A Philosophical Fairytale for All Ages: The Lying Carpet by David Lucas

Reading The Lying Carpet is a mesmerizing, dizzying experience. Somehow, through the story of a little statue and a lying (and talking) carpet, Lucas effortlessly pushes us up against some of the most essential questions – the nature of truth, the role of stories, and making sense of one’s existence.

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(image from author David Lucas’s site)

The story centers around the statue of a little girl, Faith, who one day awakens and starts to wonder what she is. She’s puzzled with the realization that she is a statue and questions how she became a statue. With the assistance of the lying carpet, she wonders if she was once a little girl turned into a statue through a magic spell. Or is she just an ordinary statue and before that stone on the side of a mountain before being chiseled into creation by a sculptor? If she was once a girl and there is a spell, can it be unbroken? Or is she doomed to be a statue forever? And what would happen if she was knocked off her pedestal to smash against the floor? What would she be then?

Although disguised as a children’s story, I found this to be a philosophical fable – an allegory perhaps for the creation stories we humans have created over time. As the lying carpet tells her possibility after possibility of what she really is, Faith finds herself believing each story and not knowing what is true and what isn’t. Each creation story is compelling. She yearns for the truth, but the carpet frustratingly seems to be talking in circles.

Faith wishes and hopes that she’s really a little girl. She yearns for meaning and to know that she is more than just a simple statue. But the carpet and no one will tell her what she is. She yearns for proof and to know.

However, proof isn’t always possible. And sometimes we will never really know. Sometimes, in whatever we believe, whether in terms of science or love or the universe, there must be, albeit how scary it may seem, an element of ‘Faith.’

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3 Things: The Case for Idleness, Rooting for the Library over Audible, & Steps to Clear the Mind

From the pitfalls that can face a society that overvalues productivity and work for work’s sake to an undervalued resource in your public library to a mantra that can provide solace to an ever anxious society, here are three things keeping me interested:

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  • In Praise of Idleness: Bertrand Russell makes the argument for leisure
  • Audible & Library Audiobooks: Doesn’t the library also provide Audiobooks – for free?
  • BRFWA: Breathe. Relax. Feel. Watch. Accept. Simple instructions to lessening anxiety.

In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell

It never ceases to amaze me how relevant this piece is although it was written way back in 1932. Amid the rise in automation and the impact it will have on many jobs as well as murmurs in Scandinavia and elsewhere of universal basic income, Russell is so very prescient and just makes things so clear. In this essay, he challenges the traditional notion of ‘work for work’s sake’ and contends that more leisure rather than more work would make for a better society.

One of the more famous parts of this essay is an example concerning a factory that produces pins. The text is as follows,

Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?

Obviously this is an oversimplified example, but it brings up an interesting point. In our world where more and more tasks are becoming automated and we are easily able to produce things more efficiently and with less labor than ever before – what is the end result? How is it possible that we work more or less the same number of hours despite these increases in efficiency? Are we producing more than we need – and thus being wasteful, do we somehow need more than we used to, or as in the pin example are the more productive of us overworked in producing on behalf of the masses while others are underworked or unemployed?

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Sure, you may say, but what then is the alternative?  Surely mass underemployment is as harmful or more harmful than the current state of affairs. Here, Russell is optimistic in terms of the capabilities and tendencies of the common man. He points out that the pleasures of the working urban population are mostly passive. People watch TV, watch sports, listen to music. In their leisure, people are recovering from their work. They are unwinding and attempting to undo or release the tension built up during the workday. There is less energy for active leisure, leisure in which we not just consume but also create. Russell creates an optimistic but inspiring picture of what he thinks could perhaps be possible,

In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be. Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational pot-boilers, with a view to acquiring the economic independence needed for monumental works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and capacity. Men who, in their professional work, have become interested in some phase of economics or government, will be able to develop their ideas without the academic detachment that makes the work of university economists often seem lacking in reality. Medical men will have the time to learn about the progress of medicine, teachers will not be exasperatedly struggling to teach by routine methods things which they learnt in their youth, which may, in the interval, have been proved to be untrue.

He points out that historically, most of the great advances in society and thought have been made by men of leisure. From the great Greek philosophers to English poets to the men of science – these were not day laborers that pursued their interests in the evenings or on weekends. They did not draw a regular salary from the large corporations of their era. Many of them were financially independent by one means or another. They were men (or perhaps women, but for reasons let’s not go into here mostly men) of leisure that had the time to fully explore their intellectual curiosity. Bertrand argues that such freedom should be afforded to all.

