A list is one thing, but making a map of the books you’ve read often reveals connections between them that you might have missed. (More in Tuesday’s newsletter: “A cluster map of books.”)
A list is one thing, but making a map of the books you’ve read often reveals connections between them that you might have missed. (More in Tuesday’s newsletter: “A cluster map of books.”)
The outside edge of a book’s pages opposite of the spine is called the “fore-edge.” Like many things that are neglected or overlooked, it’s a place of great creative potential. Check out this video with fore-edge painter Martin Frost:
I don’t usually do all that much with the fore-edges of my books, except for my notebooks, which I sometimes index by rubbing ink or pencil over the page edges of some sections and labelling them. (See the logbook above.)
Most recently it occurred to me that I could use fore-edge indexing as a way to track the structure of a book. I was reading a book and it was going splendidly and then all the sudden I got bogged down. I suspected it had something to do with pacing and chapter length. So I did a fore-edge index and soon I had visual evidence of my suspicion: swelling chapters broke up the flow. (I could probably find similar evidence based on where I happened to dog-ear a page.)
This might be a good exercise for writers: make a fore-edge index of some of your favorite books, and see how they are structured and paced. For books that alternate narratives or subjects, you can use different colors. (See above.)
Filed under: marginalia
And here’s Keep Going:
The results are not only funny, they sort of make great summaries for the books.
You can try the tool here.
There is a wonderful 2012 interview with Iain McGilchrist in which he talks about leaving his life as an Oxford literary scholar to become a psychiatrist:
I love literature very much and I found that a lot of the things that I could see were very valuable were very hard to convey once one started taking the thing apart… It seemed to me that people who make works of art, whatever they might be, have gone to great trouble to make something unique which is embodied in the form that it is and not in any other form and that it transmits things that remain implicit. If you explain a joke, you lose a power of it. If you have to explain a poem you’re going to lose a bit of the power of that too. It struck me that there was two or three rather important philosophical points about a work of art, that first of all what it conveyed needed to remain implicit and when you stuck something, yanked it out of context, and stuck it into the middle of the spotlight of attention you actually changed what it was because you hadn’t found out more about what was there in the first place. It needed to be incarnate. I mean, works of art are not just disembodied, entirely abstract, conceptual things. They are embodied in the words they’re in or in paint or in stone or in musical notes or whatever it might be and much of that power and the fact that those things also affect us neurophysicologically. When you read a poem it affects your heart rate, your breathing, you feel things in your bodily frame….
The longer I read, the more I believe that the value of a book, regardless of whether it’s fiction or nonfiction or comics or poetry, is actually in the experience of turning the pages, moving from one sentence to the next, or one panel to the other. How I feel, and what I think about, and where my attention goes. This experience continues throughout the days and nights in between my reading sessions, and, if the book is any good, continues after I have finished the book.
I have noticed a proliferation of book summaries online — blog posts or even whole apps dedicated to extracting the “key insights” from books, attempts to package up the whole by reducing it down to its essentials, its main points. On the one hand, this is nothing new (see: CliffsNotes), but on the other, I think it signals the popularity of a way of reading in which books are mined for nutrients, takeaways, big ideas, etc. In this mode, books — especially nonfiction — are simply containers of “content” that can be packaged in whatever form you like.
It is my opinion that if a book’s contents can be adequately “summed up,” so that you really don’t miss anything by reading the summary, it is not actually a book worth reading. (Of course, there’s no way to tell whether a summary is adequate or not unless you have also read the book.) Also, I suspect that the harder you find it to summarize a book you have read, the more valuable it might be.
The tricky thing here is that the more summarizable the book, the easier it is to market and sell. A book proposal, for example, is simply a summary of a book that doesn’t exist yet. It is the marketing copy before the product is born.
I blame a great deal of the boring books in the world on the very process by which they are published: a summary is presented, it is purchased, the book is written, and if the final book sticks to the summary, everybody is happy.
Now, I used to be a copywriter, so I’m trained to invent summaries. It is very tempting, when I am beginning to work on a book, to start thinking in this summary form: to try to see the “big picture” and the “key ideas” in abstract first.
