What’s in your way?

I’m fond of saying that the first 90 percent of something is vastly easier than the second 90 percent. There’s so much wisdom packed into that, and it’s funny—if you know how to tell a joke. Gee Willikers! I’m almost done! When in fact, I’ve only just scratched the surface.

In practice, this means you need to limit distractions to the full extent possible. Pull quotes, so effective near the top of an article, become a nuisance further down; many readers will find themselves unconsciously drawn to them, even when they want to focus on the text. Attention to the basic typographic details, line length, a readable typeface, the right balance between font size and line height, appropriate contrast between the text and background, can make the difference between a reader who makes it to the end of the article versus one who tires and gives up.

~ Mandy Brown from, https://aworkinglibrary.com/writing/in-defense-of-readers

I can say, without exaggeration, that I’ve tortured myself over every single tiny detail of what you are looking at. That includes the fact that 7 for Sunday looks slightly different in email. (It looks great in email; but what you see isn’t quite as controllable as a web site.) It would probably be good enough if I hadn’t tortured myself about the details, even though I think craftsmanship matters.

But of course readers matter most.

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Moving scenery

I like Carl Sagan’s point about humans being able to work magic. (I’ll pause here while you read the quote.) Writing enables us to transmit ideas across time and space directly into others’ minds; It’s a natural and obvious development once we had language and storytelling. I am so far, endlessly fascinated by that.

My soul is three generations old

~ Jesse Danger from, https://www.toloveonetrue.com/blog/my-soul-is-three-generations-old

Does what someone says, or writes, need to make sense? It would be insane to expect it to always, or necessarily, make sense. What about poetry? And what about mental imagery incited by reading or listening? And what about literal imagery? I find there’s a vast range of media, and mediums, that interest me once given a chance. Sometimes I want to read logical and reasoned text. Sometimes I want to relax by the window of the train as the scenery slides past.

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Actively decide

It takes some commitment to decide. I find my urge is to wriggle. My urge is to try to keep my options open. My urge is to take on more. In the case of this little missive, I mean to seek more and more information. To go beyond actively seeking, to passively permitting more and more things to flow at me.

Does this content move me closer to or further from my ultimate aim? If what we consume becomes our thoughts, our thoughts become our actions, and our actions become our character, can I give the things I watch, listen to, and read — the things I’m turning into — a grade of B or above? The lure of a compelling headline aside, does this topic actually interest me? Does this content educate and edify? And when I’m seeking pure entertainment, which everyone sometimes needs, does it at least not appeal to the most reptilian part of my brain, and make me feel lower, baser, and stupider as a result?

~ Brett McKay from, https://www.artofmanliness.com/character/behavior/sunday-firesides-be-a-ruthless-editor-in-chief/

Still, I resist the urge to decide and invite the self-made disaster of overwhelm. Why? Because it takes real courage, in the presence of others and in the presence of others’ vociferous opinions… It takes courage for me to say, “I don’t know.”

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Reading

Reading must occur every day, but it is not just any daily reading that will do. The day’s reading must include at minimum a few lines whose principal intent is to be beautiful—words composed as much for the sake of their composition as for the meaning they convey.

~ Mandy Brown

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Driven a little mad

Reading is letting someone else model the world for you. This is an act of intimacy. When the author is morose, you become morose. When he is mirthful, eventually you may share it. And after finishing a very good book one is driven a little mad, forced to return from a world that no one nearby has witnessed.

~ Simon Sarris

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Then you read

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was reading books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive. An artist is a sort of emotional historian.

~ James Baldwin

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Ridiculous

The moral? That there is no greater homage we could pay Proust than to end up passing the same verdict on him as he passed on Ruskin, namely, that for all its qualities, his work must eventually also prove silly, maniacal, constraining, false and ridiculous to those who spend too long on it.

“To make [reading] into a discipline is to give too large a role to what is only an incitement. Reading is on the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it: It does not constitute it.”

Even the finest books deserve to be thrown aside.

~ Alain de Botton

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It’s even better than that

I’ve a few readers who really enjoy the Marcus Aurelius quotes in my collection. A few initial Aurelius quotations I collected through my general reading online, before I eventually read Meditations (English translations thereof, to be fair) and pulled a bunch more quotes myself.

I’ve just spent a few hours cleaning up my Aurelius quotes. Mostly this was adding the section number from Meditations to my blog posts. It’s now easy to find the original material. Note that Wikisource has several versions of Meditations available online. But at the risk of sounding snobbish, I really like Gregory Hays’s translation which will go out of copyright (maybe) in 2102. I digress.

During my cleanup, I realized that one of my quotes, “Death smiles at us all. All a man can do is smile back.” is not something Aurelius wrote. It’s something the character Marcus Aurelius said in the Movie Gladiator. But it really sounds like him; It’s a great line of dialog for a movie.

It turns out that there are two spots in Meditations which echo the often misattributed quote. In the middle of section 2.17 he writes, “[…] it accepts death in a cheerful spirit, as nothing but the dissolution of the elements from which each living thing is composed.” which is the sentiment without the cinema flourish. It also doesn’t make perfect sense when you pull it out from its context.

Eventually, you reach the final line of section 12.36 and find, “So make your exit with grace — the same grace shown to you.” That’s literally the final line he wrote as a meditation to himself. Can you imagine that being the last line you wrote to yourself? And thus my title.

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Sometimes it’s just reading

How she used to smoke in his office, back when the University allowed that in campus buildings. He didn’t smoke, but allowed her to as she sat on the sofa across from his desk. Or rather, he didn’t object, and even set out a little dessert plate as an ashtray. Maybe because it gave them both a pretense for talking longer, for the extra duration of a cigarette, then two, then three. So that by the time she graduated, she was a chain-smoker.

