What I’ve Discovered in 2017 (the bookish version)

I’m a list-maker. I love lists, and I make lots of them. As a kid, I think I once tried to inventory everything that was in my parents’ home (down to the number of pencils and spoons). This project, unsurprisingly, was never finished. And so here is a different list.

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It is not a Best Books of 2017 list. I don’t read nearly enough newly published books to even attempt such a list. In fact, I have trouble making ‘best-of’ lists in general. Don’t they imply that you’ve somehow read/experienced/tasted/watched the gamut? I have not. And so this list is less ambitious. Out of all of the things I have come across and experienced this year, this list details what I have been most happy to discover.

EDIT: My initial list of things discovered was far too long. This is the abridged book/reading-related version.

What I’ve Discovered in 2017 (the bookish version)

1. You don’t have to finish the books you start

I used to have some pretty heavy guilt if there were books sitting on my shelves that I either hadn’t gotten to yet or hadn’t finished. This was most severe if the book was a classic, a recommendation from a friend, or ‘supposed to be really good’ by any other standard. But reading without enjoyment seems to me to defeat the entire purpose of reading (save of course what we have to trudge through during school and study). Reading without enjoyment also prevents you from getting to other books you’ll enjoy more. There are millions and millions of books out there – far more than you can ever hope to get to within your lifetime. Why waste your time on books that for whatever reason just aren’t interesting to you? Since embracing the idea that not finishing books is indeed okay, I have read far far more this year than I have in previous years – frankly because every (well, most) pages were enjoyable – and when they stopped being enjoyable, I just put the book down. See my previous post for more elaboration on the reasons why it doesn’t always make sense to finish the books that we start.

This habit of starting and stopping and abandoning books also works best when the books are free – as in, borrowed from a library, which brings me to my next point.


2. I love libraries

It’s not that I didn’t like libraries before – I just don’t think I’d ever been exposed to them in the right way and/or given them a true chance. I have fond (as well as tormented) memories of studying in the library while in university and I loved the Black Diamond Royal Library while I was living in Copenhagen. But I loved those libraries in the same way I like a nice bookstore or a cozy coffeeshop – as a space to sit.

This year though, thoughtlessly, I fell into libraries. It started with wanting a place to sit and read and work that was quieter than the coffeeshop I’d been frequenting – and where I didn’t feel guilty about staying past finishing my latte. And then I found so much more than a nice place to sit, namely:

A Few Reasons Why I Love Libraries

ONE: The obvious (but perhaps overlooked, at least by me) fact that you have access to basically any book you could want, for free. I’m lucky to live in a city with a well-funded and large library system. We can get from within our library system (or request via Interlibrary Loan) more or less any book title. For free. In my particular library system, this means I can check out 100 books at a time, with 3 week loan periods and the possibility to renew up to 6 months (provided nobody else is waiting on my copy). Sometimes, I just don’t understand why libraries aren’t a bigger threat to booksellers. That said, before 2017, I hardly went to the library. The biggest difference though is that before, I read much much less. I also ‘tried out’ books less. Today, I usually check out 6-7 books a week. I will browse through all of these, decide not to read 4-5 of them, actually read 2 from front to cover, – and then check out 6 more books the next week. If we assume that each book costs a (conservatively low) $15, that equates to a whopping $4,680 yearly book habit had I been buying instead of borrowing books.

TWO: Libraries are the last (truly) public indoor spaces. In many communities, libraries are the only indoor public spaces where you can spend as much time as you want and where there isn’t an expectation for you to purchase anything or spend any money. Coffee shops, bars, and shopping malls are all great places to meet up with friends, socialize, or just sit – but there is always the expectation of the purchase. And there is always the sense of outstaying one’s welcome should no purchase be made. In this sense, libraries are glaringly unique.

THREE: Libraries are putting on amazing events and programs. I was surprised by how many events my local library holds. From story time for kids to free yoga to knitting clubs to homework help sessions to family craft nights to writing workshops and local history lectures, they host such an impressive slew of free events on a daily basis. In this way, they’re becoming places not only to read but also to learn, to interact with others, to create and to make.

