Books

The purpose of reading is to write

I’ve long struggled with the fact that I forget most of what I read. I read mostly for fun, but it’s disappointing when what I read doesn’t affect my life.

Writing about books seems to help me remember what I read. The additional thinking required to write down and compress my thoughts solidifies the lessons from the book. A good friend once said that “no one can ever teach you anything; they can only help you realize what you actually believe already.” Writing about what I read further distills the ideas and helps me “know what I believe”.

There’s also an imbalance created by only taking in ideas and not putting them back out. Writing helps me let go of ideas, making room for new things.

So now when I find a new book to read, I ask myself “what will you write about this?” The books that seem like good writing inspiration are also usually the best reads as well.

(inspired by a tweet from Steve Sinofsky…sure, tweets count as writing too!)

Two contrasting views on worldbuilding in fiction

M. John Harrison thought worldbuilding was unnecessary and dull:

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there.

Charlie Stross (who points to Harrison in this piece) thinks it’s the defining part of science fiction:

[Humans] exist in a context provided by our culture and history and relationships, and if we’re going to write a fiction about people who live in circumstances other than our own, we need to understand our protagonists’ social context…

For instance, stories about modern life (non-science fiction) fall flat if they don’t connect with the increasingly-bizarre context we live in today:

We’re living in a world where invisible flying killer robots murder wedding parties in Kandahar, a billionaire is about to send a sports car out past Mars, and loneliness is a contagious epidemic…These things are the worms in the heart of the mainstream novel of the 21st century. You don’t have to extract them and put them on public display, but if they aren’t lurking in the implied spaces of your story your protagonists will strike a false note.

By the way, here’s that sports car, which launched today and is currently orbiting Earth:

The big opportunity, to Stross, is building worlds different enough from our own context to illuminate other ways of being; where you can tell other types of stories:

SF should—in my view—be draining the ocean and trying to see at a glance which of the gasping, flopping creatures on the sea bed might be lungfish. But too much SF shrugs at the state of our seas and settles for draining the local aquarium, or even just the bathtub, instead.

Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read

Great overview of the “forgetting curve“, the way that we immediately forget almost all the information we take in:

For many, the experience of consuming culture is like filling up a bathtub, soaking in it, and then watching the water run down the drain. It might leave a film in the tub, but the rest is gone.

That describes many of my reading experiences quite well; sometimes I feel like the characters in this Portlandia skit. The key to avoiding this is recalling and re-encountering the information again:

If you want to remember the things you watch and read, space them out…Memories get reinforced the more you recall them, Horvath says. If you read a book all in one stretch—on an airplane, say—you’re just holding the story in your working memory that whole time. “You’re never actually reaccessing it,” he says.

The most well-known technique for recalling information systematically is spaced repetition:

Spaced repetition is a learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect.

This website has always served as my outboard brain, but I don’t re-encounter my own thoughts on a regular basis. I’ve tried a few times to set up a system to send me random past posts; worth getting that going.

Notes from Learning to Die in the Anthropocene

A few years back I was talking with a friend about how much more frequent and easier air travel had gotten even since I was a kid. I mentioned that our kids would probably travel constantly and never settle down, and he responded “or maybe we’ll run out of resources and they won’t be able to travel at all.”

That was the first time I really considered that our way of life might not continue growing forever, and may end or transform completely. Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene is a short, poetic exploration of how we might come to terms with our mortality as a civilization, and if we must die out, learn how to die well. It’s a dark book, but offers an unexpected olive branch in the form of the humanities as a way to avoid the worst of what might come.

The Big Idea

Humanity’s survival through the collapse of carbon-fueled capitalism and into the new world of the Anthropocene will hinge on our ability to let our old way of life die while protecting, sustaining, and reworking our collective stores of cultural technology. (23)

Scranton highlights that the foundations of our civilization are the stories we tell ourselves. If we tell stories about endless technological progress and individual fulfillment, we are likely to fall into chaos once our resources run out. But if we tell stories about what’s best–and most basic–about human culture, we build knowledge and a support system for harder times.

Rather than technology, this emphasizes the humanities as the most important area to develop in ourselves and our children. Scranton argues that reading, writing, singing and drawing new stories about “the good life” is the best way to protect against the dangers of climate change, resource depletion, and societal collapse.

The first step, though, is to personally and as a society realize our mortality and shift to a mindset of collective responsibility.

5 favorite quotes

  • Politics, whether for bees or for humans, is the energetic distribution of bodies in systems. This is where the ideas of the vote, the town hall meeting, and the public debate get their power: humans come together to resonate on one frequency or another. (55-56)
  • Accepting this emptiness, letting go of my self, was only the first step in coming to understand my responsibility to and participation in a larger collective self, a kind of human existence transcending any particular place or time, going back to our first moments in Africa 200,000 years ago, and living on in the dim, fraught future of the Anthropocene.(93-94)
  • “All the wisdom and reasoning in this world boils down finally to this point: to teach us not to be afraid to die.” – Michel de Montaigne (91)
  • The only inherent trait of the human ape that differentiates us from other animals is our knack for collective symbolic manipulation. (94)
  • The study of the humanities is nothing less than the patient nurturing of the roots and heirloom varietals of human symbolic life…The fate of the humanities, as we confront the end of modern civilization, is the fate of humanity itself. (99; 110)

Next steps

I’ve long wanted to write simple children’s books about the future, and illustrating possible good lifestyles in a challenging environment seems like a good way to do that. Will make that a priority this year.

