increased indiscriminately, annexing ever more space in my apartment. It is absurdly easy to have a passing curiosity, and two days later receive four books about it in the mail. Against this front, I waged a campaign to lighten my shelves.

When I was finished, I had four boxes to donate at the local Goodwill store. They weren’t full of garbage, or torn paperbacks, or comics. (I actually haven’t gotten to Kondo’ing my comics yet – that will be a true test.) I felt good driving away from the donation drop-off, thinking that I made an effort to stop hoarding information that I’m not using, and instead passing it to someone who couldn’t afford it otherwise.

On books, Kondo writes “their true purpose is to be read, to convey information to their readers. It’s the information they contain that has meaning. There is no meaning in their just being on your shelves.” Simple explanations like this are abundant in the short book, and true to her philosophy, she even recommends getting rid of it after you’re finished, or until you no longer need to reference the information it holds.

Cleaning has never seemed like it supported any philosophy to me. It has always just been an a banal domestic time-suck. But this book frames tidying in such a way that it can not only make your house look nicer, but make everything in life feel a bit fresher.

“By putting our house in order, we can live in our natural state. We choose those things that bring us joy and cherish what is truly precious in our lives. Nothing can bring greater happiness than to be able to do something as simple and natural as this.”

Bright Sided

Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. Barbara Ehrenreich. Picador, 2010.

Twenty seconds before I sat with this book for the first time and saw the opening chapter’s title, ‘Smile or Die,’ an acquaintance walked by and saw me in my harried, just come in from the cold state, and said – “Hey, man, Smile!”

So the context I’m working from is one where I have a very immediate sense that Ehrenreich is looking at real attitudes that exist everywhere around me: Smiling is Happy. Happy is Good. Good is Mandatory. 

I was attracted to ‘Bright Sided’ because I knew it would take on ‘positive psychology,’ and propose that ‘thinking good thoughts’ is more delusional than anything else. As I’ve written before, I have personally benefited from learning about positive psychology – the ‘What Went Well’ exercise had a tangible effect on my life. 

Ehrenreich believes that focusing on what’s good and going well is selling ourselves short – whether it be through academia, as in the case of positive psychology, or whether it’s through an American megachurch, a corporate team-building exercise, or even a breast cancer support group. 

Books like ‘the Secret’ and motivational coaches like Tony Robbins are identified as the latest manifestations of a long-held American tradition of optimism, going back to the refutation of Calvinism in the 19th century. ‘The Secret’ draws significant reproach, for its blatant resemblance to magic and mysticism – its central tenet that ‘desire’ leads directly to ‘ownership’ leaves Ehrenreich incredulous that such crap could receive acceptance and be celebrated by the American public. While ‘the Secret’ and several of her other targets are probably worthy of some ridicule, I was also frequently left thinking… “What a grumpy woman!”

Ehrenreich spends hundreds of pages hacking away at the foundations of positive thought-groups, beginning with her personal experience of breast cancer diagnosis, which piqued her interest in whether or not ‘staying positive’ had any real or lasting purpose. She dives into the science, brushing off what discourages her argument and championing any studies that support it.

The book finishes by blaming the economic crash of 2007 on the positivity-fueled and motivational-poster-dependent managers of corporate America, who had they not been busy with motivational speakers, life coaches, and positive thinking would have surely anticipated and prevented the housing bubble that caused market collapse. 

A succinct summarization of Ehrenreich’s theory is written in the closing paragraph: “The threats we face are real and can be vanquished only by shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world.” 

In other words: She is very positive about how bad it is to be positive. 

On Finding Brian Writing

Brian Writing has moved!

You can now find me at http://www.brian.digital/writing

I switched from living on wordpress.com to managing a self-hosted site. Hopefully this doesn’t cause any headaches – I think I crossed all the T’s and dotted all the I’s, so you should still find me in your WordPress readers or email inboxes, if you are a subscriber. And Bonus! No more ads!

All the old posts are also still available, so maybe use this update as a reminder to go digging through the archives while I come up with something new to write about.

-Brian

 

 

on ‘The End of Absence’

“I fear we are the last of the daydreamers. I fear our children will lose lack, lose absence, and never comprehend its quiet, immeasurable value.”  –  The End of Absence

Many children this winter, especially in Boston, are having days off from school because of the weather. They’re being ‘absent.’ I used to love being ‘absent,’ on snow days. There was a peculiar isolation in it, a kind of detachment that’s almost impossible to reproduce now. This winter, those kids in Boston are having an entirely different ‘absence.’ They’re not absent in the way that I used to be absent.