FOUR: They have the potential to be even more. Libraries in general are moving away from their traditional function – of being a building that houses books – and towards being a collaborative community space that facilitates learning. And learning can take place in many shapes and forms – from the reading of books to the usage of databases to the participation in classes to the joining of groups to meeting others with like-minded interests. The Aspen Institute’s 2014 Report, Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries states it beautifully. On page 5, I found this quick and perfect summary that captures the role public libraries can play in today’s changing world and economy:

What People and Communities Need to Flourish in the Knowledge Economy

 

LIFELONG ACCESS to an ever-increasing and ever-changing body of knowledge and tools to ensure that their skills remain relevant to the current economy as it continues to evolve

THE CAPACITY AND DISPOSITION TO LEARN IN SMALL, QUICK DOSES rather than wade through
mounds of links and piles of data that provide too much information and too little knowledge

THE ABILITY TO USE, UNDERSTAND AND PROCESS INFORMATION IN MANY DIFFERENT FORMS including text, data, audio and video and to evaluate the quality of information from different sources and understand its relevance.

PLACES TO GATHER, collaborate and contribute to knowledge development

ACCESS TO CONVERSATIONS AMONG CREATIVE PEOPLE in their areas of interest so that they
can innovate and develop or maintain a competitive advantage in the knowledge economy

People and communities need PUBLIC LIBRARIES.


3. I can store, organize, search, and remember – what I’ve read

For the full, lengthy original post, click here. This year, Zotero has been my godsend. In short, it’s a research tool traditionally primarily used by students and researchers to keep track of journal articles and other documents read as part of academic research. I use it as a tool to keep track of what I read. When I come across things I read that I want to remember, I categorize, tag, and store these quotations and snippets of text within Zotero. I add notes and there’s a logical structure within which my excerpts are sorted so that I can find them later. Now, a year into using Zotero, I have thousands of quotations and excerpts all catalogued and searchable of all the things that I’ve read, loved, and wanted to remember. I can search – say using the tag – ‘creativity’ and find 20 different excerpts I’ve come across in the past year. I absolutely love this system.


4. Text Mining of literature is a very cool thing

My two favorite things are probably books and data. So, needless to say, it was a very good day when I learned about text mining and its application in analyzing literature, done through institutions such as the Stanford Literary Lab. The general idea behind text mining is that there are so many books that have been published and that are still being published that it’s impossible to expect to be able to read them all. How then can anyone expect to gain a comprehensive overview of ‘literature’ considering that a single person can only hope to read a slim portion of ‘literature’? Further, today through various efforts including Project Gutenberg, much of the literary classics (that are no longer covered by copyright) are digitized and freely available. This presents a new opportunity to analyze these texts using traditional data methods. The text can be ‘tokenized’ into measurable units, either words or short word-pairings so that they are then readable as data and able to be studied through programs like R & Python.

Examples of possible analyses include looking at word frequencies or lengths of sentences within a novel. Or to ask, are there more words with positive connotations during certain portions of a novel? Or, do male and female characters use different types of words? The Stanford Literary Lab has done some fascinating work. One of its pamphlets looked at the ‘Emotions of London‘ as expressed in literature. Place names were identified throughout a broad corpus (data set) of novels and the adjectives used to describe those place names were coded as positive or negative in emotion. The result of the project was a fascinating map of London color coded to display the breadth of emotion associated with each area as expressed in literature.

The possibilities for analysis, I think, are endless. Novels to some degree are a record of the feelings and thoughts of the time in which they were written. You could search within thousands of novels for the changing depiction of marriage, fidelity, and infidelity. You could analyze changing thoughts about death and the afterlife. You could look at conversations between servant and master, mother and child. Basically any analysis that has been done through close examination and careful scrutiny of a few texts can now be attempted through digital analysis of a large swath of texts. In a very nerdy sort of way, I find that all really exciting.

Bullet in the Brain, David Hume, & What Makes Us Curious

Certain facts, certain books, certain entire fields of study leave us unfazed, unstimulated, and generally uninterested. And yet, sometimes something – anything – a mere phrase, can arrest the attention and set the mind reeling.

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There is a short story by Tobias Wolff called “Bullet in the Brain” about a man named Anders, a book critic, who is shot in the head during a bank robbery gone wrong. As the bullet enters his brain, it fires off all sorts of synapses and moments of his life flash before him. Despite everything that he has experienced in his life, what he remembers, rather than his marriage, the birth of a child, and his achievements – is playing baseball and a phrase one of the kids said:

“Short stop,” the boy says, “Short’s the best position they is.”

Anders was struck by this phrase. He was “strangely roused, elated, by those two final words, their pure unexpectedness and their music. He takes the field in a trance, repeating them to himself.”

The story ends with Anders in his final moments replaying the words, “They is, they is, they is.

I love this short story and I love thinking about how some things can capture our attention in ways that sometimes feel mysterious. Certain things just appeal to us and we’re left wondering why.

I recently came across this statement about curiosity and the ideas that interest us.

