Short List – September 21, 2014

Falling in Love with the Dark – Todd Pitock – Nautilus’s Todd Pitock presents a captivating story about the efforts to find night skies dark enough to still allow meaningful astronomy and stargazing.  A reminder that some of our most precious resources are under persistent and silent threats.

Shane Parrish’s Farnam Street review of Daniel Levitin’s The Organized Mind – Anyone interested in managing decision fatigue and information overload should read Parrish’s description of Levitin’s work and decide (if you can summon the mental resources) whether you dive deeper into the whole of The Organized Mind.  I’ve added it to my list.

Why I Hope to Die at 75” – Ezekiel Emanuel’s personal essay about finding balance between longevity and a life well lived.  Whether you agree or not, the piece will cause you to think about what matters most to you in seeking the life you want to live.

DMT: The Spirit Molecule – This documentary presents an account of Dr. Rick Strassman’s groundbreaking DMT research through a multifaceted approach to this intriguing hallucinogen found in the human brain and hundreds of plants, including the sacred Amazonian brew, ayahuasca. The film introduces us to far-reaching theories regarding its role in human consciousness.  Pair this with Sam Harris’s blog and Waking Up.

Commonplacing – Do You Remember What You Read?

Do you read books?  Do you read a lot of books?  Do you remember all of the great information, lessons, and points you might take from the writing you ingest?

I read a lot of books.  I also do a poor job of retaining the information I read with memory alone.  As a result, I began to look for a system to capture in an efficient manner the parts of texts that I read.

During my school days, I took copious marginalia notes in books, which I still do and highly recommend.  Marginalia, however, are only retrievable if you pick up the book again and find the page on which you took the note.  In other words, in recording your note, your observation will forever be captured and stored on a page in another writer’s book.  It is not portable, searchable, or usable in that form.

Enter the commonplace book.  A commonplace book is, in its simplest terms, a centralized collection of the notes and excerpts a reader takes from books that he or she has read.  The practice is one that was particularly popular centuries ago.  Robert Darnton described the idea in a 2000 article in the New York Review of Books:

Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life. Erasmus instructed them how to do it; and if they did not have access to his popular De Copia, they consulted printed models or the local schoolmaster. The practice spread everywhere in early modern England, among ordinary readers as well as famous writers like Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, John Milton, and John Locke. It involved a special way of taking in the printed word. Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.

A commonplace book can take any number of forms, from a journal, to an electronic database, to loose scraps of paper.  (Thomas Jefferson apparently collected loose scraps for his commonplace collection, and then had them bound later in his life).  I use a system that is heavily promoted by Robert Greene (author of books including The 48 Laws of Power) and Ryan Holiday (author of books including The Obstacle is the Way).  When reading a book, I mark pages and passages I find worthwhile or particularly insightful.  I also take margin notes and otherwise mark up my books.  When I finish a book, I set it aside for a period of days.

After some days have passed, I return to the book, and I review my marked passages and notes.  With the passage of time, some of the marked passages no longer seem worth recording to me, and I ignore those.  I write down those that remain onto paper notecards.  I write the quote, along with the author, title, and page number on the card.  In the top right corner of the card, I label the card with a theme.  I have no predetermined themes or any limit to the number of themes that I may use, although themes are obviously more useful if you pick topics that are applicable to a broad enough set of quotes that you can gather related ideas.  Examples from the last four or five books that I’ve read might be: “zen,” “stoicism,” “cognitive bias,” “leadership,” and “work.”  Placing them on notecards as opposed to a fixed journal allows me to organize notes, or take a small set of notes with me if traveling or working remotely.

As you collect more and more notes, you will find that these themes develop and emerge across multiple texts.  This will allow you to become a comparative and a more analytical thinker.  How do different texts and different writers illuminate these themes in different ways?  What similarities do you find?  What differences?  Ultimately, your focus should shift to developing your own analytical viewpoint and insights into these areas of thought.  When that happens, you know that you have moved from just “reading” to “thinking,” from “consuming” to “analyzing,” and ultimately, from “observation” to “creation.”

