Marginalia: On Choice.

Hi all,

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,

Kyra


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
kept shouting
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
was terrible.
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.

4. So much of this piece on millennial burn out rang true. And the book she mentions, “Kids These Days” by Malcom Harris, looks like an excellent read.

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.”

9. Derry Girls, on Netflix, is bloody fantastic. And, I dare say, an excellent companion for anyone in the midst of reading the extraordinary but exhausting 2018 Man Booker Prize Winner, Milkman.

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

David Foster Wallace on how to live a compassionate life.

Marginalia (noun): notes written in the margins of a text.

In June 2015, I decided that I wanted to read more. Lots more. Marginalia is where I share my thoughts on the books that I have read. I only have one test: that it helps me separate the meaningful from the trivial. One book per newsletter. Monthly (ish).


Welcome to this little newsletter. I hope it finds a place in your hearts and minds.

Now that I’m on other side of a massive and long project, I decided to do something I have been wanting to do for a long while: read. I am obsessed with books. They make me happier and help me to pay better attention to the world around me.

Being human is difficult; living a rich and meaningful life is even more challenging. Not having as many tools in my kit as I’d like, I’m taking some time to read and gain from the wisdom of others. These others are most likely dead, more accomplished and way smarter than me.

I don’t have a system for what book I’ll read or when I’ll read it. I only have one test: that it helps me separate the meaningful from the trivial.

I’m a slow reader and a slow thinker. I spend a long time consuming information, and an even longer time digesting it. During the time of reflection, I copy the passages I loved on note cards, which I then file thematically in a massive box. This is called a “Commonplace Book.” The point is to have the ability to retrieve the note cards at appropriate times later in life. When someone close to you passes away, you can explore everything you’ve read on grief and loss. When you fall in love, or feel lonely, or need to laugh, you dig out the cards related to those experiences.

Books and parts of books take on different meanings when read at different points in my life. I don’t like to recommend ways of doing things too strongly, and I don’t want to hold on onto any ideas too firmly. Different methods work for different people at different moments. For now, this practice works for me.

So, here’s the purpose of this newsletter: Once a month (ish, sometimes more frequently), I’ll pick one of these note cards and share it. I will also share a bit about where it comes from, what it means to me, and why I think it’s important. These will be elaborations on thoughts I’ve written on the margins of books as I’ve traveled through them: my marginalia.

Below you’ll find the first issue. I hope you enjoy it.

Kyra

P.S.: I would love to hear what you write on the margins of books. Mind sharing?

P.P.S: A massive thank you to Nico Luchsinger and Sam McNerney, who both helped me crystallise the idea for this newsletter. You are wonderful humans.

“You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.  Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

This Is Water, by David Foster Wallace

Only three years before David Foster Wallace committed suicide, he delivered one of the greatest, most profound commencement speeches of all time. In This Is Water, delivered to the Kenyon College graduating class of 2005, Wallace answered some fundamental questions: How do we overcome unconscious thought and action? How do we lead a compassionate life? How do we construct meaning from experience? This was the only ever time Wallace spoke publicly about his views on human nature, and it became such a classic that it was published posthumously as a beautiful manifesto titled This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. The essay in its entirety is one of the most life-altering pieces I have ever come across; the sort of thing I wanted everybody I knew to read or listen to as a matter of urgency.

I had to stop myself from underlining almost the entire thing, though the text on the notecard nearly made my heart stop. What do we unconsciously worship? If it isn’t just something obvious, like religion, what are we valuing? And, more importantly, how does what we worship affect our lives? The danger is less in the worshipping itself and more in the unconscious nature in which we take part in the act:

“If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.”

Noticing the water is hard work. Waking up to what I’m thinking about and how I’m thinking about it is one of the hardest mental exercises I’ve ever tried. Much of the time, I’m automatically applying a perspective to things that happen in my life without even noticing that application. And sometimes, I’m making decisions without questioning the values those decisions are attached to, or what I’m worshipping in the making of those decisions. This is obviously normal, we are wired to act in these unmindful ways. Paying attention is tremendously difficult, and it takes a lot of will and practice. Gaining the ability to be truly awake however can often be a matter of life-or-death:

“It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about ‘the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.’ This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in…the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger. And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.” 

Wallace uses an every day experience we all go through to illustrate how we get to choose what we see and how we see it: the infuriating after-work trip to the supermarket. I’d struggle to count the times I have stood behind dozens of people in a supermarket queue, silently berating each and every one of them for being in my way, internally enraged at their glacial paces, wallowing in the sorrow of how tired and over-worked I am, thinking what a big waste of my time standing in this queue is, wondering why these people won’t just hurry up so that I can get home, eat dinner, and call it day. We’ve all felt this way. But that’s just one story. You can choose to tell another:

“…petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.” 

Instead of succumbing to our deceptively inescapable inclination to make the supermarket experience all about ourselves, we can notice a kinder and more compassionate story:

“But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down. Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.” 

In the end, David Foster Wallace succumbed to his mind, that terrible master that has plagued so many. His suicide a mere three years later renders his advice as timeless and cosmic as it is tragic.

Thank you for reading.

Kyra

A (new) newsletter.

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Hi, friends. I just wanted to share a new project I’m working on with my very good friend, Nico.

Snail Mail is a monthly newsletter in which we recommend content that has had a lasting impact on us. By applying a filter of longevity to the pieces that we select, we hope to build an archive of material which has endured the pervasive force of online virality. To make the cut, content must be at least one year old.

This is our manifesto.

by Kyra Maya Phillips and Nico Luchsinger.

The Internet is overflowing with information: ideas, stories, photographs, news. All traveling the digital world from one person to the next, and on and on and on, and sometimes, like a boomerang, returning. Thanks to social platforms and personalised filters, the way we discover information and acquire knowledge has become a lot more sophisticated. We are able to unearth things meant for us in a lot less time than we used to. And that’s a wonderful thing.

Technology, though, can often create as many problems as it solves.

Almost without exception, our current filters prioritise the new over the old. “Virality,” the most prized attribute in the contemporary dissemination of information, only works in very short time frames. A piece of content goes viral and immediately becomes widely shared. Then, almost as immediately, it disappears again, to be replaced with the next piece of shareable material. Our culture is beginning to define itself solely by the amount of times something gets clicked.

As a result, the incredible content being shared online isn’t being properly absorbed. We treat reading, listening, and watching like eating a quick snack, not a proper sit down meal during which we savour every bite. Often, too, we are less motivated by acquiring knowledge and driven more by the impact the action of sharing will have on our digital personas. We are so hungry for the tantalising promise of social validation — of letting people know that yes, we know what’s going on — that we rush in our digestion of the material itself.

We read, watch, listen. Then, we tweet and — almost immediately after — we forget.

 

We lose the opportunity to truly reflect on what we experience, not only just after the moment we experience it, but also weeks, months, and years later. And when we relinquish the chance to contemplate, we leave behind the ability to make the sort of connections that inspire and drive forward true creativity.

So we’ve started to wonder: which bits of content are still relevant after the wave of virality has died down? What are the things that still make us think, laugh or weep weeks, months or years after we’ve come across them? And could “longevity” be a viable — and maybe even better — filter to discovery than virality?

Snail Mail is our experiment to answer these questions. Once a month, we will recommend the pieces which have stuck with us — for whatever reason — for at least one year, and often a lot longer. We hope that by doing this, we will become more mindful about what we’re taking in, noticing the lessons imbued within each and every little thing we consume.

Over time, our ambition is to build an ever-lasting archive of forgotten relics of the digital world.

 

We hope you join us, and that in our journey together, you are reminded of the things you’ve once loved but soon forgotten.