I hope you’re faring well. Surely you are all already very well into your year of reading (and watching, and listening, and observing…). I sort of am, though not without its bumps. Recently, I have been obsessing over this deep issue of contemporary life: the paradox of choice. What to read? What to watch? What to listen to? In an effort to simplify, I began the year by Marie-Kondoing (is that a term?) my digital life: I unsubscribed from newsletters I never open; podcasts I stopped listening to; and passed on books I will never read. Although it brought some temporary relief, the process of choosing something to read, watch or listen to still made me tremendously anxious. It feels to me, sometimes, like post-industrial capitalism has turned everything into a commodity: we consume to serve a final purpose other than the joy or pleasure of the activity itself; as in, we have an end in mind. Whether it is to become smarter, or more efficient, or kinder, or more cultured, it is there, and its presence, I think, can sometimes overwhelm the pure pleasure of partaking in cultural pursuits. This affects me not only with what to choose, but also how quickly I consume what I choose when I finally – and agonisingly – make the choice. I am a slow reader and a slow thinker, and I love spending a considerable amount of time writing about what I have just experienced. When I am simply reading and moving on to the next thing, I find myself worrying about not having taken in the true meaning of something, and, most importantly, not being unable to unearth it for a later time. I find, too, that quick consumption jumbles all the information in my mind. Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher, expressed the downfall of constant consumption without reflection best:
Just as a spring, through the continual pressure of a foreign body, at last loses its elasticity, so does the mind if it has another person’s thoughts continually forced upon it. And just as one spoils the stomach by overfeeding and thereby impairs the whole body, so can one overload and choke the mind by giving it too much nourishment. For the more one reads the fewer are the traces left of what one has read; the mind is like a tablet that has been written over and over. Hence it is impossible to reflect; and it is only by reflection that one can assimilate what one has read if one reads straight ahead without pondering over it later, what has been read does not take root, but is for the most part lost.
While I am intellectually aware of this, and still practice slow reading and reflection, I do often find myself succumbing to the pressure of reading for quantity rather than quality of understanding. If I observe my behaviour, I notice that it comes as a result of the comparison game that social media makes so easy to play. Photos of long stacks of books with a declaration of how many were read (“I read 80 books this year!”) pushes me to read faster. I usually catch myself, but still I fall into throes of the pathological impatience that plagues our time. To get out, I usually choose a long ass book to read; a history book or a classic. This is a good way to just stick to something and resist the urge to read for the purposes of just ticking another book off the list. It seems a radical act, these days, to take on a slow pursuit.
Anyway, I’ll stop ranting. Below is what I’ve managed to finally choose to take and enjoy.
As always, please hit me back with your own recommendations!
Still indecisively yours,
1. I must start this newsletter with a book that is very much in keeping with this dilemma of choice: The Tyranny of Choice by Renata Salecl. Here, sociologist and philosopher Renata Salecl exposes how the capitalist idea of limitless choice is making us anxious, miserable and, most crucially, highly individualistic. I’ve always been skeptical about this dominant idea that we — and only we – get to be the authors of our own lives. This message is everywhere, but rarely does it feel true. How much choice, really, do we have over the way our lives unfold? Sure, I can see that it is empowering to believe that we get to choose, in some ways, the direction our lives take. The other side of the coin, though, is less pretty: when that choice doesn’t pan out the way we thought it would, we blame ourselves and only ourselves; life going in some way wrong is always our own fault. I also believe that this line of thinking — that it is all down to us — demonises poverty, addiction and mental health, as if suffering were a choice we make, ignoring the almost inescapable constraints many people are held down by. If you really think about it, this idea that we get to choose it all shapes almost every aspect of our society. Think, for example, of the way some cultures see the role of the state in people’s lives; some nation states understand that failure is not entirely your fault, and are there to support you when you fail. Other, more intensely neoliberal and capitalist societies, run on the idea that if you make it, then good for you. You owe no one anything. But if you fail, well, that’s down to you, too, and good luck with that. I think the health of a society depends largely on where it stands on this question of choice and the extent to which we wield control over it. What do you think?