Full text here.


Audible and Library Audiobooks

Audible, if you haven’t already heard of it, is an Amazon owned subscription service that allows access to audiobooks for a monthly subscription fee. There are various subscription options but one of the more common and basic packages allows for 1 audiobook a month in exchange for a monthly payment of $14.95. You can keep the books forever, even after you cancel. It’s not a bad deal, especially considering the usual prices of audiobooks (very high to ridiculously high – easily $30+ per book) and if you are a regular listener. A few years ago, I bought a 6 month gift subscription for my dad. He enjoyed it, it worked well, there were a lot of options in terms of books – no complaints.

However, I now work at a public library. Within my public library system (Metropolitan Library System – Oklahoma City), you can check out almost any title as an audiobook – the majority of these are also available as an eAudiobook (as opposed to CD versions or audiobooks preloaded onto rentable audio devices). In my library system, you can rent up to 100 items at a time (as opposed to 1 a month). Yes, sometimes there’s a wait, but there’s also a supplementary streaming service called Hoopla that also carries thousands of eAudiobooks where there is never a wait and you are allowed 4 materials a month (still more than the 1 allowed by Audible’s basic package).

No, you can’t keep the audiobook forever, but you can check it out again and again. And to me at least, while I can understand the appeal of owning a physical book and being able to write in the margins and arrange it on your bookshelf and whatnot, the appeal of owning an audiobook is to me less obvious, and especially so for eAudiobooks.

Here in Oklahoma City, I’ve seen a lot of advertising recently for Audible, and it just makes me cringe. Theoretically, because of what our library system is able to offer, Audible probably shouldn’t do that well here…but it probably will because people don’t know what the library has to offer. I think a large part of your customer base for Audible is probably your young professional – the age group libraries sometimes struggle to attract.

So, the takeaway here is – as a customer, check and see what your library has. And libraries need to do a much, much better job in marketing themselves.


BRFWA

Breathe, Relax, Feel, Watch, Accept. I first encountered this set of instructions through the book Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment, but it’s actually a well known technique from the Kripalu style of yoga. Used to clear the mind when one is frustrated and anxious, it’s a useful tonic that has done me wonders. From when I’m lying awake in bed frustrated at myself and the world for not being able to simply fall asleep to when I find myself tense and irritated at a customer in the library who is letting her children run wild and systematically wreck havoc shelf to shelf, this process helps.

Sometimes feelings emerge, uninvited, that disturb us. Sometimes you can’t logically think your way out of a feeling. It is just there. Being frustrated at the feeling breeds more frustration and magnifies the sense of discomfort. The feelings are often there for a reason and are our reaction to something. The feeling is an indication that something is off and uncomfortable. Sometimes, we are able to react based off of those feelings. Confronted with a betrayal by a close friend, anger and disappointment alert us to reconsider the friendship and to exit a potentially dangerous relationship. Other times, there is nothing to be done and the feeling is just there, unpleasant and simmering.

In these cases where there is nothing to be done, frustration directed at the feeling itself and general unfocused anxiety can emerge. But frustration at the feeling, at the situation, at ourselves isn’t helpful. In these cases, BRFWA can be helpful.

  • Breathe – Take pause, take a deep breath, and clear the head
  • Relax – Enjoy the end of the breath and the physical exhale
  • Feel – Allow yourself to feel, however painfully, whatever it is that you’re feeling without fighting or trying to suppress the feelings
  • Watch – Observe whatever it is that you are feeling. Take note of it. Take note of how you are reacting to these feelings.
  • Accept – Accept it all. The feeling is just a feeling, and it’s okay to have all sorts of feelings, even the negative.

In the case of being frustrated at my insomnia, this means inhaling and exhaling deeply (Breathe & Relax), allowing myself to feel all my frustration and anger and unhappiness at the insomnia (Feel), noticing and taking stock of all these feelings (Watch), and then simply accepting that today, I am unable to sleep and I am frustrated at the fact (Accept). When the mind stops fighting, it’s often then easier to sleep.

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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

The Ephemera: A Fairytale from Benjamin Franklin on the Transience of Life & Our Smallness in the Universe

I have been reading an old book I found in a used bookstore. The book, A Treasury of the Essay moves chronologically, starting with, predictably, Michel de Montaigne, who is credited with popularizing the essay as a genre, and then through the centuries, including a whole host of European and American essayists, some to me fairly familiar, such as Jonathan Swift and Virginia Woolf, and others less so – William Cobbett and James Thurber for example.

benjamin franklinWe’re treated to excerpts of essays in a wide assortment of styles. I have enjoyed some and been bored by many.

