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,


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

What I’m Reading (& rereading).

In mid 2015, with the end of an over three year long book project, I decided that I would read more. Lots and lots more. While books have always been a fixture in my life, the intensity of their presence has ebbed and flowed throughout the years. I realised, during times when I wasn’t reading much, that I didn’t enjoy life without books. Reading makes me happier and more alert to the world around me.

To keep track of what I’m reading, I’ll update this list as I go along. I’ll be sharing more elaborate thoughts on the books on this blog (sometimes), and sharing a few in Marginalia, a monthly (ish) newsletter.


How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

No Friend But the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani


Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Beloved by Toni Morrison

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Strangers Drowning by Larissa Macfarquhar

Stop Being Reasonable by Eleanor Gordon-Smith

Congratulations, by the way by George Saunders

Winter by Ali Smith

Autumn by Ali Smith

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

Lanny by Max Porter

Talking to My Daughter About the Economy: A Brief History of Capitalism by Yanis Varoufakis

Stop Being Reasonable by Eleanor Gordon-Smith

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli

Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

In The Distance by Hernan Diaz

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitzky and Daniel Ziblatt

The Tyranny of Choice by Renata Salecl

Night by Eli Wiesel

Happy Ever After by Paul Dolan

Fox 8 by George Saunders

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Milkman by Anna Burns


Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Silence by Erling Kagge

Becoming by Michelle Obama

The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

Things I Don’t Want To Know by Deborah Levy

The Accusation by Bandi

New Jerusalem by Paul Ham

Shell by Kristina Olsson

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Londoners: the days and nights of London now—as told by those who love it, hate it, live it, left it and long for it by Craig Taylor

300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso

Ongoingness: The End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso

Man Out of Time by Stephanie Bishop

The Children’s House by Alice Nelson

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings by Helen Jukes

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

Heartburn by Nora Ephron

Ms. Ice Sandwich by Meiko Kawakami

The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Rastrapi

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo

The 78-Storey Treehouse by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton (with my son)

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay In 40 Questions by Valeria Luiselli

The Line Becomes A River by Francisco Cantú

The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop

Evacuation by Raphael Jerusalmy

Tin Man by Sarah Winman

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

Lullaby by Leila Slimani

Look At Me by Mareike Krugel (reading copy, out in March)

Lost Connections by Johann Hari (reading copy, out in February)

The 65-Storey Treehouse by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton (with my son)

Peach by Emma Glass (reading copy, out in February)

Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro

The Spare Room by Helen Garner

The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me by Roal Dahl (with my son)

Esio Trot by Roald Dahl (with my son)

The 52-Storey Treehouse by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton (with my son)

The 39-Storey Treehouse by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton (with my son)


I Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron

The 26-Storey Treehouse by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton (with my son)

The Unknown Unknown: Bookshops and the Delight of Not Getting What You Wanted by Mark Forsyth

The 13-Storey Treehouse by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton (with my son)

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas

Kneller’s Happy Campers by Etgar Keret

Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl (with my son)

Turtles All The Way Down by John Green

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip by George Saunders

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple

The Book of Emma Reyes by Emma Reyes

Suddenly, A Knock On The Door by Etgar Keret

The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret

When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron

Devotion by Dani Shapiro

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Transit by Rachel Cusk

The Gifts of Reading by Robert Mcfarlane

Outline by Rachel Cusk

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong (reading copy, out in June 2017)

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Night Swimming by Steph Bowe (reading copy, out in April 2017)

The Course of Love by Alain de Botton

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong by Kelly Wilson


On Reading, Writing and Living with Books

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Darkness Visible by William Styron

Dying: A Memoir by Cory Taylor

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Epic of Gilgamesh translated by Andrew George

Dubliners by James Joyce

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcom

The Art of Reading by Damon Young

Gratitude by Oliver Sacks

Cathedral by Raymond Carver

A Sheltered Woman by Yiyun Li

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

The Bricks That Built The Houses by Kate Tempest

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Stoner by John Edward Williams

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

The Tall Man by Chloe Hooper

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Matilda by Roald Dahl

A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life by Russ Roberts

How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

M Train by Patti Smith


Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein:

A beautiful memoir from the guitarist of the epic and pioneering band, Sleater-Kinney. A true deviation from the regular rock ‘n roll story of destruction, this book is a tale of losing, and then finding yourself, in music.

