Digital Minimalism — Cal Newport

All of Cal Newport’s books could be titled, “How to Be an Effective Person.” Or, maybe, “How to Be an Effective Person In This Technological Epoch.” Digital Minimalism is, like Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, about why you should quit or drastically limit the digital distractions that have proliferated in much of modern life. To me, it seemed obviously necessary to do so a long time ago, so there’s a large component of preaching-to-the-choir in me reading and now recommending this book. I’m barely on Facebook or most other social networks, which seem anathema to doing anything substantive or important.

A story. A friend sent me an email about Newport’s article “Is email making professors stupid?” I told him that, even in grad school, I’d figured out the problems with email and checked it, typically, once per day—sometimes every other day. The other grad students were in awe of that (low?) rate. I was like, “How do you get any writing done otherwise?” I leave it as an exercise to the reader to square this circle. You may notice that some of my novels are out there and their novels are not.

In my experience, too, most profs actually like the distraction, the work-like feeling without having to do the hard part. In reality, it is not at all hard to open your email every other day and spent 90%+ of your time focused on your work. If you don’t do this, then, as Newport says, “The urge to check Twitter or refresh Reddit becomes a nervous twitch that shatters uninterrupted time into shards too small to support the presence necessary for an intentional life.” And yet many of us, as measured by data, do just that. I buy many of Newport’s arguments while also being skeptical that we’ll see large-scale change. Yet we should seek individual change; many of the online systems are psychologically bad for us:

The techno-philosopher Jaron Lanier convincingly argues that the primacy of anger and outrage outline is, in some sense, an unavoidable feature of the medium: In an open marketplace for attention, darker emotions attract more eyeballs that positive and constructive thoughts. For heavy Internet users, repeated interaction with this darkness can become a source of draining negativity—a steep price that many don’t even realize they’re paying to support their compulsive connectivity.

Is “the primacy of anger and outrage” really “an unavoidable feature?” I like to think not; I like to think that I try to avoid anger and outrage, making those tertiary features at best, and instead I try to focus on ideas and thinking. So I like to think that I’m avoiding those things.

Still, compulsive connectivity online may also be costing us offline, real-world connection. That’s a point in Johann Hari’s book Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression, which you should also read.

The book describes how modern social media systems and apps exploit our desire for random or intermittent positive reinforcement. Because we don’t know what we’re going to get anytime we boot up Twitter or similar, we want to visit those sites more often. We lose perspective on what’s more important—finishing a vital long-term project or checking for whatever the news of the day might be, however trivial. Or seeing random thoughts from our friends. Newport doesn’t argue that we shouldn’t have friends or that social networking systems don’t have some value—he just points out that we can derive a huge amount of the value from a tiny amount of time (“minimalists don’t mind missing out on small things; what worries them more more is diminishing the large things they already know for sure make life good”). But our “drive for social approval” often encourages us to stay superficially connected, instead of deeply connected.

In the book, we also get visits to the Amish, suggestions we take a 30-day break from digital bullshit, and case studies from Newport’s readers. I don’t think “Solitude and Leadership” is cited, but it might as well have been.

Another version of this book might be, “opportunity costs matter.” If there’s anything missing, it’s a deeper exploration of why, if many digital social media tools are bad for us, we persist using them—and what our use may say about us. Perhaps revealed preferences show that most of us don’t give a damn about the intentional life. Probably we never have. Maybe we never will. Arguably, history is a long drive towards greater connectivity, and, if this trend is centuries, maybe millennia, old, we can expect it to continue. Many older religious figures worried deeply that technologies would take people away from their religious communities and from God, and those figures were actually right. Few of us, however, want to go back.

For a book about craft and living an intentional life, the paper quality of this book is oddly bad.

What great writing looks like: “Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb”

In Richard Rhodes’s Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, Rhodes quotes nuclear physicist Rudolf Peierls as saying that “[Traitor and spy Klaus Fuchs] was courteous and even-tempered. He was rather silent, unless one asked him a question, when he would give a full and articulate answer; for this Genia called ‘Penny-in-the-slot.'” That’s on page 57.

On page 175, Rhodes describes the famous Trinity atomic bomb test at Alamagordo, New Mexico, and quotes I. I. Rabi, another physicist, at length. Then Rhodes writes, “Fuchs was there to see the new thing he had caused to proliferate, the new control, but no one put a penny in his slot, so he left no record of how the unique experience affected him.” “No one put a penny in his slot:” the phrase does a lot of deft work in that sentence, pointing to the seeming incuriosity of everyone around Fuchs; to Fuchs’s character itself; to the way he responds rather than initiating (despite him working on atomic weapon initiator design). Rhodes takes what could have been an evocative-but-throwaway line and reconfigures it, connecting the two sections of the book through unusual but suddenly gorgeous language.

Another point about this pairing: it can’t really be generalized to a rule. Few if any writing books advise good writers to call back to an evocative description a hundred pages later, and to do so with an unexpected twist. Rhodes does it. He hits the high note here.