Not every fact elicits our curiosity, but occasionally one will become sufficiently important, “if the idea strikes us with such force, and concerns us so nearly, as to give uneasiness in its instability and inconstancy.” (Quote attributed to David Hume, found in Curiosity by Alberto Manguel)

While the statement leaves unanswered why certain facts might ‘strike us with such force,’ I am interested in the second part of the phrasing: as to give us uneasiness in its instability and inconstancy. Interesting facts are interesting to us partly because they contain some instability or inconstancy so as to cause us uneasiness.

This feels true. I think we can be most interested in things we don’t fully understand – as children we are drawn to the possibility of magic and fairy tales. As adults, what we don’t fully understand can be religion, other human beings and psychology, outer space and mankind’s place in the universe, natural disasters, modern evils – ISIS, terrorism. We understand enough to know that there is so much more that we don’t understand. And what we are able to understand feels tenuous next to all that we do not know. The idea doesn’t feel complete, but yet it feels important – and so we are curious. There is a yearning to complete the idea and to complete the understanding.

We can be interested in and drawn to the ideas that do not fully fit into our previous conceptions of how things are or how they should be – whether in our contemplations on new scientific theory or on the unexpected music of they is, they is, they is.

Stephen King and Noel Carroll on Why We Like Horror Stories

So I know I’m late in the game, but I just saw the movie, ‘It’ on Sunday. To be fair, I saw about two-thirds of it. The remaining third, my hands or my hair or my sweater were at least partially covering my eyes. In general, I’m not good with horror movies. I don’t have the stomach – or the nerves for them. As far as horror movies go, I liked the new ‘It.’ And it got me thinking, what is it about this movie and horror movies in general that appeal to us? They can kind of be a stressful experience. Parts of some horror movies can even make for an unpleasant experience.

I came across a book a few months past called Stephen King and Philosophy by Jacob M. Held. In its introduction, Held (with the help of philosopher Noel Carroll as well as Stephen King himself) presents a theory or two,

 

From Stephen King and Philosophy


Noel Carroll notes that “the attraction of supernatural horror is that it provokes a sense of awe which confirms a deep-seated human conviction about the world, viz., that it contains vast unknown forces.”…Carroll calls this attraction a paradox of the heart insofar as we are attracted to that which horrifies us. We are attracted to wonder, the sublime, the awesome, something before which we tremble in the recognition that we may be destroyed by or lost in it. It is terrifying in that it inspires terror, as do the deepest and most profound mysteries of the universe, for they rightfully put us in our place as insignificant, cosmically speaking.

Stephen King refers to horror as a “dance of dreams.” Horror, he claims, awakens the child in us and, he notes, children are bent. Children think around corners. Horror invigorates our imagination, requiring us to think around the corners of life. In this way horror helps us to reenvision what matters most. King notes, “If the horror story is our rehearsal for death, then its strict moralities make it also a reaffirmation of life and good will and simple imagination. Horror is conservative, and some things matter enough that they ought to be conserved. Horror challenges our norms, pushes them to the limits, and often times breaks them to smithereens, only to have them come back restructured, reconfigured, and reinforced. “So the norm emerges stronger than before; it has been, so to say, tested; its superiority to the abnormal vindicated.”

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Three Things : City Design for Humans, Book Fights, & Oh So Many Questions – November 6th

From reimagining urban planning to book fights to a book that only gives questions and no answers, here are three things keeping me interested:3

  • Book Fight!: A funny and witty podcast filled with book talk, author talk, and lots of good banter
  • Jan Gehl & The Human Scale: A documentary & TED Talk that challenge us to consider how our cities can better cater to the human scale
  • Gold Fools by Gilbert Sorrentino: Is this really a book written in nothing but questions?

1) Book Fight! Podcast

This podcast is actually one of the regular highlights of my week. Mike Ingram and Tom McAllister are smart, not always so tasteful, but always very funny.

There’s an iTunes review that says “Listening to Tom and Mike feels like eavesdropping on the most interesting conversation at a party,” and it’s certainly true. They cover the gamut, from highbrow classics to popular, trending literature to the obscure and weird. They’re self-deprecating, witty, and there’s such a great rapport between them that it’s hard to stop listening.

Recent podcasts cover Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Patrician Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, and (among the more obscure of the bunch) “Uggs for Gaza” by Gordon Haber. Along with the book talk, other literary or not so literary themes discussed (that change with the season) include millennials and how they’re portrayed by the media and the affairs and romances of authors.

And as well as being entertaining, it is important to also point out that the conversations are thought-provoking, deep, and ask and attempt to answer interesting and challenging questions. Highly recommended for lovers of reading, writing, or books that are looking for something both intellectually stimulating but also light-hearted and entertaining.