This is the sensible, professional way of working, but for me it is a kind of creative death, antithetical to the reason I write in the first place: to discover what I know, or discover what I don’t want to know, to invent something on the page that couldn’t exist unless I went to the page to have an experience in the first place.
To put it another way: If a book can be summarized, is it worth writing?
Maybe there’s a third path here. Maybe it’s possible to write something that is easily summarized but impossible to sum up…
Every month I’ll chose a book from an eclectic mix of creative nonfiction, novels, artist memoirs, comics, and more, all of which speak to living a more creative life.
You can choose to get the books mailed to you in a handsome package each month, or pick a digital-only, buy your own book option. Either option gets you access to the Literati app, where our discussion will happen.
The fun begins on June 1st, but you can sign up now.
(Unfortunately, only people in the US can sign up right now. Literati tells me they’re working on international memberships. If you have any more questions, please contact Literati!)
My first pick for the club is How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell.
It was really hard picking the launch book! Like choosing a first song on a mixtape, or the first sentence for a book — you have to set the tone. I wanted a book written by a woman who’s a working artist. The club starts in June, so I wanted a book that was deep, but could also be read on the beach. I wanted a book that’s a little weird but still accessible and I wanted a book that speaks to my belief in the creative power of idleness. (A northern Winter is for hibernation, a southern summer is for estivation.)
When I watched Odell’s original talk in 2017, I knew it could be a good book, but the book took off in a big way. Readers were loving it and sharing it and it was selling well by word-of-mouth, but then Obama named it one of his favorite books of 2019, and eight months after publication it finally hit the NYTimes bestseller list. (For the record, it was on my 2019 list, too.)
A bit of trivia: How To Do Nothing came out in April 2019, the same time that my book Keep Going came out. Jenny and I crossed paths at the very beginnings of our book tours in a morning talk show green room in Portland. We took this selfie together:
Anyways, I like reading books a lot more than I like writing books, so a book club seemed like a great idea.
Books are my creative fuel, and reading is at the very heart of my practice as a writer and an artist. Not many people know this, but I used to work the reference desk in a public library. In many ways, I still feel like a librarian: a big part of the joy of my work is pointing my readers “upstream” to the books I love.
I hope the books I choose will be both useful and beautiful, but most importantly, I hope these books will be fun to read.
I firmly believe that reading should be fun.
(And, again, if you have any questions, please contact Literati!)
There’s old book smell and then there’s moldering in a smoker’s basement old book smell. For the latter, I find an afternoon splayed out in sunshine and fresh air will do wonders. Wouldn’t try it on any rare or delicate books, but for the merely out-of-print stuff I have to buy used, it’ll do. (I usually spend my days avoiding the Texas sun, but it has its uses.)
“It isn’t that people are mean or cruel. They’re just busy. Nobody wants to read your shit.”
I posted this innocuous photo of our living room bookshelves the other day and people started asking me all kinds of questions, like, “How do you organize your books?” (I don’t) and “What’s the book you gift the most?”
Sacrilegious for someone of my profession to say, maybe, but I don’t like giving people books unless they’re 1) books they’ve asked for 2) really nice editions of books they already love. Otherwise, it feels like giving someone work. “Did you read that book I gave you yet?!?” (You, though, you should buy lots of my books and gift them indiscriminately. Ha!)
Reading a book requires, by today’s dismal standards, an enormous investment of time and attention, and the writer either honors that investment or suffers the consequences. (As Vonnegut told us, a writer has to be “a good date.”)
In the first major interview with legendary comedy writer John Swartzwelder, “sage of The Simpsons,” he says:
Nobody wants to read a book. You’ve got to catch their eye with something exciting in the first paragraph, while they’re in the process of throwing the book away. If it’s exciting enough, they’ll stop and read it. Then you’ve got to put something even more exciting in the second paragraph, to suck them in further. And so on. It’s exhausting for everybody, but it’s got to be done.
But if you know you have to honor the reader’s time and attention with “good” work, how do you ever get the guts to sit down and write?
That is the whole trouble.