The book itself is about history, technology, politics, human motivation, human character, institutions, industrial organization, and many other topics. He writes, for example, about what made communism attractive to western communists, despite the fact that it doesn’t work. He writes, “Communism in any case was intensely fashionable at English universities between the World Wars.” It seems strange that anyone could have been attracted to Communism; as Stalin’s Great Terror unfolds through the 1930s, it becomes even stranger. Then again, socialism is having a strange vogue today, among people who seem not to quite understand what it entails (one definition, from Apple’s included Oxford American Diction: “a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.”) It’s possible of course for a “community” to own a company today, as with coops, or for individuals to own companies; they just tend to be outcompeted by publicly-owned companies, which ought to tell us something useful.

Still, Communism as a topic remains of interest not so much because of the fact that it fails, but because it could inspire people to betray their own, functional countries in favor of a dystopian hellscape like Soviet Russia. What makes a person do that? What does the motivation of a person doing that tell us about people as a whole, personality as a whole? What makes people choose and advocate for the clearly inferior choice? These are questions without final answers, which makes them interesting.

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe — Chris Taylor

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe isn’t bad but the writer relies overmuch on cliche: “James’s wartime story was enough to make my jaw hit the floor when I met him” or “I must have seen that Star Wars poster a million times.” I kept taking my pen to the book, as there is a better one waiting to unlocked from this one. But the middle section, especially about the creative process that went into Star Wars, is very interesting and even redeeming; the book feels rushed to press, maybe to hit a deadline or because the writer needed the advance money, which is too bad: I’m reminded of Thomas Ricks’ description of the Churchill and Orwell rewrites. Had How Star Wars received the same it might have been a great examination of where art comes from.

Instead, it’s okay, and you have to wade through some tedious chapters. One wishes Taylor had had more time. He loses the war against cliché. He writes of “a genre that liked to recycle plots.” Arguably all plots are recycled, at an appropriate level of abstraction. Famously, few of Shakespeare’s plots are his own. We get many statements about plot like every story being about “A stranger comes to town or someone leave town.”

Some of the best writing comes from others:

Normally, when this most private man [Lucas] goes into public at a press-attended gathering, he wears the face best described by Variety editor in chief Peter Bart, who compared Lucas to a small-town banker: “impeccably polite and implacably distanced, as though fearing you might ask an inappropriate question or request a loan.”

Odd, though, that “editor in chief” isn’t “editor-in-chief,” right?

The close reading of the original script, versus the shooting script, begins on page 111 and continues from there. It’s an impressive section that’s too long to quote, and it’s impressive because of Taylor’s close reading of everything wrong in the original that goes right in the later versions. Lucas’s then-wife, Marcia, played a critical role in the process. Lawrence Kasdan worked on the second two movies. Lucas alone would have created a disaster; he’s like raw iron that needs to be alloyed to create steel. Marcia Lucas and Kasdan helped unlock the good version within; the three “prequel” movies released after the original three were so bad in part because Lucas accepted almost no outside influence and had the money to do whatever he wanted. “Infinite resources” turned out to be a drawback rather than a virtue for him. The parallels between the writing of this book and the making of the movie are notable.

The real question is unanswered, and unanswerable: why did George Lucas do it, and not thousands or millions of others? Why do so many people attempt and fail to do what he did? We don’t find out; likely, we can’t find out.

Here is an article, better written than the book, that covers some of the information. If you deeply like Star Wars or are deeply interested in creative processes (I’d count myself among the latter), this book is for you. Those casually interested in either should read elsewhere.

Good books I read this year

I like “good books I read” as opposed to “books published in 2018,” because if they’re worth reading, they’re probably worth reading regardless of when they happened to be published.

* The Coddling of the American Mind; it’s about some of what’s wrong with American universities, and a lot of what’s wrong with modern parenting, and many other topics besides. A deeper read may reveal that it’s about how to live a good life, like so many books.

* Golden Hill: A Story of Old New York. A hilarious, witty, depressing, and amazing novel that is just the right length and astonishing in its language and plot. I didn’t see the final twist coming, although some friends claim they did. I like the idea of a public repository of “predictions” halfway through a book, as opposed to saying after finishing, “I knew what was going to happen.” Did you? Really?

* Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression. A book congruent with Coddling and, again, about the many bad decisions we’ve made as individuals and societies concerning meaning, connection, growth, and development. Many of us, likely including me, mis-prioritize our time and effort.

* Skin in the Game. Asymmetries in risk profiles affect so many domains; in addition, talk is cheap. Ignore most of what people say and pay attention to what people do. Many of our most fucked-up institutions (schools, hospitals/medical care) have too little or inadequate skin in the game.

* Junkyard Planet. A charming, unexpected book about where our things come from and where they go.

* The Case Against Education. Most of education is about signaling. Once you realize that, many puzzling aspects of the school situation become clearer. Why are so many schools crushingly mediocre, if not outright bad? Why is it not actually important that they get better? Why does every college major take four years? Why do we measure seat time, not learning? Why have so many reforms failed?