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2. Jan Gehl & The Human Scale

There’s both a TED Talk and a documentary linked to here which explore Danish architect Jan Gehl’s ideas on urban planning, most specifically the human scale. According to Gehl, older cities (those which were built largely before the 1960s) were composed of two elements: the street (built back then primarily for walking) and the square (built as an area of public space and for the human eye). These older cities were built with the needs of the human body in mind: the speed at which a person would walk, the distances that would need to be covered on foot, what they would smell and hear and see.

Human ScaleWith the 1960s came intense population growth from agrarian communities into the cities as well as the rise of the automobile. These two factors together contributed towards rapid city construction that was heavily catered towards the needs of the automobile. Newer cities were designed to be navigated within at vehicle speeds of 60km/hr, rather than pedestrian speeds of 5km/hr. Distances between home and work and shopping became greater. In addition to the distances alone becoming prohibitive to walking, the stretches between destinations became barren of activity and life. In stark contrast to the vibrant squares, plazas, and public spaces of older European cities were born the empty in-between spaces of suburban America.

The impact of this shift in the design of cities has been enormous. Gehl mentions that the three main factors essential towards good human health are: Fresh Air, Exercise, and Meeting other people.

Newer cities make it much more challenging for people to achieve these three factors. Gehl’s research has shown that the way public spaces are designed significantly impact public behavior. What happens when a neighborhood meeting corner or public space disappears? People meet less. And what happens when streets are pedestrianized and more public spaces are created? People fill those spaces.

When cities are out of touch with the human-scale, they are not serving the needs of its people. People are less able to fully interact with the city. Cars and traffic can stifle or suffocate a city. People aren’t able to walk, to discover. With less walking and public areas come less spontaneous human interaction. People are more isolated and alone and are meeting others less often.

Gehl asks, how is it that despite the fact that humans have maintained the same size, proportions, and basic needs over the past hundreds of years –  in the past fifty, our cities have ballooned to seemingly meet creatures the size of – dinosaurs? Fascinating food for thought.


3. Gold Fools by Gilbert Sorrentino

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How is it possible than an entire book is composed of nothing but interrogative sentences? Would it even have a plot? Would it make sense? Might it, maybe, even be captivating? Might somehow the questions invite you to participate with the book and the reading experience in a way is entirely new and novel?

Yes, this is a book that is written entirely in questions. It’s a Western adventure novel and it somehow manages to get away without a single declarative sentence. I am a sucker for books that challenge conventions. And I am just so pleased that something like this exists, and I revel in the fact that it is actually, a very readable and enjoyable book. It has a plot and character development and all the familiar trappings, but somehow Sorrentino was genius enough to first dream up the idea of a book of nothing but questions – and then execute it. And it’s pretty good.

Link to Gold Fools goodreads page.

Alan Watts on How Our Anxieties Are Born Out of Our Desire for Security

My first introduction to Alan Watts was through the plethora of inspirational videos based on his writing that are out there on YouTube. Back when I was quitting my job, it seemed like every other person I told sent a Alan Watts link my way. And there are a lot of them out there. Spiritual Mind, the YouTube channel I was directed to most, seems to put out a new one almost every day. The videos, as a side note, are pretty good. They’re simple, but persuasive messages of encouragement to live according to one’s own standards, ambitions, and dreams. To do what you want with your one life.

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Watts, (1915 – 1973), a British philosopher, was well known for having been able to convey and interpret ancient Eastern teachings in ways that are understandable to and palatable by Western society. His writing addressed complex ideas, explained simply. He tackled, among other subjects, human consciousness, happiness, human identity, religion, contemplation, and anxiety – topics that are timeless and still as relevant as ever today.

In 1951, Watts published The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message For An Age of Anxiety.  A few years prior, in 1947, W.H. Auden had declared the period an “Age of Anxiety” with his epic poem of the same title. In the first pages of his book, Watts writes,

“[S]cience and industry have so increased both the tempo and violence of living…There is, then, the feeling that we live in a time of unusual insecurity. In the past hundred years so many long-established traditions have broken down – traditions of family and social life, of government, of the economic order, and of religious belief. As the years go by, there seem to be fewer and fewer rocks to which we can hold, fewer things which we can regard as absolutely right and true, and fixed for all time.”

But set aside some of the specific phrasing and Watts could easily be describing our time. In fact, I would venture to guess that every generation perhaps before and certainly since Watts has also thought themselves very anxious, having of course to deal with exceptional never before seen challenges affecting their particular times. And so it goes forever and ever, each generation feeling that they face new challenges and so are – of course, unavoidably, painfully anxious. We are anxious and anxious about being anxious.