The End of Absence by Michael Harris is another book about the internet and how modern technology is changing the human experience. I keep reading books like this. Most of them have a pessimistic take on what it all means, and the fact that I spend many evenings reading stuff like this is at least moderately contrary to the fact that I spend all my days getting paid to embrace it. That’s going to have to wait for another blog post.

So, is this particular work saying something of significance, that other books like ‘The Circle,’ ‘The Shallows,’ or ‘You are Not a Gadget‘ hasn’t said already? Maybe, maybe not. They’re all reminders that this isn’t a localized phenomenon – everybody’s feeling it.

The book starts with a summary of ‘kids these days,’ laments how no one reads anymore, and guesses that due to the changing nature of communication and availability, neuroplacticity will turn our brains to puddles. The internet has led us to a permanent state of ‘continuous partial attention’ and we should be adequately concerned. One dramatic statistic claims that if you’re over thirty, you’re probably having just as many electronic interactions as you are physical ones. This is particularly difficult, because if you’re over thirty, you’re also old enough to remember when this wasn’t even possible, and be bewildered at what things have become.

So, what are the products of ‘continuous partial attention?’ We’re confessing a lot of stuff, writes the author: “it often seems natural, now, to reach for a broadcasting tool when anything momentous wells up.” Why does that matter? Because it’s apparently made us all think we’re celebrities. The findings of a study of 3000 parents in Britain was cited:

“the top three job aspirations of children today are sportsman, pop star, and actor. Twenty-five years ago, the top three aspirations were teacher, banker, and doctor.”

The technology enables our banalities to become public performance, so public performers we (or our children) want to be.

In addition to our newly permanent residence in a virtual confessional booth, we’re also all experts now. The expression of public opinion is no longer filtered, edited, and perfected before presentation by trained editors. Some validations are in place to prevent complete falsities to spread in places like Wikipedia and Yelp, but those forums are just too big to moderate efficiently. Bullshit abounds. Bullshit is what happens when someone is forced to talk about something that they don’t know anything about, and it exists everywhere, now that everyone is encouraged to be an ‘expert’ and rewarded for their ‘competence’ by likes, comments, re-tweets, etc.

Bullshit proliferation leads into the next problem created by the ‘end of absence’ – Authenticity. The author makes an interesting point about how ‘young, moneyed people’ have made the ‘re-folking’ of life a priority – think Mumford & Sons. The IFC show Portlandia has been awkwardly successful at satirizing and celebrating this kind of ‘return to roots’ culture, where after decades of fast food, people now want to know what kind of farm their dinner was raised on; or in the midst of the digital technology era, ‘steam-punk’ advocates rebel and hold intensely serious seminars. The fetishization of the ‘authentic’ – record players and ‘old-fashioned’ moustache wax – is ‘the exception that proves the rule,’ according to the author.

Between all our confessing, expertise-sharing, and bullshit spewing, we hardly have the attention for anything else. In the chapter on ‘Attention,’ and its recent universal obliteration, the author documents his attempt to read ‘War & Peace’ with the tone of someone trying to swim to the moon. He eventually finishes reading the novel, but not without claiming that he’s alienated himself from everyone and everything he knows in the process.

A few more chapters about erosion of ability to memorize, and the ‘permanent bathhouse’ state of mind afflicting online romance-seekers, lead up to the book’s final act – the author attempts a temporary return to absence. His phone duct-taped to a table, internet connection severed, kooky old neighbors visited for coffee – he makes a valiant effort to go back in time, to when people could be ‘unavailable.’ No one ends up homeless or murdered, but the experiment reads dangerously close to the irrevocable shattering of domestic tranquility between the author and his partner.

Following the toe-dip experiment in returning to absence, the book’s final lesson is this:

“Just as Thoreau never pretended that cutting out society entirely was an option— and never, as a humane person, wanted to be entirely removed— we shouldn’t pretend that deleting the Internet, undoing the online universe, is an option for us. Why would we, after all, want to delete, undo, something that came from us? It bears repeating: Technology is neither good nor evil. The most we can say about it is this: It has come. Casting judgments on the technologies themselves is like casting judgment on a bowl of tapioca pudding. We can only judge, only really profit from judging, the decisions we each make in our interactions with those technologies.”

– The End of Absence 

ICYMI

I can sense the ‘cycle’ of news media as this rotating blob, tucked just inside a massive doorway, and the moment one tries to step away from it, a persistent wind continues pushing it closer and closer.