Update – Just found out I posted this on the day Ursula Le Guin died. Sad news. A quote of hers that applies quite nicely here:

“We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.”

Notes from “Why Buddhism is True”

Robert Wright’s books have oscillated between evolutionary science (The Moral Animal) and religious history (The Evolution of God, Nonzero). His latest book, Why Buddhism is True, tries to unify the fields, told through a personal perspective.

For more than two millennia, Buddhism had been studying how the human mind is programmed to react to its environment, how exactly the “conditioning” works. Now, with Darwin’s theory, we understood what had done the programming.

One of Buddhism’s big ideas is that most of what we sense and feel is illusory. Wright argues that evolution created these illusions by shaping us to value survival and reproductive success more than “truth”:

Natural selection didn’t design your mind to see the world clearly; it designed your mind to have perceptions and beliefs that would help take care of your genes.

He gives the example of seeing–really seeing–a dangerous snake out of the corner of your eye, sprinting away, and then turning back to realize it was only a stick. In the moment, your brain saw a snake, because it was more beneficial to your genes to believe it was real.

Even if you think you’re being rational, that too can be an illusion:

From natural selection’s point of view, it’s good for you to tell a coherent story about yourself, to depict yourself as a rational, self-aware actor. So whenever your actual motivations aren’t accessible to the part of your brain that communicates with the world, it would make sense for that part of your brain to generate stories about your motivation.

His conclusion is that our collective psychology is “a byproduct of the particular evolution of our species”, and that the way to save the world is for people to recognize their illusions, especially the illusion of separateness from each other.

I think there will have to be, in the long run, a revolution in human consciousness. I’m not sure what to call the revolution—maybe the Metacognitive Revolution, since it will involve stepping back and becoming more aware of how our minds work. But I think it’s going to have to be something so dramatic that future historians will have an actual label for the transformation.

In an age of information addiction and personalized newsfeeds it’s hard to imagine the world embracing mindfulness en masse. But perhaps it is exactly the artifice of those things that will drive us back to a more natural, more mindful, and more truthful lifestyle.

Notes from The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

This book surprised me by actually living up to its title. I expected a collection of “life hacks” and instead found a crisp new philosophy of focus and priority.

The Big Idea

The best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask: “Does this spark joy?” If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it.

Decide which things in your life bring you true joy, and get rid of the rest. If something used to bring you joy, or you think it could bring you joy in the future, thats not good enough. Joyless items not only fail in their core duty of improving your life, but also block and distract from the things that do bring you joy.

This of course applies to physical items, but can be extended to relationships, jobs, and activities. Ruthlessly discard joyless things!

5 Favorite Quotes

  • When you put your house in order, you put your affairs and your past in order, too. As a result, you can see quite clearly what you need in life and what you don’t, and what you should and shouldn’t do.

  • When we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.

  • The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.

  • The best way to find out what we really need is to get rid of what we don’t.

  • Human beings can only truly cherish a limited number of things at one time.

Next Steps

I’m going to “tidy up” next week!

Types of stories

All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. – Leo Tolstoy

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. – Joseph Campbell

Overcoming the Monster; Rags to Riches; The Quest; Voyage and Return; Comedy; Tragedy; Rebirth – Christopher Booker

Boy Meets Girl, The Little Tailor, and the Man-Who-Learns-Better – Robert Heinlein

And many, MANY more

Designing for imagination

Some good thoughts about the future of books, reading, and the imagination:

Looked at against richer media, it’s kind of amazing that books still exist at all. They don’t move. They can’t carry a tune. They’re simply not capable of the kind of visual beauty that we can get elsewhere in the media ecosystem…

The thing about books, though, is that it’s not their primitive components that make them work. It’s the imagination of the reader, and that is an incredibly potent — and timeless — media tool. The power of a book comes from the act of reading it…

What do we want the act of imagination that we call “reading” to look like and feel like in the future?

A couple good examples included as well.

Science fiction + science fact

Michael Abrash, head of Valve Software’s augmented reality efforts, talks about why he’s joining Oculus. It’s interesting how he focuses on the imagined experience from the books as much as the technology, which meanwhile proceeds along its own path. Blending the two is a powerful combination.

Sometime in 1993 or 1994, I read Snow Crash, and for the first time thought something like the Metaverse might be possible in my lifetime. Around the same time, I saw the first leaked alpha version of Doom…

Fast-forward fourteen years…

Then two things happen at about the same time. On one path, Palmer develops his first VR prototype, John and Palmer Luckey connect, Oculus forms and its Kickstarter is wildly successful, DK1 ships, and John becomes Oculus CTO. Meanwhile, I read Ready Player One, strongly recommend it to several members of the AR group, and we come to the conclusion that VR is potentially more interesting than we thought, and far more tractable than AR.

The Winston Primer

I’ve been rereading The Diamond Age and understanding a lot more about the “Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer” which plays a major role. So it was awesome to see that some Pixar veterans have started to create something very similar for the iPad…right down to the ractors:

Speech engineers interpret the data daily, and alert writers to fresh answers. In one Fireside Chat Winston asks, “What is your favorite ball?” The staff came up with all the ball types they could think of, but in testing the app several kids replied “gumball.” Since that was not in the lineup, the writers concocted a quip to respond to “gumball” and added it to the database…

So far, more than 3,000 lines have been recorded. The ToyTalk team expects to add fresh material to the app every week. And there’s also a full-time voice actor on staff to record the dialogue.