A lot of books and articles addressing anxiety do so by identifying causes of anxiety. A quick google search led me to material explaining how our current anxiety is a result of social media and the comparisons it encourages, the election of Donald Trump, drug use, economic recessions, more people living further away from relatives, as well as a general decrease in ‘opportunities to make real connections with others.’

Watts, however, takes a different approach.

He too identifies causes of anxiety – but inner causes of anxiety. Watts identifies patterns of thinking and mental constructions that are widespread today that, almost regardless of the state of the world or individual circumstances, create anxiety. Naturally, it also follows then that awareness of and identification of these patterns can help to ease anxiety – regardless of the state of the world or of our individual circumstances.

There’s a lot of great material in the book – and there’s a reason that, together in volume, it amounts to a book rather than an article – and in paraphrasing, much is of course lost.

But the meat of Watt’s point – evident too in his title – is that a desire for security contributes to anxiety. Of course, it’s natural to want to feel secure. We want to have money in the bank to protect ourselves for emergencies, we do go and take out various insurance policies on our home, our car, our life, we do solicit advice and conduct research before making big decisions, we do look after our health, we do invest, we do strive for high paying jobs. All of these and many other actions help to provide structure and stability in our lives and are good and proper things to do and strive for.

The challenge comes though in the fact that – really, there is no such thing as real stability and security. And that, despite whatever preventative, precautionary measures we can undertake or stress about taking, we are always left with insecurity. You never know what can happen, and to a certain extent it is impossible to anticipate everything. We have to become comfortable with insecurity.

Insecurity is a part of being alive, of being. To protest against this insecurity is to struggle against – everything – life. And being in the state of struggling and anxiety makes us feel more insecure, and so on. Watts states it as such,

“It must be obvious, from the start, that there is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity. But the contradiction lies a little deeper than the mere conflict between the desire for security and the fact of change. If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet it is this very sense of separateness which makes me feel insecure. To be secure means to isolate and fortify the “I,” but it is just the feeling of being an isolated ‘I’ which makes me feel lonely and afraid. In other words, the more security I can get, the more I shall want.

To put it still more plainly: the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath.”

And similarly,

“For most of us this conflict is ever gnawing within us because our lives are one long effort to resist the unknown, the real present in which we live, which is the unknown in the midst of coming into being. Living thus, we never really learn to live with it. At every moment we are cautious, hesitant, and on the defensive. And all to no avail, for life thrusts us into the unknown willy-nilly, and resistance is as futile and exasperating as trying to swim against a roaring torrent.”

An answer – or a way we can respond to the inclination to feel insecure – is to be better at being present. Feelings of insecurity are born out of a fixation on the possibilities of the future and also on comparisons to the past. Therefore, a clearer focus on each individual moment will make it impossible to be as insecure. You cannot truly be present in an activity AND be anxious about some insecurity. If you are present in an activity – that’s it. If there’s anxiety there too, then you’re not really being present.

“The art of living in this ‘predicament’ is neither careless drifting on the one hand nor fearful clinging to the past and the known on the other. It consists in being completely sensitive to each moment, in regarding it as utterly new and unique, in having the mind open and wholly receptive.”

And at this, we are notoriously bad.

“For the animal to be happy it is enough that this moment be enjoyable. But man is hardly satisfied with this at all. He is much more concerned to have enjoyable memories and expectations – especially the latter. With these assured, he can put up with an extremely miserable present. Without this assurance, he can be extremely miserable in the midst of immediate physical pleasure.”

And suffer greatly for it.

“After all, the future is quite meaningless and unimportant unless, sooner or later, it is going to become the present. Thus to plan for a future which is not going to become present is hardly more absurd than to plan for a future which, when it comes to me, will find me ‘absent,’ looking fixedly over its shoulder instead of into its face.”

I have to reiterate – the above doesn’t do the book justice and any meaningful gains can only be taken by reading the book itself. Or, for some ‘samplings’ of Watts, the YouTube channel Spiritual Mind is still a great starting place.

Other similar books I’ve enjoyed recently: The Tao of Pooh, A New Earth

How I Remember What I Read: Creating a Personal Database of All Things Interesting

I have trouble sometimes remembering what I read. This failing applies to nonfiction, fiction, books, and articles alike. It frustrates me endlessly. I like reading. Part of the reason I like reading is that in spite of the fact that you might be enjoying yourself, reading feels like a productive activity and one that has some educational value. I enjoy the thought that I’m learning, becoming wiser. But, what then, when you don’t remember what you read? Suddenly, what felt like productivity seems like waste.
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I comfort myself with the possibility that perhaps, even through my inability to recall particular details and facts, maybe the meaning and the meat of what I’ve read is still there somewhere waiting to be tapped into or is influencing me in small, subtle ways. But, maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s just all, gone.