~ Ling Ma from, https://www.theatlantic.com/books/archive/2022/05/ling-ma-office-hours-short-story/629852/

Usually I have some observation to make about the things I share herein. I’ll find myself reading something, an interesting idea flits into my belfry, and I’m momentarily enthralled. It’s at that point that I kick that item into my process for coming out, here.

This was different. I stubbornly reread that first sentence arguing internally about grammar— Decided it didn’t matter because I liked the cut of the paragraph overall— And then realized I was half-way through the entire thing—

Sometimes I just share interesting things I find lying about.

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I have a problem

If you find yourself wanting to speed up the reading process on a particular book, you may want to ask yourself, “Is this book any good?”

~ Ryan Holiday from, https://ryanholiday.net/13-reading-strategies/

Long-time readers will be well aware of my self-diagnosed problem with books. I’ve spent a lot of time reading about reading about books, but this list by Holiday made me think about a few things in a new light. Yes, of course; It’s a post by Holiday so it’s going to have some ancient Stoic philosophers in it. Schopenhauer had a sublime lament about time for reading. Holiday’s strategies won’t help you there. There’ll preserve some of your reading time for, well, more reading. But I still think the hardest part about reading is making it a priority. (Recall: “I don’t have time to…” is bullshit.)

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Should I keep blogging?

This is not a passive-aggressive maneuver to get you to scroll to the bottom, read the footer and consider supporting my work. (It would mean a lot though if you did.)

This is a serious question which I ask myself at a frequency approaching every minute. All the benefits are not directly measurable.

Exposure — In order to ensure I have material to write posts, I have various processes and systems that force me to skim an insane amount of stuff pretty much every day. If you imagine skimming my weekly email in a second or two, that’s 7 items. I skim about 300 to 500 items every day. A small number each day catch my attention enough that I toss them on my read-later queue. There are 764 things on that queue at this instant. It takes me significant time to read them, but often just a few seconds to realize, “yeah this is going to be a blog post” (and then I go on reading to the end and then I write the post.) If I stopped blogging, would I still do all that work to be exposed to ideas?

Learning — Writing blog posts creates a third “imprint” in my mind. First a glance, then a read, and then thinking about it. Even if I sometimes abort the blog post mid-writing, it’s still three different repetitions. And I have software that feeds me my own blog posts (“what did I post 10 years ago, today?” etc.) so I am constantly re-reading everything on this site; that’s more repetitions as things drift into history.

Integration — If I write a blog post about it, I generally try to figure out its relationship to everything else. Adding blog tags is the most obvious bit of integration. But figuring out what to pull quote involves deciding what is salient to me. And deciding which part(s) I want to focus on, magnify, or disagree with requires further integration.

Writing — Thoughts swirl in my mind. Characters appear on my screen. There are several skills one can work on between those two sentences.

All of that goes into feeding my personal growth and priming my curiosity. Since good conversation is powered by genuine curiosity, all that stuff also enables my person mission.

Should I keep blogging? It doesn’t feel like stopping is realistically an option.

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Reaching the end isn’t the point

Much better is to rebuild the skill entirely with a different approach, one that directly addresses your perennial snags. Instead of slowly getting better at your familiar, limited way, you embrace the awkwardness of learning an unfamiliar but stronger method, as though you’ve never done the thing before at all.

~ David Cain from, https://www.raptitude.com/2021/10/how-to-level-up-instead-of-plugging-away/

In the article Cain mentions spending as much as 10 minutes in reading one page as part of his larger anecdote from which he’s drawing this lesson. Sometimes it takes me a long time to find enough tranquility in my mind just to feel ready to read. I always have so many thing on the to-do and should-do lists. By the time I get enough of the urgent items beat back into the shadows, often, another days has passed with too little reading. I should do something about that…

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Rhyming

There comes a moment in doing your reading where new work begins to rhyme. When you start to see the connections. When you understand who influenced the person you’re engaging with right now.

~ Seth Godin from, https://seths.blog/2021/09/on-doing-the-reading/

I find it difficult to figure out when to shift from empty-cup, learn-everything mode into the mastery mode. Godin’s insight about “rhyming” strikes me as a great test. In the beginning of some new learning adventure, everything is new and everything is surprising. The idea of noticing when a lot of things start to rhyme… of noticing when you can tell who or what influenced this thing you’re currently studying… that is when you notice that you have shifted into the mastery level of practice. Mastery does not—not by a long shot!—mean you are done. It’s more like the point where the airplane pivots and leaps into the sky: Now I am ready to begin my own journey.

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Reading for ‘hunh’

But if you only remember six things after reading this article, it should be the following truths about reading:

~ Shane Parrish from, https://fs.blog/2021/08/remember-books/

Those six points are right near the top, too. It’s a great article about reading. —about a certain kind of reading. I’m not certain what to call the type of reading, but for today “reading to learn” will do as a label. Well, there’s another type of reading which I’ll call “reading for ‘hunh‘”.

There’s deep value in a ‘hunh’. When you find one, you can be sure you have just learned something. I spend a lot of time every day reading for ‘hunh’. I cast a wide net and then haul the contents up onto the fishing boat deck. I shuffle through the contents in muck boots; you don’t want to get this arbitrary stuff really on you. Using a squee-gee I push some of it around in an only vaguely interested fashion. I’m not super-focused. I’m paying attention for sharp edges but I’m not expecting any particular outcome. If I find a ‘hunh’ it’s just that; no more and no less than something simply interesting for the time it’s in my realm of awareness. And then I drop it back on the deck. Soon enough I wash it all overboard.

What kind of reading is that?

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