The White Album by Joan Didion

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke:

A phenomenal, illuminating read, even if you’re not into poetry. In this collection of ten letters, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke advises a nineteen year old fan on love, truth and how to experience the world around you. Some of my favourite bits:

On loving books:

“A world will come over you, the happiness, the abundance, the incomprehensible immensity of a world. Live a while in these books, learn from them what seems to you worth learning, but above all love them. This love will be repaid you a thousand and a thousand times, and however your life may turn, — it will, I am certain of it, run through the fabric of your growth as one of the most important threads among all the threads of your experiences, disappointments and joys.”

On the benefits of living with mystery:

“…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

Hiroshima by John Hersey

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy by Irvin D. Yalom

No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July

How to Be Alone by Sara Maitland:

An interesting and  illuminating cultural look at loneliness. Part of the School of Life’s stunning “toolkit for life” series, British author Sara Maitland writes on the benefits of going solo. This book is an important take down of one of society’s most unhelpful stories: that people who choose to be alone are doomed to a life full of misery. Through this book I also discovered other writers I fell in love with, particularly Alice Koller, who penned this gem: “Being solitary is being alone well: being luxuriously immersed in doing things of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your own presence rather than the absence of others.” 

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh:

Tore through this in a few hours. So, so good. A few essays are absolutely laugh out loud hilarious (particularly one involving a wild and demented goose), and others are profound in that way only Allie Brosh can be (her pieces on depression represent one of the most human views on the topic I’ve ever encountered). Honestly, this book is perfect.

When I Am Playing with My Cat, How Do I Know She is Not Playing with Me? Montaigne and Being in Touch With Life by Saul Frampton

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion:

A stunningly written collection of meditations on a rich and wide array of topics, from John Wayne, to growing up in California, Joan Baez, Hollywood and the hippies of Haight-Ashbury. I enjoyed every essay more than I thought I would, due probably to Didion’s uncanny ability to make any topic interesting. Two particular pieces though stood out for me, and have been struggling to get them out of my mind since I finished the book: On Keeping A Notebook (a beautiful reflection on the benefits of writing things down) and On Self-Respect (a brave, illuminating essay on the importance of knowing who you are).

Strange Pilgrims by Gabriel Garcia Marquez:

Already having been a huge fan of Marquez, I was ecstatic when I found a used copy of a slim yet sublime collection of his short stories. While rummaging through tomes at a local used book stall, I stumbled upon this little volume I knew nothing of, began to read and was naturally hooked from the very first sentence. Titled Strange Pilgrims because of the long, wayward method in which the stories came to life, in this collection you’ll find fables of love, death, loneliness and the nagging power of the past.

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer by Sarah Bakewell:

The question of “how to live” completely obsessed Renaissance writers, but no one tackled it with such brilliance as Michel de Montaigne, a government worker, nobleman, and winegrower who lived in southwestern France from 1533 to 1592. He is considered the creator of the essay – the art of self-reflection on paper. And in the twenty years that he wrote his famous “essays” (107 of them), Montaigne covered everything from the existential to the mundane: how to endure the loss of a loved one, the benefits of thumbs, how to get along with people, how to deal with violence, how to dress. In this biography, writer and philosophy scholar Sarah Bakewell chronicles Montaigne’s life through the answering of one question: how do you live? A truly enlightening, mind-expanding read on not just the man’s life, but on death and the art of living.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius:

I’ve picked it up countless of times since I first read it over a year ago — it is by far the best book of practical philosophy I have ever encountered. Written by Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD,Meditations” is a collection his private thoughts and ideas on how to be present, humble, and self-disciplined. Shelved in “books for life.” 