And so, motivated by the fear that I’m not necessarily retaining what I read, I’ve been looking for a system and for tools to help.
I’ve tried a few things, from meticulously jotting down into notebooks excerpts and quotations to using applications like OneNote or Evernote, perhaps combined with bookmarking tools like Pocket. But all were lacking in one way or another. Now, after significant trial and error, I feel like I’ve got something that works. It’s not perfect (and I’m making little adjustments and improvements as I go) – but, it’s pretty good.

 

Why have a system?


What was wrong – what was missing – with the paper and pencil or Evernote solutions that I’d tried previously? Well, to get to that, I’ll illustrate exactly what I want in an ideal system:

I want to be able to recordI want to be able to keep in one place all the interesting things I findwhether it’s a couple of key sentences in an article on fitness, a paragraph or two from a brilliant essay in an online magazine, or a sentence here and there (as well as my own comments) from a book I’ve read.

I want to be able to organize. I’d like to have some sort of folder/categorizing/tagging system. That way I can keep my notes together and organized by subject or area of interest. And I’d like to have the ability to keep this pretty detailed.

And I’d like to be able to search. A year from now, I want to be able to search, by tag, within my notes, within original text, for phrases like “Memory” or “Montaigne” or “The Civil War” and see everything I’ve ever found interesting about or including that language. I want to be rid of the moments when I think maybe I read something kind of about something in a particular book, only to never locate it.

I want to use this to find things as I recall them or to find things after I’ve forgotten them. A quick skim through such a catalogue may help me rediscover thoughts or interests I had a few months ago but had since abandoned. I want to keep a careful, curated breadcrumb trail of all my interests.

In short, I need a system that allows me to record, organize, and search.

For me, what has ended up working has been the research tool Zotero.


Why Zotero, and how do I use it?


In terms of the basics of what Zotero is, I’ll let them speak for themselves. The below was pulled from their About page,

Zotero is a free, open-source research tool that helps you collect, organize, and analyze research and share it in a variety of ways. Zotero includes the best parts of older reference manager software — the ability to store author, title, and publication fields and to export that information as formatted references — and the best aspects of modern software and web applications, such as the ability to organize, tag, and search in advanced ways. Zotero interacts seamlessly with online resources: when it senses you are viewing a book, article, or other object on the web, it can automatically extract and save complete bibliographic references. Zotero effortlessly transmits information to and from other web services and applications, and it runs both as a web service and offline on your personal devices.

To get a sense of what the landscape of the tool looks like while in usage, below is a screenshot of my working version of Zotero. As you can see, it looks very different from your traditional bookmarking and note-taking tools. This, for me is perhaps one of its biggest advantages. It’s designed to be a research tool, and thus the focus is on organizing and sorting your information rather than on writing or on developing ‘read-later’ lists. With this in mind, it’s incredibly powerful. Should you so desire, you could sort, tag, categorize, and annotate all your favorite quotes from all your favorite books and then search within, sort, and rearrange these quotes according to different themes or topics. You can do so quickly and without disrupting the underlying data. Every document you add is saved as an item, which you can then add notes to and tags to and store within folders.

 

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Figure 1

To provide a bit more detail, here is how I use it:

1) While reading online, if I come across something I want to store and remember, I save it with the Zotero bookmarklet and it automatically saves a copy of whatever I was viewing. In addition, any text is auto-indexed and made searchable. When saving the material, Zotero also automatically adds in any available metadata (things like Author, Website Name, Article Title, Date Published). When I next go into Zotero, a new entry will have automatically have been added and the metadata populated.

 

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Figure 2, Zotero Bookmarklet; source: zotero.org

2) With my items now in Zotero, I can sort and arrange them within a folder structure of my choosing. Zotero also allows for the same item to be stored within multiple folders – for those cases where mutual exclusivity just isn’t possible and I can’t decide if something should fall under ‘Philosophy’ or ‘Psychology.’

3) For each item in Zotero (remember, an item is a document – a book, magazine article, etc.), anything that I find myself wanting to highlight or remember, I add as a note. Notes are attached to specific items, and you create notes as you need them. For some articles, I have one to two notes. For a book, I may have over 100. To keep things organized, I’ll assign each note a number so that each note/highlight stays in sequential order, just like how it appears in the text. (If numbers aren’t used, Zotero by default sorts alphabetically.)