Books I Have Read

Since March 2008, I have kept a list of the books I have read.  I was inspired to do this after reading that Art Garfunkel has kept a list of every book he has read since June 1968.  My list is not perfect; some items have slipped through the cracks.  It is close to accurate, nonetheless.  Books marked with an asterisk (*) are favorites.

I encourage all readers to engage in this exercise.  It allows you to maintain a record, of course. In addition, however, it allows you to review periods of your life, to see how interests have risen, developed, ebbed, and flowed.  It allows you to remember particularly busy and productive times, as well as unproductive and slow periods.  It also allows you to review the list for books that should be reread or revisited as appropriate.  I only wish I had started sooner, instead of at age 32.

My Reading List

Changing Perspective – Books Worth Reading

Between preparatory school, college, and post-graduate schooling, I have experienced a lot of classes and lectures.  There are two that were superlative.  (I recognize the contradiction in terms, but I consider them to both be superlative).

The first was my prep school American History class, which our teacher, Doc Thomas, used no textbook, and taught American History simply with primary sources.  Some of these were written, like John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” speech, and the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, and Kerouac.  Others were visual, such as the paintings of Thomas Church and his colleagues of the Hudson River School, and even the film Rebel Without a Cause.  The immediacy of experience, without the intervention of a textbook as moderator, was learning in a new way for me, and I never forgot  the lessons learned.

The second was Contemporary Civilization at Columbia University, the so-called “Great Books” class that ran us through the canon of Western Civilization at two books per week for the full year.  The material was the expected material and not the reason for my feelings on the class.  The blessing of the class was Scott Sandage, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who was at Columbia on a fellowship for the year, and gave insight into reading, world view, and life perspective that I had never considered.  I could write at length about the lessons of that class, but most meaningful was Professor Sandage’s point that through every moment of education – be it a book, a lecture, pursuit of a degree – we implicitly are looking to change ourselves.  We go to school and ask the school to change us.  We read the book and hope that the book will change us.  We view the painting believing that it will open some new insight or thought in us that we had not before seen or experienced.

I have been ruminating on this recently, particularly after reading a number of “Favorite Books” posts on other sites I enjoy (Farnam Street’s and Ryan Holiday’s lists are examples).  I like collecting lists of books, or records, or other experiences that I’ve had that I believe others will enjoy.  I do not claim that these are the “best” books, but merely that each impacted me in a memorable and positive way.  I hope that you find a new perspective in these.

Desolation Angels – Jack Kerouac

Desolation Angels is Kerouac at his best, full of rhythmically exciting prose and a conflicted vision of America.  The work actually contains two books – the first, Desolation Angels, chronicles Kerouac’s solitary  summer stint as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the the Cascade Mountain range.  Purportedly drawn up from his journals, the book reveals Kerouac’s alternating ecstasy and sorrow during his period of solitude.  Book II is titled Passing Through, and contains reflections of Kerouac’s travels through America, Mexico, Tangiers, France, and England. It is difficult to reduce any Kerouac to analytical review, but the book is important to me for a few key reasons.

First, the prose itself is rhythmically exciting, nearly poetic, in Kerouac’s grand vision of the “poetry of pure prose.”  It is a beautiful celebration of life’s highs and lows, its enthusiasms and sorrows.  Second, it contains the exuberance of On the Road, but stands from a place of introspection and greater perspective than the more well-known, but momentary and rapid-fire work.  As a result, the book provides wonderful insight into a mind overwhelmed with the beauty and immediacy of life, while simultaneously struggling with the pains of loneliness, attachment, and suffering that come along with those things.  The quality of Kerouac’s philosophical, psychological, and symbolic insights in the book is unparalleled elsewhere in his canon.

Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy

After reading No Country for Old Men about five or six years ago, I did something I have done with no other writer.  I read nothing but Cormac McCarthy until I had finished his catalogue.  Blood Meridian is his finest work, on par with the finest moments of William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe.  I believe it is the finest piece of American contemporary literature that I have read. The novel is the story of a band of depraved and violent scalp-hunters on the Texas-Mexico borderlands in the 1850s.  McCarthy paints a world of immense space, stoic beauty, and ever-present dread.  McCarthy fills this world with characters capable of unspeakable evil and cruelty.  This is an unusual perspective on our American West, with no heroes, no salvation, only relentless violence and vengeance.  It is a mythic book, recreating Biblical stories in inverse ways.  At the end, you may have trouble beginning another novel, because the poetry of McCarthy’s exquisitely crafted language is just too perfect to leave behind.  This is truly an unforgettable work.

A People’s History of the United States – Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn (1922-2010), was a historian, playwright, social activist, and professor at Brown University).  This book is his master work.  People’s History attempts to tell a different story of American History, told from the perspective of the victims, the oppressed, the forgotten.  A controversial book, it is often adored and reviled by Americans depending on their particular view of the world, or perhaps, the view of the world that they want others to uphold.

The book has suffered some criticism of myopia or lack of citation in sections.  This is beside the point.  American history of too often taught from a sterile, reverent, and unchallenging perspective, focusing only on presidents and industrial heroes.  This book raises important questions about the collective assumptions and shared predispositions America holds with respect to its history, and challenges readers to evaluate otherwise familiar events in ways that they otherwise might never do. One should always be in the practice and habit of checking assumptions, and looking for alternative perspectives.  You may find new material or information that matures your own perspective, or you may find that the alternative is unconvincing and hold tight to your original views.  Either way, the exercise and practice of checking assumptions is invaluable, and Zinn provides a healthy dose of that.

Blue Highways/River Horse – William Least Heat-Moon

William Least Heat-Moon left Missouri in his van with no specific plan other than to drive the backroads of America, and discover the people and stories of the small towns of this country.  This trip led to Blue Highways, a remarkable and deeply human account of Americans, their hopes, dreams, and struggles.  Heat-Moon reveals a kaleidoscopic America in many ways, which increases in complexity and diversity with each new town into which he rolls.  At the same time, he finds common threads in American life, and an almost universal friendliness that propels him across the country as he tries to deal with the struggles he faces back home.

Years later, Heat-Moon and a friend make a second journey across America, this time by boat.  Starting in the Hudson River, they travel through the Great Lakes, across Lake Chautauqua, into the Allegheny River and down into the Mississippi River.  From there, it is upstream across the Missouri, and eventually across the Rockies before arriving in the Columbia River on their way to the Pacific Ocean.  Reminiscent of Blue Highways, River Horse adds a focus on the geology and geography of the country not present in the first book.  It is filled with the same cast of unforgettable Americans, whom Heat-Moon portrays honestly and kindly. Put together, these two books provide a wonderful “ground level” view of America.  Any of us who are too stuck in our local or regional worlds would do well to remind ourselves of the intricacies of life in all the far flung corners of our country.

A Moveable Feast – Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway makes his account in this book of his post-WWI life in Paris, and his interactions with other American ex-patriates such as Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  The narrative is quaint, if not a bit bland.  The value of this book lies in its direct and clear expression of Hemingway’s writing process.  Thousands of books with millions of pages are now circulating Amazon and bookstores, all wishing to provide direction on the creative process.  Start with Hemingway.

The Way of Zen – Alan Watts

My true feelings of this book are too complicated and immense to describe in this post, and I anticipate writing a longer post on the book.  That said, I have studied Eastern Philosophy for 15 years now, and practiced Zen Buddhism for five.  The original source material is often difficult and impenetrable.  Interpretative texts are often misinformed and squishy books designed to sell at new-age stores, and miss the deep and challenging questions presented by Zen philosophy.  I have found no better voice on Zen, or Buddhism in general, than Watts, who was both surgically precise with his explanations, and demonstrably able to assist Westerners with comprehension through his anticipation of typical stumbling blocks.