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.

Journey of the Universe: A Lyrical Ode to the Role of Wonder in Human Understanding

Journey of the Universe reads like a poem to the beauty of life. It tells, in breathtaking prose, the creation story of our universe. From detailing the Big Bang to the first signs of life to the evolution of mammals, humans, and the development of human consciousness, Journey of the Universe reads less like a textbook but more like a lyrical celebration of our world and how we got here. It was such a refreshing and moving take on a story we all may think we’re familiar with, but perhaps, as I learned, have never truly stopped to appreciate.

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And the difference between Journey of the Universe and many other tellings of the same story, is wonder. While all great science is driven by curiosity and the desire to know, Journey of the Universe feels especially imbued with a sense of wonder and awe.

As a process – say photosynthesis – is described (as below), you cannot help but to feel the authors marvel and to marvel yourself at something you somehow never realized was so splendid.

[On photosynthesis] “After the emergence of life itself, one of the most stunning manifestations of this deepening communion is that of photosynthesis. The key construction, requiring perhaps tens of millions of years, was a molecular assembly capable of an elegant resonance with sunlight. Like tuning forks shaped to vibrate in the presence of certain sorts of music, these special molecules, called chlorophyll, glow with energy when the light from our Sun falls upon them. The photons, when captured, lift electrons to a higher energy state, which immediately sets off a cascade of chemical events leading to the creation of powerhouse molecules within every cell. Life thus found a process of feeding upon the Sun in a direct way, drawing in sunlight and using its energy to synthesize its component parts.”

And being in awe and in appreciation of a concept is what fuels a true desire to understand and to learn. In the same way that Bill Nye’s science experiments aim to ‘wow’ middle grade students in science class, authors Brian Swimme and Mary Tucker seem to aim to awaken us adults to ‘wow’ at our world. Understanding fueled by a sense of wonder is passionate, creative, and driven. Wonder marks the difference between the rote memorization, recitation, and regurgitation of facts versus self-led discovery fueled by one’s one curiosity.

Along similar lines, philosopher Hannah Arendt in The Life of the Mind wrote,

It is wonder that sends the scientist on his course of “dispelling ignorance” and that made Einstein say: “The eternal mystery of the world [i.e., the universe] is its comprehensibility.

Authors Swimme and Tucker are patently aware of the role of wonder. Wonder, in their eyes, is what has made humans unique and is what has led us to seek to understand. They write,

“Wonder is a gateway through which the universe floods in and takes up residence within us. Consider the stars. They shined down on Earth for four and a half billion years. Then these new creatures emerged, these humans. What was different about them is that they were amazed every time they beheld the stars. Their amazement inspired works of art and science. Hundreds of thousands of years later, humans discovered that it was these stars that forged the elements of their bodies.

By dwelling in a world of wonder, humans were led to realize that they were children of the stars – something intuited in early myths and uncovered by modern science.”

On a deeper level, Swimme and Tucker argue that wonder is also what makes us human. And a continuing sense of wonder allows us today to move forward in further understanding exactly what being human in the context of our universe means.

“Wonder is not just another emotion; it is rather an opening into the heart of the universe. Wonder is the pathway into what it means to be human, to taste the lusciousness of sun-ripened fruit, to endure the bleak agonies of heartbreak, to exult over the majesty of existence.

The universe’s energies penetrate us and awaken us. Through each moment of wonder, no matter how small, we participate in the entrance of primal energies into our lives.

However insignificant we may feel with respect to the age and size of the universe, we are, even so, beings in whom the universe shivers in wonder at itself. By following this wonder we have discovered the ongoing story of the universe, a story that we tell, but a story that is also telling us.”

Similarly, I love these simple lines from the Tao Te Ching:

From wonder into wonder

Existence opens.

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.

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.

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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.