As an example, see Figure 3 below. The middle pane currently shows all the notes (lines prefaced by a yellow sticky note) that are attached to the item Life’s Stories, the name of an article that appeared in The Atlantic. The rightmost pane shows the details of the particular note that is currently highlighted. As I read an article, if there are particular excerpts that I find interesting or want to remember, I will copy it over as a note. By making something a note, I give myself a higher chance of finding it again in the future. It also now appears in my reading pane. Another way of thinking of it is your notes are all the quotes you would want to write down.

notes

Figure 3

4) On a note level as well as an item level, I assign tags according to topic or theme so as it make it easier for me to locate the note or item later. Tags work across folder structures and allow for an even more specific level of detail. Many tags can be assigned to a single note or item.

As an example, I’ll refer again to the note that appears above in Figure 3. The text of the note reads:

It can be hard to share a story when it amounts to: “This happened, and it was terrible. The end.” In research McLean did, in which she asked people who’d had near-death experiences to tell their stories to others. “The people who told these unresolved stories had really negative responses,” she says. If there wasn’t some kind of uplifting redemptive end to the story (beyond just the fact that they survived), “The listeners did not like that.”

I assigned to this note the tags ‘trauma,’ ‘resilience,’ and ‘personal narratives.‘ Although these words themselves don’t appear in the excerpt, they do describe concepts the excerpt touches on. In addition, these tags are topics I have some interest in and could imagine myself wanting to search for in the future. By adding these tags, I increase my chances of finding this note when I’m looking for it. There is certainly an art and some subjectivity in determining what words to use for tags and how many tags to assign to a note. I always try to imagine the different angles from which I might want to discover the text again in the future and then design my tags to fit that.

5) Once I have a few items in my Zotero database, I can perform advanced searches, utilizing any or all of the features mentioned above – full text searching through the original document, within particular folders, through the notes I’ve added, or through tags.


A note on physical books and other non-digitized material,

Zotero can automatically locate book metadata (author, predefined tags, publisher, call number, etc.) given an ISBN number. But, the rest of the process is of course rather manual. Typically my method now is that as I read, I highlight and add notes in the margins of the physical book. Then, every few chapters or so, I go back in and type up each highlight as a note attached to the book entry in Zotero. Each note is assigned tags that I think are relevant. I have to admit that this is a time consuming process and for books that you’re reading purely for entertainment value with less care for what you remember/get out of it, this type of process probably doesn’t make sense. However, for books where you are reading as much (or even more) for information as for entertainment, where you want to remember what you read, I find the act of going back and typing up the sentences and paragraphs that were most salient to me incredibly valuable in helping to cement, digest, and thus retain what I’ve read. And then, once done, you have the important parts of the book digitized, categorized, and more accessible to you in the future.

 


The Result?


In the end, I have a carefully organized, easily searchable, personal database of anything and everything that I’ve ever read and found interesting. I can look up a topic or keyword and find documents I had forgotten about. Through my tagging system, I can make connections between different things I’ve read, where it may not have been evident before that it was possible for connections to be made. Through a cursory skim, I am inspired over and over again. And I actually have a chance at finding that particular quote that was in that one book about that one thing, should my memory fail me.

Zotero is free and open source, so I encourage you to give it a try and see if it works for you. https://www.zotero.org/ (In case it wasn’t obvious, this isn’t sponsored by Zotero/I have no affiliation with them. I just like their software.)

*And if you’re really into data, you can export your Zotero data in a variety of formats to have a different sort of personal database to play with.

 

 

 

The Forgotten Ballad to Unrequited Love: The Original Little Mermaid

“Far out in the ocean the water is as blue as the petals of the loveliest cornflower, and as clear as the purest glass. But it is very deep too. It goes down deeper than any anchor rope will go, and many, many steeples would have to be stacked one on top of another to reach from the bottom to the surface of the sea. It is down there that the sea folk live.”

Or so the story of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” begins.

I had always known that the Disney version of “The Little Mermaid” was vastly different from the original. I had heard that the original was sad, heartbreaking, horrible. I had assumed it was some sort of twisted tale from the dark ages, unfit in its darkness for the children of today.

But oh, I was so surprised then, when I eventually did find my way to the original story. Yes, it’s sad – or has its sad elements. But it’s also so very beautiful.

