"Why do you write about books?"

A friend asked the question that formed the title of this post, and I gave her a half-formed answer. I’d like to give a three-quarter-formed answer, since I don’t think anyone can get more than maybe 90% of the way to one:

1) The most obvious and true answer is fairly high level and not useful: I like doing it. People who like doing something tend to do it, and I suspect the doing it will, over time, make them better at it. The leading practitioners in virtually any field appear to really like what they’re doing. Although I won’t call myself a leading practitioner of book blogging, doing it probably makes me a better writer than I’d be otherwise. Judging by search engine traffic and the number of subscribers, at least some number of people find this blog useful.

2) To work through my own sense of what works and doesn’t in novels. If you’re a novelist or would-be novelist, a lot of your criticism says as much about your own aesthetics and ideas as it does about the works you’re discussing. In The Shadow of the Wind, Nuria Monfort says, “Julián had once told me that a story is a letter the author writes to himself, to tell himself things that he would be unable to discover otherwise.” That’s also true of many bloggers.

3) To figure out what I really think about a book. One often learns by writing. This is (part of the reason) why schools assign essays and why academics are required to publish. When you write, you don’t merely record what you already think; you discover new things that you didn’t think, or didn’t realize that you thought. Think of Paul Graham in “The Age of the Essay:” “Expressing ideas helps to form them. Indeed, helps is far too weak a word. Most of what ends up in my essays I only thought of when I sat down to write them. That’s why I write them.”

4) To help other people figure out what they should read or use and why. My biggest challenge these days is probably finding enough time to read things I want to read. Related to that challenge is deciding what’s worth reading. Other people’s blogs and sites and advice help me with this, so I’d like to help others in turn. I can read an 800-word book review in a couple minutes. A 300-page book takes much longer, if it’s even worth trying. The magazine n+1 published an interesting and wrong piece called “Against Reviews that says, “[O]ur lives will end, sooner than we think, and our youth is already almost over. The self is not a renewable resource. If we wouldn’t describe a book to someone we wanted to sleep with, we shouldn’t write about it. It is time to stop writing—and reading—reviews. The old faiths have passed away; the new age requires a new form.” To me, this is an argument for book reviews: to save us from ourselves.

5) So I can have a ready made identity. “What have you been up?” people ask me, as I’m sure they ask you. I’m not so gauche as to say, “check out jseliger.wordpress.com and you’ll know,” but if someone does really want to understand what makes me tick better, they can find out pretty quickly.

In looking over those reasons, I notice that a lot of the answers center around personal reasons. I hadn’t really realized that most of my reasons for writing this blog were personal until I tried to articulate them. That’s an example of number three in action, right now, as I write.

Why do you read about books?

“Why do you write about books?”

A friend asked the question that formed the title of this post, and I gave her a half-formed answer. I’d like to give a three-quarter-formed answer, since I don’t think anyone can get more than maybe 90% of the way to one:

1) The most obvious and true answer is fairly high level and not useful: I like doing it. People who like doing something tend to do it, and I suspect the doing it will, over time, make them better at it. The leading practitioners in virtually any field appear to really like what they’re doing. Although I won’t call myself a leading practitioner of book blogging, doing it probably makes me a better writer than I’d be otherwise. Judging by search engine traffic and the number of subscribers, at least some number of people find this blog useful.

2) To work through my own sense of what works and doesn’t in novels. If you’re a novelist or would-be novelist, a lot of your criticism says as much about your own aesthetics and ideas as it does about the works you’re discussing. In The Shadow of the Wind, Nuria Monfort says, “Julián had once told me that a story is a letter the author writes to himself, to tell himself things that he would be unable to discover otherwise.” That’s also true of many bloggers.

3) To figure out what I really think about a book. One often learns by writing. This is (part of the reason) why schools assign essays and why academics are required to publish. When you write, you don’t merely record what you already think; you discover new things that you didn’t think, or didn’t realize that you thought. Think of Paul Graham in “The Age of the Essay:” “Expressing ideas helps to form them. Indeed, helps is far too weak a word. Most of what ends up in my essays I only thought of when I sat down to write them. That’s why I write them.”

4) To help other people figure out what they should read or use and why. My biggest challenge these days is probably finding enough time to read things I want to read. Related to that challenge is deciding what’s worth reading. Other people’s blogs and sites and advice help me with this, so I’d like to help others in turn. I can read an 800-word book review in a couple minutes. A 300-page book takes much longer, if it’s even worth trying. The magazine n+1 published an interesting and wrong piece called “Against Reviews that says, “[O]ur lives will end, sooner than we think, and our youth is already almost over. The self is not a renewable resource. If we wouldn’t describe a book to someone we wanted to sleep with, we shouldn’t write about it. It is time to stop writing—and reading—reviews. The old faiths have passed away; the new age requires a new form.” To me, this is an argument for book reviews: to save us from ourselves.

5) So I can have a ready made identity. “What have you been up?” people ask me, as I’m sure they ask you. I’m not so gauche as to say, “check out jakeseliger.com and you’ll know,” but if someone does really want to understand what makes me tick better, they can find out pretty quickly.

In looking over those reasons, I notice that a lot of the answers center around personal reasons. I hadn’t really realized that most of my reasons for writing this blog were personal until I tried to articulate them. That’s an example of number three in action, right now, as I write.

Why do you read about books?

Where Good Ideas Come From – Steven Berlin Johnson's new book

I already pre-ordered Steven Berlin Johnson’s new book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, but if I hadn’t, this video would have convinced me to:

Sounds like an excellent complement to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, since both are about structuring lives and minds are ideas and their implementation. This is an obvious topic of interest to novelists and academics, since both require a) lots of ideas and b) even more implementation of those ideas.

One thing I’ll be watching for closely in the book: around minute 3:30, the video says that the Internet isn’t going to make us more distracted in a bad way—it will make us more interconnected so that hunches and combine into ideas faster. That implies Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows is mostly wrong, which is an argument I’m skeptical about: I suspect that we need a combination of quiet, contemplative space of the sort the Internet is driving out along with the combination of ideas that originate from various sources. If one side becomes too lopsided, the creativity equation fails.

To be sure, it’s unwise to judge a book before reading it, and I want to see how the debate plays out.

Regular readers probably already know Johnson through my repeated references to his essay Tool for Thought, which is about Devonthink Pro and changed the way I work. I regularly tell my better students as well as friends to read this essay and use DTP in the way Johnson describes if they’re at all interested in ideas and writing.

Where Good Ideas Come From – Steven Berlin Johnson’s new book

I already pre-ordered Steven Berlin Johnson’s new book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, but if I hadn’t, this video would have convinced me to:

Sounds like an excellent complement to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, since both are about structuring lives and minds are ideas and their implementation. This is an obvious topic of interest to novelists and academics, since both require a) lots of ideas and b) even more implementation of those ideas.

One thing I’ll be watching for closely in the book: around minute 3:30, the video says that the Internet isn’t going to make us more distracted in a bad way—it will make us more interconnected so that hunches and combine into ideas faster. That implies Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows is mostly wrong, which is an argument I’m skeptical about: I suspect that we need a combination of quiet, contemplative space of the sort the Internet is driving out along with the combination of ideas that originate from various sources. If one side becomes too lopsided, the creativity equation fails.

To be sure, it’s unwise to judge a book before reading it, and I want to see how the debate plays out.

Regular readers probably already know Johnson through my repeated references to his essay Tool for Thought, which is about Devonthink Pro and changed the way I work. I regularly tell my better students as well as friends to read this essay and use DTP in the way Johnson describes if they’re at all interested in ideas and writing.

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