* Slutever, the book, a book that some of you will dislike, but also a book that more of you will like than will admit in public. Don’t worry, you can tell Amazon that you plan to read it—Amazon won’t tell. Personally, I like the slightly lurid, throwback-to-the-pulps cover, but if you don’t, there’s a Kindle version you can hide.

* Kingdom of the Wicked: Book One: Rules, which I didn’t technically read this year but I will include it, because you should read it.

* Artemis, about a plausible moon-colony scenario.

* Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue, about a story that is much more interesting than headlines may have led you to believe. It also humanizes many of the figures behind the headlines. “Reality has a lot of detail,” as many of us infovore-types can forget.

* The Seventh Function of Language, a novel meant most for those of you who have spent time in the academic loonybin. If you’re not familiar with the silliness of humanities academia, you likely won’t enjoy it as much. If you have, you’ll likely love it.

* The Black Prince, a novel where all of Iris Murdoch’s preoccupations come together successfully. Push through the first 75 pages. Many of her other novels feel tedious and indulgent to me, but not this one.

* The Lord of the Rings, a novel I re-read periodically and always discover something new.

* The State of Affairs, Esther Perel’s book about infidelity, relationships, and many other topics. This may also be a salient time of year to read the book. As far as I can tell, no one else is doing the kind of work she is doing on and in this topic.

What should I read in 2019? Or tomorrow?

Books versus the Internet

A friend and I were talking about how read fewer books and spend more time online than we used to—a conversation that I’m sure is common among readers of this blog. Before the Internet got good (or bad, depending on your perspective), if you wanted to read something, your only choice was the book or magazine or whatever in front of you. I used to read a lot of not-very-good books because I happened to have them lying around.

Now I don’t do that and I’m much more likely to give up on a book. That just happened to me: I read about 100 pages of Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game and gave up. Ponderous, pointless-seeming, and why bother with it when Twitter is right there? Or, better, yet, Instapaper in conjunction with a Kindle?

There’s some bad in this—I probably don’t finish some books that would turn out to be great—but some good in it, too. People are probably not reading some of the great books they ought to read. But we’re also probably not reading some of the crap that we’d otherwise read because we have it at hand.

To me, now, the biggest problem is finding books worth reading. And some of those appear via Twitter. Others appear in my mailbox, from writers or publishers. Some of them I forget to recommend in turn (I have a half-finished essay on Golden Hill sitting on my computer). The hard part for me is now searching, sorting, and discovering. That ought to give me a stronger impetus to write and finish more of the books that I’d like to read. I think of some books I like and admire (Joe College, Self-Made Man, Perfect Rigor, Love Me Back) that I bought after a single exposure and am so glad I did. How many good books are out there, but I haven’t had that single exposure to them?

A Ladder to the Sky — John Boyle

A Ladder to the Sky is a surprise, and has many mini-surprises in it: I kept almost putting it down, thinking that writers writing about writing has been done too many times. Every time I started to think the novel basic, it confounded me. If you have the “Seen it already” impulse, push through the next 30 pages, as you may be surprised, as I was.

I don’t want to spoil those surprises; if the regular writerly bildungsroman is about books progressively emerging, this one is about the ambition monster getting progressively bigger, like a dragon, until it eats its owner. Or does the owner thrive at the end? I can’t say more here.

The third section is narrated by Maurice’s wife; she’s a writer, too (one possible reading of this novel: writers should spend less time with each other), and has just taken a gig at the University of East Anglia teaching creative writing. She has a Polish student who “just seems to hate everyone, me included. I don’t know why.” Hate is an underrated fuel for art and for achievement more generally. We ought to give it greater respect and pride of place. In today’s twee, overly genteel literary environment that seems impossible, which is part of the reason it’s nice to encounter hate as a motivator in this novel.

“I want to be a success,” the early Maurice Swift says, but it’s an oddly empty formulation, like “I want to be an entrepreneur.” A success—but at what? Measured by who? How? It’s an aspiration too vague to be useful, and maybe even counterproductive: don’t focus on success, focus on what you need to do, today, to achieve it.

Maurice doesn’t, and if he did, there wouldn’t be a novel. Instead, he goes through increasingly gross gyrations to be a “success.”

“A ladder to the sky” is, of course, a ladder to nowhere—which may be what this book is about. It reminds me, in some odd ways, of Clancy Martin’s How to Sell. To sell, first believe the lie. Maurice seems to believe the lie.

There is a lot of “And are you working on anything at the moment, Maurice?” talk. It works, yes, but how about a novel about plumbers? The literary status-jockeying does begin to tire, like a long day of riding horses in a circle. By some point, isn’t it nice to do something else or go somewhere else? It’s tempting to call for a five-year ban of writer-narrators in fiction.

Many of the naive statements are deliberate—they are the statements of naive people, or a naive person—but there are a whole lot of them. Getting A Ladder to the Sky requires at least two readings, though, and that’s one mark of a good book.

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