It’s unavoidable – even consciously trying to decide that I’m not ready to jump back in after a break, I can’t go anywhere without incidentally grazing the ‘rotating media blob’. I visualize it like Slimer from Ghostbusters, or the big ancient space portal in Stargate – in the case of Slimer, you’re not going to outrun it – and in the case of Stargate, you’ve gotta step through, just because it’s there.

In the waiting room at the dentist’s office, CNN blares the sound of gunshots in Paris. At home, my dormant iPad pushes alerts of Academy Award nominations; newspapers collect at the front door, and restaurants everywhere are painted with televisions that shower everyone passing by with what’s ‘happening.’

Picture of Slimer

Slimer

On the last day of my recent vacation an article was sent to me describing the ‘In Case You Missed It’ (ICYMI) phenomenon and how it has become a kind of permanent purgatory for modern information consumers (anyone in the world with a phone or laptop.)  (“The Unending Anxiety of an ICYMI World,” John Holcroft, NYT)

Looking at the concept from the distance of having spent seven days alternating between a black sand beach and the cloudy rainforest, I could relate to the feeling of an itch that I had ‘missed something,’ but I felt no urgency or responsibility to catch up. It seemed that ICYMI only matters if you’re already ‘locked in.’

Each time the media blob brushes against my sleeve as I try to pass by it, I know that once I fully submit to the cycle, I’ll be pulled back in, and things will start to ‘matter’ again. Far away political events, trivial details of the intellectual arts, and incomprehensible fractions of data concerning the world economy will all congeal and form an awkward, incalculable load balanced across my knuckles as they hunch over their keyboard habitat.

It felt wonderful for just a few days to leave that all behind, and to truly participate in the real world and people who are actually present – instead of expending mountains of energy trying to ‘catch up’ on everything I’m ‘missing.’

Creativity and Daily Rituals

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Mason Currey. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.

Reading Daily Rituals, an atlas of anecdotes regarding the daily tics of well known intellectuals, has given me pause to think about my own idiosyncrasies. Am I repeating actions habitually without realizing it? Do I have better days when I follow a routine?

Coincidentally many of the famously creative people and their quirks share a common thread. Historically writers, painters, architects and their ilk seem to have had a few oft-employed strategies for balancing their burdens. Walking and solitude were critical in the schedules of the great thinkers, who all seemed to champion their restorative and catalytic powers.

Beethoven took his strolls after a ‘midday dinner,’ while Freud ‘marched at a terrific speed’ after his evening meal. At two o’clock in the afternoon, Dickens promptly left his desk for a vigorous three-hour walk, doing what he described as ‘searching for some pictures I wanted to build upon.’ Darwin was known to walk three times a day.

Unsurprisingly, many of the subjects couldn’t get anything done without solitude. In middle age, Tchaikovsky moved to a tiny village miles away from Moscow where he said “What a bliss to know that no one will come to interfere with my work, my reading, my walks.” Leo Tolstoy was known for locking the doors to every room adjoining his study in order to keep distractions at bay.

Mark Twain Statue in Fort Worth, Texas

Mark Twain had a small separate study built on his property, where his writing consumed him such that his family ‘would blow a horn if they needed him.’ It wasn’t only men who found solace in isolation – Georgia O’Keefe told an interviewer, ‘My pleasant disposition likes the world with nobody in it.’ (She also walked for a half-hour every morning.)

Less agreed upon than long strolls and silence was the level of persistence and doggedness one should have in their habits. Some, such as Alexander Graham Bell, chose endurance: he reportedly worked around the clock, allowing himself only three or four hours sleep a night. A family member remarked of him,

‘When in the throes of a new idea, he pleaded with his wife to let him be free of family obligations; sometimes, in these states, he would work for up to twenty-two hours straight without sleep.’

Similarly, Nikoli Tesla had several odd tendencies, like re-polishing the silverware before he dined in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel every evening – but none of his conventions matched in uniqueness the work schedule he kept, from 10:30 in the morning until 5:00 the following morning.

Some creatives had a less tenacious approach.

Goethe remarked, ‘My advice… is that one should not force anything; it is better to fritter away one’s unproductive days and hours, or sleep through them, than to try at such times to write something which will give one no satisfaction later on.’

Sharing Goethe’s sentiment, the notoriously slow writer Joseph Heller once said ‘I don’t have a compulsion to write, and I never have. I have a wish, an ambition to write, but it’s not one that justifies the word ‘drive.’