Staring at the Sun by Irvin D. Yalom:

An encouraging and compassionate approach to our mortality. While it’s marketed as a primer on how to deal with death anxiety, to me this work is much more about how to live rather than how to die. It completely shifted my perspective on the choices we get to make every day: what we value, the stories we tell, how we spend our time. One question Yalom asks has never left my mind: If you were asked whether you would live your life all over again, would you? While the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death imbues us with life. 

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion:

Written in the only way Didion really knows how: hauntingly. This is a difficult book to get through, not because of the way in which it is written (it is a joy to travel through her sentences), but rather because of its topic. Written after her husband’s sudden death, The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion’s memoir recounting how she handled the loss of her partner. It is an exceptional meditation on grief (a topic, Didion notes, strangely absent in literature), love and the vicissitudes of fortune. One reviewer said he couldn’t imagine dying without this book. That is exactly how I feel.

The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer:

Finished this delightful, slim yet meaningful book in one sitting. Pico Iyer, the celebrated travel writer, extolls on the benefits of stillness, presence and finding the time to reflect on our human experience. I have yet to find a better description of stillness and its role in creating a rich and meaningful life: “To me, the point of sitting still is that it helps you to see through the very idea of pushing forward; indeed, it strips you of yourself, as of a coat of armour, by leading you into a place where you’re defined by something larger. If it does have benefits, they lie within some invisible account with a high interest rate, but very long-term yields, to be drawn upon at that moment, surely inevitable, when a doctor walks into your room, shaking his head, or another car veers in front of yours, and all you have to draw upon is what you’ve collected in your deeper moments.” 

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts On Being A Woman by Nora Ephron:

Impossible not love Nora Ephron. As funny as she is profound, this book of essays (on hating your neck, living in New York, parenting, illness, reading and more) is the kind of book you never want to finish. This thought, on reading, struck a chord: “Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself. Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss.”

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh by Vincent Van Gogh:

This book is tremendous. A weighty tome (nearly 800 pages), it’s the truest inside look into the heart and mind of an artist. In his letters to his younger brother Theo (who supported Vincent throughout his entire life as a painter), Van Gogh reveals his views on love, art, creativity and what it means to be not only a good artist, but a good human being. What I found most astounding was just how hard Van Gogh worked to develop his talent as an artist. While he did seem to have a natural ability to observe the world that lay before him (his descriptions of scenery are as almost vivid as his paintings), Van Gogh spent years learning the techniques of both drawing and painting, becoming better as time passed. It wasn’t until he moved to the South of France, quite late in his short but prolific career (and where he was influenced by the already growing Impressionist movement), when he began to produce the paintings we know him for today.

Where I Lived, And What I Lived For by Henry David Thoreau:

A lovely, short excerpt from Thoreau’s longer work on his time living near Walden Pond. This small Penguin Great Ideas book includes only a few chapters, though it is bustling with timeless insight, strengthening my desire to read the whole work. There’s a treasure trove of quotable lines on many aspects of modern life: the ills of fashion trends, owning a large home, reading the news, technology. My favourite line, which can, in my opinion, be applied to some aspects of technology today: “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distracts our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end…”

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin:

A brilliant, touching and unforgettable memoir by one of the world’s most loved comedians. This book is so tremendous. Martin chronicles his early life and his rise to stardom with honesty and sharp wit, making the book an absolute joy to read. Heartbreaking and funny, this book is an inside look into not only the life of a comedian, but also a primer on life as a creative.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill:

A phenomenal novel about art, motherhood, marriage and loss. You will feel like you’ll never encounter anything like it again.

On the Shortness of Life by Seneca:

The simplest, most life-altering message I have ever come across: life is long if you know how to use it. In the Roman philosopher’s 2,000 year old mind stretching meditation on time you’ll find a profound and essential message:  

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realise that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it.”

Want to keep up with what I’m reading? Sign up to my newsletter, Marginalia.

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.


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.


A (new) newsletter.


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.