And by a few, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. There is only one essay included by Benjamin Franklin. It is found in a letter to a lady – and reads a bit like a children’s story. I found it whimsical, captivating, and so very unexpected.

Find in the below a gentle reminder of one’s smallness in the universe, the shortness and transience of life, and the importance then of not taking ourselves and our own importance too seriously.


Benjamin Franklin to Madam Brillon de Jouy, 1778


You may remember, my dear friend, that when we lately spent that happy day in the delightful garden and sweet society of the Moulin Joly, I stopt a little in one of our walks, and staid some time behind the company. We had been shown numberless skeletons of a kind of little fly, called an ephemera, whose successive generations, we were told, were bred and expired within the day. I happened to see a living company of them on a leaf, who appeared to be engaged in conversation…I turned my head to an old grey-headed [fly], who was single on another leaf, and talking to himself. Being amused with his soliloquy, I put it down in writing

“It was,” said he, “the opinion of learned philosophers of our race, who lived and flourished long before my time, that this vast world, the Moulin Joly, could not itself subsist more than eighteen hours; and I think there was some foundation for that opinion, since, by the apparent motion of the great luminary that gives life to all nature, and which in my time has evidently declined considerably towards the ocean at the end of our earth, it must then finish its course, be extinguished in the waters that surround us, and leave the world in cold and darkness, necessarily producing universal death and destruction.

I have lived seven of those hours, a great age, being no less than four hundred and twenty minutes of time. How very few of us continue so long! I have seen generations born, flourish, and expire. My present friends are the children and grandchildren of the friends of my youth, who are now, alas no more! And I must soon follow them; for, by the course of nature, though still in health, I cannot expect to live above seven or eight minutes longer.

What now avails all my toil and labor, in amassing honey-dew on this leaf, which I cannot live to enjoy! What the political struggles I have been engaged in, for the good of my compatriot inhabitants of this bush, or my philosophical studies for the benefit of our race in general!…My friends would comfort me with the idea of a name they say, I shall leave behind me; and they tell me I have lived long enough to nature and to glory. But what will fame be to an ephemera who no longer exists? And what will become of all history in the eighteenth hour, when the world itself, even the whole Moulin Joly, shall come to its end, and be buried in universal ruin?”

To me, after all my eager pursuits, no solid pleasures now remain, but the reflection of a long life spent in meaning well, the sensible conversation of a few good lady ephemerae, and now and then a kind smile and a tune from the ever amiable Brilliante.


 

I found this a welcomed jolt of perspective that is just as useful to us now as it was in Benjamin Franklin’s day.

I was reminded while reading this of the classic Cosmos by Carl Sagan. In fact, in Cosmos is a line strikingly similar in sentiment, “We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever.”

For some additional detail and the full text of Benjamin Franklin’s letter, click here.

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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.

 

 

 

Hannah Arendt, Appearances, and the Meaning to be Found at the Surface

We have a complicated relationship, I think, with beauty. We hunt for it, within magazines, museums, in our travels. We document and collect beauty, in our photographs and belongings, and we attempt to create beauty, in our own art, in our homes, and of course out of ourselves, in the application of makeup, the tanning of the skin, the toning of the muscles. But yet, sometimes, we disparage beauty. Beauty must compete for its worth with usefulness, with pragmatism, and with things that have a cause, a reason for being beyond the appearance. In persons, we recognize that physical beauty is only skin deep. The real essence of the person must be something much deeper.

The beauty of things, the appearance of things can seem trivial compared to this essence of the thing or being. And of course, it is. But, as with anything else, we can also consider it differently.

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Philosopher Hannah Arendt in her book The Life of the Mind invites us to consider the significance and the gravity of Appearances.

She reminds us first of the relationship between being and appearing. Implicit in the “I exist” is the “I appear.” And a necessary follower to the “I appear” is “I appear to others.”

 

The world men are born into contains many things, natural and artificial, living and dead, transient and sempiternal, all of which have in common that they appear and hence are meant to be seen, heard, touched, tasted, and smelled, to be perceived by sentient creatures endowed with the appropriate sense organs.