Cubicles are Bullshit

There is a place inside every American middle and high school that misbehaving students are sent for rehabilitation. It’s called ‘In-School Suspension,’ or I.S.S.

The method of this punishment is that unruly kids are taken out of regular classrooms and placed in a quiet room with desks that have ‘privacy’ walls – the idea being that if they can’t see other students they won’t be provoked to interact with them and disrupt the teacher’s authority.

An enforcer sits in the room, overseeing everyone to make sure they aren’t just sleeping. Actual school work is expected to be completed during this time.

What no one tells these kids, as they sit in I.S.S., is that they are getting a lesson of much greater utility than they realize – they’re being taught how to sit in a cubicle, which very many of them will inevitably end up doing once they become adults.

As far as interior design goes, the differences between sitting in I.S.S. and working in a cubicle are extraordinary. By extraordinary, I mean extraordinarily similar.

Here’s a picture of the office at the New York Times in Manhattan.

Desks at The New York Times, Manhattan.

Desks at The New York Times, Manhattan.

Here’s a picture of some kids serving In School Suspension in Minnesota.

Students serving In School Suspensions, Minnesota.

Students serving In School Suspensions, Minnesota.

For the last few weeks I’ve been trying to read the wonderful book that Nikil Saval has written about the history of the workplace, ‘Cubed.‘ His meticulous research traces back the initial transition of an industrial society that produces material goods to an informational one that produces services and knowledge. He recounts the American movement out of factories and into the office.

Unfortunately, lost in this beneficial transition was an equally evolved concept of the physical spaces in which employees worked.

As I make my way through page after page of examples leading to the obvious conclusion that cubicles are bullshit, I find myself struggling with the slog to the book’s end. Not because it’s a bad book – it’s a fantastic book – but because I know how it ends.

It ends with me sitting in a cubicle.

to Fiction or Not to Fiction?

The Daily Post asks – which do I prefer, fiction or non-fiction?

I’ve been reading much more non-fiction lately than its counterpart, but an admission of habit doesn’t consummate an endorsement. Instead of my undergraduate idols like Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Twain, Calvino and Delillo, now my reading pile is full of business and political biographies, philosophy, psychology, and software development manuals.

What gives? I can’t explain the transition, other than hinting that I don’t get paid to read novels, whereas skills or ideas I pick up from non-fiction have a chance of application in my working life. It’s a cheap premise, and I shudder to think I’ve unwittingly given up on the textured experiences of reading make-believe for the slim chance that I might find better financial rewards elsewhere. Reading non-fiction doesn’t also conclude I’ve disowned creativity – the best works of non-fiction can expose an unbelievable universe just as well as Tolkien can.

Fiction might be a little more ‘dangerous’ to read, in the sense that I don’t know how deeply affected I’ll be by the time I turn the final page. That could be why I’ve been skimping on it.

Non-fiction feels safer in the way of its predictability. A work of fiction might promise a simple narrative, but underneath the story of a kid floating down the Mississippi on a raft is a byzantine world of emotions, culture, desires and fears.

With some exceptions, non-fiction doesn’t usually offer characters that might confront my understanding of the world and run contrary to it. In fiction (good fiction) characters are explored beyond black & white existence, inhabiting a murkier grey area in which good and bad can cohere. Characters make decisions that expose moral puzzles, and the reader can be left confused about where to place sympathy. Non-fiction is usually much clearer about who its villains are.

Non-fiction opens slowly before it presents a challenge, and usually attempts to uncover a solution or display rationale before it finishes. Fiction often does the opposite; it begins with picture of stability, then transforms it into chaos, quitting haltingly just after the highest point of drama and leaving me to come to conclusions independently.

The authors of non-fiction (at least the kind I’ve been reading lately, and not the creative non-fictionists of the Wolfe and Mailer school) indirectly impress upon readers the idea that their subjects are under control, figured out, and ready for clear-eyed examination. The writers of fiction don’t dare to be as presumptuous, they are more likely to say ‘here is what exists, judge it as you wish.’

Of course there are exceptions to my generalization. There exists non-fiction which is just as challenging and open to interpretation as a novel, and there is some very bad fiction which is utterly thoughtless and predictable. The problem is that when non-fiction leaves its thesis open to analysis, it is much less entertaining than the same experience or idea presented in a fictional format – and when fiction is predictable, the time spent with it could have been made more prosperous by examining the monotony of the real world, instead.