Bertall_ill_La_Petite_Sirène2

Now, the 1989 Disney adaptation of “The Little Mermaid” is great. It’s enchanting and funny and lovely– but the thing is, it seems very much to be its own story, and a different story from the story Hans Christian Andersen told. And we can’t forget that before the 1989 film, in fact before Disney was a company, before Walt Disney the man was even born, before his parents in fact were born, the story of “The Little Mermaid” had enchanted thousands of people (millions perhaps?) in its own right. First published in 1837, it has stood the test of time. Or at least, it seems to have, until we realize that “The Little Mermaid” story most of us know isn’t at all the one of Hans Christian Andersen.

Shall we start with how the real story ends? In Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”, the little mermaid doesn’t get to marry her Prince. In fact, she dies, completely heartbroken. Sad and tragic? Yes. Beautiful? Just wait.

 

[The Real Story]

She doesn’t get the Prince. And yes, it is sad, but it has to be so. Because, as I’d like to explain, “The Little Mermaid” is a ballad for unrequited love, for the persistent, brave, foolhardy love that continues quietly even as it is unappreciated, unrecognized, and unseen.

And in this story and for the sake of her love, the little mermaid gives up so much. In addition to losing her voice and to forsaking her family and home, she endures great pain. Her transformation of tail to legs comes with tortuous agony, as if a sharp sword slashed through her. And although she is graceful and beautiful and lovely, each step she takes on human legs feels as if she is treading of a bed of knives that pierce her skin as she walks.

Bertall_ill_La_Petite_SirèneCoupled with the physical pain is the emotional. The Prince, foolish man, longs for the girl that saved him, for the voice and the song of the girl that saved him. Of course, we all know the Prince’s dream girl is in fact the little mermaid, but she cannot tell him. And so she suffers, as the Prince continues to see her only as an innocent child. His heart, he tells her, is saved for the girl that saved him. It is this girl and not the little mermaid that he desperately wants to find, to marry. But still the little mermaid hopes. The Prince spends time with her and cares for her and even speaks of the possibility of marrying her. Her hope must grow so large.

In the end, the Prince marries another, a girl he thinks is the girl that saved him, but of course, isn’t. And the little mermaid is given the opportunity to win back her life with her family, to return to life as a mermaid, if she can kill the Prince as he sleeps. But, she loves him, and so she can’t.

Instead as part of the bargain she made with the sea witch, she dies, turning into sea foam.

 

But here, Andersen is able to deliver the ultimate judgment. Instead of simply perishing as sea foam as other mermaids do (we are told earlier that, unlike humans, mermaids do not have afterlives), the little mermaid becomes a daughter of the air. In exchange for her goodness, for her suffering, and her loyalty, she is given the chance to win immortality, to win an immortal soul.

 

“You, poor little mermaid, have tried with your whole heart… Your suffering and your loyalty have raised you up into the realm of airy spirits, and now in the course of three hundred years you may earn by your good deeds a soul that will never die.”

 

So you see? It’s sad, but it’s so much more complicated than that. She loves with an intensity and a passion that is unreturned and unappreciated, but that has worth in its own right, for what it is. And this love is ultimately recognized. In the story, recognition comes from the spiritual realm. But for those of us who are less spiritual, this redemption comes also a metaphor for simple truth. Goodness, although not recognized, is still goodness and evil, though it may go unnoticed, is still evil. Andersen gave the little mermaid spiritual redemption but he also gave her ultimate recognition for what she is and for what she has done.

And although fantastical, perhaps it’s closer to truth than the Disney version. In real life, much of love is unreturned. Real life and real love can be difficult, heartbreaking even. I am reminded of David Whyte’s description of heartbreak in his book Consolations,

 

Heartbreak is unpreventable; the natural outcome of caring for people and things over which we have no control…

Heartbreak begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot, in other words, it colors and inhabits and magnifies each and every day; heartbreak is not a visitation, but a path that human beings follow through even the most average life. Heartbreak is an indication of our sincerity: in a love relationship, in a life’s work, in trying to learn a musical instrument, in the attempt to shape a better more generous self.

 

And so, instead of only celebrating the successful kind of love that ends in marriage, perhaps we should also honor the more difficult types of love too. Perhaps we should honor the nobleness, the purity of the unrequited love in each other.

Leonard Cohen once said, we usually don’t deserve the love we expect. And I would add, neither do we receive the type of love we deserve. Instead, we love others with the type of love we deserve, hoping for something in return.

 

Little-Mermaid-Proteus-1887

 

 

For further reading (and viewing): Enjoy the full text of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”. For film adaptations more true to the original text, see if you can find copies of Rusalochka (Russian), Anderusen Dōwa Ningyo Hime (Japanese), and The Little Mermaid by The Reader’s Digest.  More on David Whyte’s Consolations.