2. Now for a book I was surprised to have chosen to read: Small Fry, by Steve Jobs’s first born, Lisa Brennan-Jobs. I was actually quite reluctant to pick this one up. Cynically, I thought it would be easy for the daughter of a celebrity to write a terrible book about how difficult it is to have a famous father. But then I heard it reviewed on the New York Times Book Review podcast and moved it to the very tippity-top of my reading pile. How wrong I was in my initial, cynical judgement. Lisa Brennan-Jobs is a writer with a capital W and this book, her first, is no small literary feat; it is a gorgeous, precise, restrained and artfully sculpted coming-of-age story about what it is like to love and be loved by complex, imperfect people. Coming-of-age memoirs, I feel, often struggle with the unsentimental portrayal of that central yearning that runs through all life stories: the longing to be wanted, to have a place. Even though this book is extraordinary in every way, it is here, in the description of our desperation to belong, that it most movingly excels.
3. RIP Mary Oliver. I love her words in this conversation with On Being’s Krista Tippett. And I fell in love with this poem, The Journey, many years ago while travelling around Ireland:
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
5. My efforts to minimise my digital life and spend less time in front of my smartphone are a result of coming across Cal Newport’s compelling arguments for taking yourself off social media. I have, without much trauma, closed my Facebook account, removed all news apps from my phone, and installed a content blocker that dumbs down your phone for up to twenty-four hours at a time. Newport first made his argument in this controversial op-ed in The New York Times (Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend On It.) and his book, “Deep Work,” is an irresistible, highly informative and convincing argument to go without social media: your attention should be directed only towards things that are rare and valuable. The information and propaganda you get from Instagram or Facebook is low-value, and constantly engaging with it leaves you on the shallow end of an issue, keeping you from doing the “deep work” that our capitalist economy considers valuable. In his new book, Digital Minimalism, Newport takes his argument further and asks the reader to pare back on all things digital, and then slowly re-introduce only the digital pursuits that help you live in in line with your values. Newport’s two interviews with the wonderful Ezra Klein are both excellent and very clearly explain his outlook (click here for the one on “Deep Work,” and here for the one on “Digital Minimalism.”) Oh, and, his recent piece on why Steve Jobs would disapprove of the way we use our iPhones is pretty good.
6. Because we are on the topic of choice and attention, I thought this piece on how to pay better attention was wonderful. I might spot all things the colour red on my next walk to work.
7. February is the month when we all give up our new year’s resolutions, right? I certainly have. Apparently, that’s fine: acceptance of your own mediocrity is the way forward. Personally, I love Freud’s approach: our goal in self-development should not be happiness, but rather the replacement of hysterical misery with “ordinary unhappiness.” All I want is ordinary unhappiness from now on.
8. In the spring of 1986, a disastrous fire ravaged the Los Angeles Public Library; the flames reached 2,000 degrees, burned for over seven hours, and devoured four hundred thousand books (damaging seven hundred thousand more). In “The Library Book,” New Yorker writer and novelist Susan Orlean chronicles the fire and its aftermath to prove the essential role that libraries play in society; how they provide much more than books, and, in some ways, are barometers for the civic health of a society. I was taken with this book from beginning to end, less for its true crime element and more for its grace in its descriptions of how a good library can live and give life:
“In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned. When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived.”
10. To finish (I might make this a thing), a quote I randomly picked out of my “commonplace book”:
“Someone has given my daughter a doctor’s kit. Carefully, she takes her own temperature, places the pressure cuff around her arm. Then she takes the cuff off and examines it. ‘Would you like to be a doctor when you grow up?’ I ask her. She looks at me oddly. ‘I’m already a doctor.'”
– from the extraordinary novel “Dept. of Speculation“ by Jenny Offill