Briefly noted: The Death of the Artist, Writers & Lovers, In Search of Mycotopia

* The Science of Making Friends: Perhaps the most useful element of this book isn’t so much in the book itself, but the idea that making friends is 1. a skill that 2. can be practiced and 3. ultimately improved. Taking something that is “intuitive” for most people, and seen as something you’ve either somehow “got” or “don’t” and breaking it into discrete steps has value. The forward notes that “Dr. Liz Laugeson has devoted her career to studying the behaviors that lead to social failure and finding ways to teach alternate ways of acting.” The framing is not ideal for many people—it’s targeting teens or young adults with autism, and their parents—but the basic material is valuable.

I wonder if the rise of smartphones and many hours per day of screen time increases the need for education on “how to interact with people,” since there may be less organic, in-person interaction happening. There are delicate balances to be achieved, too: being too quiet is “weird” but being “hyperverbose, talking incessantly with little notice of the interests of others” is too. We’ve all been around people who appear to take “very little notice of their conversational partner.” What makes those people not realize what they’re doing?

The Science of Making Friends is often too basic—would anyone disagree that “Arguments and disagreements are relatively common among teenagers and young adults?” Aren’t arguments and disagreements common among adults and the elderly, too? Many olds are plenty spicy, with the “don’t-give-a-damn-attitude” that often comes with minimal concern about certain kinds and classes of romantic opportunities. Speaking of, there are some very important but missing ideas in The Science of Making Friends, like the way much conversation is about status (who’s up, who’s down, how can the speaker move up, and so forth) and sex (which is hard to separate from status). Take those out, and what do most people’s conversations consist of? The number of Vaclav Smil fans is small. People love gossip and aren’t nearly as fond of data.

The sections about online socializing are hilariously out of date and bordering on counterproductive. But the ability to attempt to notice what successful people do, and then do that, remains useful.

I wonder what a high school class about “the art and science of social life” would look like; if I were a high school teacher, I might try to find out. The high school curriculum seems peculiarly ossified, perhaps by state and federal mandates, but is there room to try new things?

* The Death of the Artist by William Deresiewicz: A well-written, well-argued book that covers ground that’s too familiar to me, but that would be a great gift to the high school student thinking about going to art school or getting an art degree: at least that student wouldn’t be able to say, in 20 years, “No one warned me.” The number of people, even highly talent and driven people, who make it, is tiny. The famous artists who say “Don’t give up on your dreams” are quoted in admiring profiles; the unfamous artists who can’t pay their rent or child support aren’t quoted in admiring profiles because those profiles don’t exist.

The basic problem with most of the information arts (books, TV, music—everything from pre-social media) is that, now, everything is available. Everyone is competing with everyone: that’s been truer for books than for embodied music or TV or movies, for most of the histories of each medium, but, online, almost every book, TV show, movie, or song ever recorded can be accessed instantaneously. When I write a novel, I’m still competing, in some sense, with Fitzgerald or Carlos Ruiz Zafón or millions of others. TV used to need to fit in a 24-hour day (with only a small slice of that day “prime time”) and movies used to occur only in theaters or on a physical medium. Now, TV and movies are Netflix, and a few other companies. That’s not counting the vast expansion of user-generated media. What’s the artist to do? Being rich is one way. Striking it rich is another, albeit rare. “Marry a rich spouse” is not a good life plan, although I guess it’s nice for those to whom it happens; attempting to engineer it seems to have many costs. Finding a sinecure at a university or other media company was more plausible pre-2009. If you notice the improbability of all these solutions, well, know that Deresiewicz is likely aware of the improbability too.

Some problems have no answers, and an industry’s secular decline is often unanswerable. Advertising revenue will not return to newspapers or local TV. Revenue revenue is unlikely to return to the book or music or movie industries (although music does sell everything in the world except music). TV is doing better than might be expected but that makes it merely a slightly less brutal industry than it used to be. The phrase “learn to code” never appears in the book and yet hovers over it, the invisible angel of the subject matter. The healthcare and tech sectors seem to be infinitely expanding: they’re where the money is. Marc Andreessen said recently:

[Noah Smith]: If you could give some advice — career advice, or otherwise — to a smart 23-year-old American today, what would it be?

[Andreessen]: Don’t follow your passion. Seriously. Don’t follow your passion. Your passion is likely more dumb and useless than anything else. Your passion should be your hobby, not your work. Do it in your spare time.

Instead, at work, seek to contribute. Find the hottest, most vibrant part of the economy you can and figure out how you can contribute best and most. Make yourself of value to the people around you, to your customers and coworkers, and try to increase that value every day.

It can sometimes feel that all the exciting things have already happened, that the frontier is closed, that we’re at the end of technological history and there’s nothing left to do but maintain what already exists. This is just a failure of imagination. In fact, the opposite is true. We’re surrounding by rotting incumbents that will all need to be replaced by new technologies. Let’s get on it.

Good advice. Where is the frontier? It may not be in most of the pre-social-media arts (this is an observation, not a statement of approval).

* Writers & Lovers by Lily King: A well-executed novel, but I’ve read too many novels about writers, although this one warns regarding what being a “writer” is often like: “My loans for college and grad school all went into default when I was in Spain, and when I came back I learned that the penalties, fees, and collection costs had nearly doubled the original amount I owed.” Another character meets “a Milton scholar with excellent posture and a trust fund.” The trust fund is silently behind more grad students than is commonly realized (you’ll notice congruence between The Death of the Artist and themes in Writers & Lovers). The protagonist’s lassitude means she “didn’t mean to move back to Massachusetts, I just had no other plan.” She expresses her “bewilderment at why [a couple getting married] would participate in a hollow, misogynistic ritual that will only end in misery,” showing an incredible lack of imaginative range and insight for someone who is supposed to be a writer.

* In Search of Mycotopia by Doug Bierend: Sounds promising, yet there is a lot of “conversations about social justice” posturing, and statements like “Low-cost mushroom farms can be set up within a matter of weeks, in a wide variety of environments, leading many to see fungi as potential allies in struggles for food security and medicinal sovereignty.” “Food security” compared to what, when? “Medicinal sovereignty” compared to what, when? A fascinating topic marred by such things, to the point that I gave up early. There’s a better book somewhere inside this one.

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