Swartzwelder suggests working with time, and the overnight magic of put it in the drawer, and walk out the door:
I do have a trick that makes things easier for me. Since writing is very hard and rewriting is comparatively easy and rather fun, I always write my scripts all the way through as fast as I can, the first day, if possible, putting in crap jokes and pattern dialogue—“Homer, I don’t want you to do that.” “Then I won’t do it.” Then the next day, when I get up, the script’s been written. It’s lousy, but it’s a script. The hard part is done. It’s like a crappy little elf has snuck into my office and badly done all my work for me, and then left with a tip of his crappy hat. All I have to do from that point on is fix it. So I’ve taken a very hard job, writing, and turned it into an easy one, rewriting, overnight. I advise all writers to do their scripts and other writing this way. And be sure to send me a small royalty every time you do it.
As the interviewer, Mike Sacks, summarized the method: “Create an imperfect world and then improve it.”
Okay, now I’m off to make something bad that I will fix later!
In his latest newsletter, my friend Alan Jacobs notes that Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary is now fully online, and points to his 2006 piece, “Bran Flakes and Harmless Drudges: Dr. Johnson and his Dictionary,” in which he recounts much of Johnson’s struggle putting together his book of words. (I was particularly sympathetic to Johnson’s disgust at his own “idleness” while holding a firm conviction that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” I do love a man who contains multitudes… especially multitudes who hate each other.)
At the very end of the piece, Alan writes about the magic of paper dictionaries (emphasis mine):
Surely every user of dictionaries or encyclopedias can recall many serendipitous discoveries: as we flip through pages in search of some particular chunk of information, our eyes are snagged by some oddity, some word or phrase or person or place, unlooked-for but all the more irresistible for that. On my way to “serendipity” I trip over “solleret,” and discover that those weird, broad metal shoes that I’ve seen on the feet of armored knights have a name. But this sort of thing never happens to me when I look up a word in an online dictionary. The great blessing of Google is its uncanny skill in finding what you’re looking for; the curse is that it so rarely finds any of those lovely odd things you’re not looking for. For that pleasure, it seems, we need books.
Fifteen years later, this is no less true: the magic of a paper dictionary is the magic of finding things you didn’t know you were looking for. It’s a magic that electronic texts, for all their usefulness and convenience, still haven’t touched.
The supposed “shortcomings” of paper are what, in fact, make it such a wonderful technology. Here’s Alan, again (with emphasis mine, again):
George Landow has written that “the linear habits of thought associated with print technology often force us to think in particular ways that require narrowness, decontextualization, and intellectual attenuation, if not downright impoverishment.” But it turns out that, when it comes to dictionaries anyway, it’s hypertext that narrows and impoverishes. The simple fact that I cannot pick up a dictionary and turn to the precise page I wish, or, even if I could do that, focus my eyes only on the one definition I was looking for — the very crudity, as it were, of the technology is what enriches me and opens my world to possibilities.
Get your paper dictionary today! You shan’t regret it.
Here is an idea I love that may or may not be true:
Some books have a centripetal force— they suck you in from other books.
Some books have a centrifugal force — they spin you out to other books.
Moby-Dick, for example, is a book whose force seems to me centripetal: after being pointed to it by other books, I found myself returning to it, again and again. It sucks me in.
The Writer’s Map, on the other hand, a glorious current read of mine, is a book whose force feels centrifugal: two chapters in, and I already have a long list of books and to chase down. It spins me out.
Both kinds of books can be extremely valuable to the reader, and I don’t think one kind is necessarily better than the other. I’m also not sure that these forces are objectively observed. One reader’s centripetal book could be another’s centrifugal, and vice versa. It’s also possible that a book can both suck you in and spin you out.
This, by the way, is not an original theory of mine. I first heard it from my friend Matt Thomas, over a decade ago. “Good movies, I find, are centrifugal,” he once tweeted. “That is, they spin you out—to other movies, ideas, art, people.” He’s also tweeted that he finds Facebook centripetal (it sucks you in) and Twitter centrifugal (it spins you out).