Nothing could appear, the word “appearance” would make no sense, if recipients of appearances did not exist— living creatures able to acknowledge, recognize, and react to— in flight or desire, approval or disapproval, blame or praise— what is not merely there but appears to them and is meant for their perception.

In this world which we enter, appearing from a nowhere, and from which we disappear into a nowhere, Being and Appearing coincide…Nothing and nobody exists in this world whose very being does not presuppose a spectator. In other words, nothing that is, insofar as it appears, exists in the singular; everything that is is meant to be perceived by somebody. Not Man but men inhabit this planet.

 

In addition to this world of appearances is also the world of what is unseen. Traditionally, the unseen – whether material – the brain, the heart, the organs or immaterial, as in the self or the mind, is given more weight than appearance. She quotes Kant as exemplifying this tradition in thought when he said that appearances “must themselves have grounds which are not appearances.” Arendt believes that this belief that a cause should be of a higher rank than the effect is one of the oldest and most stubborn of fallacies.

 

What Meaning Can we Find in Appearances?

Arendt asks the provoking and astounding question,

“Could it not be that appearances are not there for the sake of the life process but, on the contrary, that the life process is there for the sake of appearances? Since we live in an appearing world, is it not much more plausible that the relevant and the meaningful in this world of ours should be located precisely on the surface?”

I love this line of inquiry, not because it is necessarily wholly true but because perhaps there is some truth in the answer and most importantly because it challenges so much we take for granted so very powerfully.

I am reminded of sentences I came across recently here, “Beauty comes beforprimrose-2082038_1920e reason. It demands you look for meaning. It announces meaning in an almost violent way.”

Beauty or the appearance announces meaning. Perhaps it is the meaning, announcing itself, provoking further inquiry.

In order to answer this question, that of if meaning can be found at the surface, Arendt references the work of the biologist and zoologist Adolf Portmann. In his work, Portmann distinguishes between the Authentic Appearance and the Inauthentic Appearance. The Authentic Appearances “come to light of their own accord” and Inauthentic Appearances “such as the roots of a plant or the inner organs of an animal” are “visible only through interference.” Leaning on some of Portmann’s work, Arendt provides two arguments:

 

First argument: There are significant and meaningful differences between how the external and the internal appear that reveal a beauty and distinction unique to the external

Portmann observed the fact that external appearances are “infinitely varied and highly differentiated.” From the external we can generally differentiate from one individual to another. External features are arranged in pleasing ways, according to symmetry. Think of the human face, of butterfly wings. The internal or the inauthentic by contrast, such as bodily organs, are not pleasing to the eye, are not generally symmetrical (in higher level organisms), and cannot be used to easily distinguish between individuals.

Portmann searched for the cause of these peculiarities, which he failed to find, and attributed the characteristics to mysterious “unknown powers of creation” (point of clarification – Portmann was not a creationist and in fact was an ardent fan of Darwin, whose work informed his writing). Arendt however is interested in the expression itself and less so the cause. The uniqueness of the external as opposed to the internal is perhaps itself evidence of the importance of the external. If the insides of us were what appeared to others, she writes, we would all look alike.

 

Second argument: Beings have the innate urge to self-display beyond the functional

Portmann writes of a natural “urge to self-display” that transcends the functional – that transcends what is deemed necessary for sexual attraction and adaptation.  Arendt elaborates,

Whatever can see wants to be seen, whatever can hear calls out to be heard, whatever can touch presents itself to be. It is indeed as though everything that is alive— in addition to the fact that its surface is made for appearance, fit to be seen and meant to appear to others— has an urge to appear, to fit itself into the world of appearances by displaying and showing, not its “inner self” but itself as an individual.

And what is being expressed? Yes, words and sounds, but even more so, even more often, it is the physical, the us, the body, the self in acts of appearing and being seen.

 

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Arendt concludes that the belief that our “inner life” is more relevant to what we “are” than what appears on the outside, is an illusion. Note that Arendt does not explicitly state that the outer life is more relevant and the inner life less relevant. Rather, I’ve come to think that the argument can be understood as a defense for an equal exploration of both cause and effect, of inner and outer. What is expressed, what appears, can be as important the cause of the expression or appearance. And in searching for the cause of the appearance, we cannot discount the importance and the meaning of the appearance itself.

Furthermore, for me, it lends additional possibilities as well as mystery to our conceptions of appearances as well as our conceptions of beauty and form, whether of ourselves or of our world, a mountain, a butterfly, a stone.