I asked Matt where he got this idea, of media with centripetal and centrifugal forces, and he pointed me to Susan Douglas’s book about radio, Listening In. I searched the whole book and only found this reference:
“Listening, argues one researcher on perception, “is centripetal; it pulls you into the world. Looking is centrifugal; it separates you from the world.”
(This passage speaks to Murray Schafer on sound, but that’s for another blog post.)
Again, I don’t want to place a value judgment on a book based on its centripetal or centrifugal force, but I do think that a centrifugal book can be of lesser quality and still retain its value, as its value is found in the things it spins you out to.
Matt suggested to me that there’s a third category of work: the work that doesn’t spin you at all, the work that doesn’t move you in any direction, the work that barely has any force to it.
These books are to be avoided.
What a completely bleak winter. Good riddance. Life always feels a little bit more tolerable when you have a good book to read, and here are 10 books that helped me through, listed in the order I read them:
The Biggest Bluff
A writer who’s never played poker before learns the game and becomes a champion. Maria is a friend of mine, and I could be making this up, but it feels like one of those books where an author is coming into her peak skills while also finding a perfect subject for those skills. The mantra from Maria’s mentor, poker legend Erik Seidel, is perfect for our times: “Less certainty, more inquiry.”
“The Plague Year”
Not a book… yet. 30,000 absolutely riveting words in The New Yorker, one of only a handful of times the magazine has devoted so much space to one piece. Wright is the perfect writer for the job, here: he wrote a pandemic novel that came out a month after lockdown began in the U.S. Wright is expanding the material into a book coming out this summer. (His book God Save Texas was on my favorites of 2019 list.)
A Theory of Fun for Game Design
This was a new experience for me: I don’t think I’ve ever been more turned off by the design of a book (crude drawings and pesky endnotes) while simultaneously devouring it. “Fun is just another word for learning,” Koster writes. His definition of a good game is “one that teaches everything it has to offer before the player stops playing.” (I wonder if we can apply that to books: A good book is one that teaches everything it has to offer before the reader stops reading. I like that.)
The Poetics of Space
“It is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality.” One of those infuriating books that lose you for a few pages and you start skimming and the very second you’re about to put it down and read something else, a sparkling gem of a sentence appears that you double-underline and scribble in your commonplace book, and gets you to start reading again.
One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder
A posthumous collection of an author I wish I’d read when he was alive. Maybe my favorite thing I read all winter. I savored a handful of essays each night in bed. If you’re new to his work, try his ode to the heart, “Joyas Voladoras,” or “The Greatest Nature Essay Ever.” There’s a big archive of his at The American Scholar. (Recommended to me by a newsletter reader. Thanks, Cate!)
No One Is Talking About This
“You’ll be nostalgic for this, too, if you make it.” Think about how hard this is to pull off: a poet writes a bestselling memoir and then follows it up with a novel. (Priestdaddy was on my favorites of 2018, and I expect this to be on my favorites of 2021.) One of the most original writers of our generation. I will be instantly reading whatever she writes next.
Too Loud a Solitude
The Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal once worked as a trash compactor, and, according to the critic James Wood, he “rescued books from the compacting machine and built a library of them in the garage of his country cottage outside Prague.” He based his wild, short novel on his experiences, giving them to the fictional narrator, Hanta, who says he “can’t quite tell which of my thoughts come from me and which from my books.” (Same.)
In Praise of Shadows
The shortest book on this list, coming in at barely 50 pages. Written by a novelist and first published as an essay in Japanese before WWII. My favorite part is when he writes about the aesthetics of Japanese toilets. Seems like it might be a “problematic” text these days, but it gave me a lot to think about. (Recommended to me by an architect friend. Would pair well with Koren’s Wabi-Sabi.)
My third-favorite Hickey collection after Air Guitar and Pirates and Farmers. I read an essay for dessert after lunch each day for a few weeks. There are some really excellent essays here, but they’re mostly front-loaded at the beginning of the book. (I picked this up after reading a galley of Far From Respectable: Dave Hickey and His Art.)
Parable of the Sower
A dark, brilliant page-turner and very hard to read right now, given that it feels like we’re living in the prequel.
“There is no end
To what a living world
Will demand of you.”
(I wrote more about the book here.)
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