Books in Brief: How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens

I wish I had read this as an undergraduate. It breaks apart why the method of note-taking seen in schools is terrible and only reinforces the departmentalized structure that philosophy of education seeks to recapitulate into its students. Basically: take literature notes while reading, translating what you read into your own words. Then take permanent notes on those notes, abstracting out those ideas from their context in the work while trying to connect one atomic idea with another. This network of notes becomes the building blocks of a career as a scholar, researcher, or writer, or whatever. He sells this process over and over and over. It feels repetitive, but that is the point. It references some hokey pop-sci books where I wish it would reference more articles, though there’s plenty of that. (Though

I haven’t heard of many of the folks he references; there’s a thread of German social science that didn’t make it to my learning sciences education, though there’s a lot of overlap of ideas.) Reading up more about the author, he uses Roam Research now, which I also use, and which makes sense. But the tools you use matter so much less than that cycle of taking literature notes in your own words, idea by idea, then writing notes about those notes, isolating atomic ideas (usually in the form of claims or statements), then connecting those atomic ideas to others. It’s that easy, that simple. But it takes practice. You’ll start to do what the book says with the book itself, and it seems specifically built for this. Even if you don’t have a totalizing system, if this book gets you to stop highlighting and underlining (though that’s fine, but not enough) and write down full sentences translating what you’re reading into your own words, you’ll be in a much better place than when you started, at the beginnings of a virtuous and productive cycle. He leans on the network effects of this method, the dynamics of it. I can imagine this book will infuriate some people, but that’s fine.


Books in Brief: A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor

I love this book. The trilogy chronicles the adventures of the author walking from England to Istanbul starting in 1934. This represents his travels up to Hungary. It’s a time capsule of a Europe trying to understand the consequences of the Great War and weary of the rumblings in Germany. There’s not really a narrative, which is kind of the point. It’s more of a suite of adolescent impressions of humanity as filtered through the author looking back at them, someone who has been through the worst humanity has to offer, but only after the events described. The memories are limned with a kind of gauzy joy, an innocence he’s trying to recover, and the writing feels like a byproduct of that process. Which is to say the writing is some of the best travel writing in English, if not the best. I read this book at night, right before falling to sleep. Every night it sent me into a beautiful reverie of snowy paths, hearth-warmed inns, and an invigorated faith in strangers.

Books Quotes Reviews

Books in Brief: Ducks, Newburyport

I finished Ducks, Newburyport. I started in September 2019 and finished today, four months later. It’s a singular, unique, and amazing work that shows a whole human being in the right now.

I’ve never read a novel that so accurately depicted the sensation of living in an environment where every day brings fresh horrors that don’t directly impinge on our lives, even as they gnaw at our well-being. More powerfully still, I’ve read nothing that so thoroughly acknowledges the toxic mix of guilt and dread that is the bassline of life in Western society amid a climate change disaster that our every action exacerbates.

Thinking Through the Clutter, a book review by Levi Stahl

I’ve never read anything like it. A lot of the time when I began reading it on a given day, I would get overwhelmed in the way the narrator felt overwhelmed, which is why I think it took me four months to read. I read other things during that time, too, because too much of it, especially in one sitting, felt like too much. But there are some passages where twenty pages will go by and you will feel sucked completely out of time and into the narrator’s head.

I have said elsewhere reading Ducks, Newburyport was a restorative, even a reparative experience. I felt healthier for reading it. Each night, incrementally, it was making me better. And it might be because of this I am not really fit to make any grand claims for it: masterpiece, miracle, genius etc., although I am certain it is all these things. What I will say, however, is that like other great works of art, I believe when we reflect back on Ducks, Newburyport we will think it strange that the world once existed without it. This is one definition of timelessness. Not so much that a work of art is perennially relevant, but that we feel it has always been with us, somehow in its newness we recognise it. This is why I picked it up on that Saturday morning, weary and depressed as I was: it was already part of me. 

What we have is a person, a book review by Neil Griffiths

The book deals with a lot of contemporary anxieties, which means it can induce those anxieties by bringing them up. Of particular significance is the amount of attention paid to gun violence. The narrator is in the midwest, and her anxieties over open carry, 2nd amendment people, and the entire narrative of individualized libertarian responsibility for defense is an anxiety I share and think about a lot. Another way of saying this is that if you also feel these anxieties, this will make you feel both saner as you see them reflected in such a fleshed-out person and more anxious as it becomes the subject of the narrator’s thoughts as we follow them.

If you are at all interested in reading this book, I’d recommend you to read it sooner rather than later, as it will feel different reading it in ten years than it will now. But it will be an important and relevant book forevermore.

Books Philosophy

The Scope of the Night

Night time is for narrowing my scope. It’s for closing the horizon, for donning blinders, for setting the limits of my suite of concerns to fit between the walls of my bedroom. That is the only danger the phone poses; it can punch holes through space-time. It’s no different from a wandering thought that nags and scrapes at a sleeping mind. But focus on breath. Focus on the body. It’s here, so you’re here. Now: read the novel. Its vast infinity will lull you away. And everything that matters will still be there in the morning, like you.

Books Philosophy

Fiction in the Morning

Something in me has become somewhat cattywampus because I cannot decide between writing or reading in the morning, and am starting to prefer to read, over nonfiction—usually depressing or at least soberly descriptive of the world and currently Surveillance Capitalism—the fiction I usually read before bed, currently Within a Budding Grove. Reading the fiction over the nonfiction starts the day with a dreamy context. I think it goes back to what I wrote above, where what I’m interested in is the removal from time. It’s like what Lazenby said about philosophy in his “gun to my head answer“, that it, at least to his interpretation of the ancients, was to find a permanent present from which one could seek a kind of refuge from any one given time or occurrence, a permanent present which by virtue of its permanence affords a kind of endurance and allows a respite from any situation as isolated in time.

That’s not entirely what he said, but that’s my reading of it now. And in the morning novel, like the evening I look for something like that. It’s not quite there because its descriptions of situations and relations isolated in time, rather than a set of declarations or assumptions about the world that allow a kind of consistency through or despite time, but it moves me away from the storm winds and vicissitudes that the demand of emotion can cry out for in a moment and puts me—especially with Proust—in a kind of extended meditation within a moment, where we have all the time in the world to go over the emotional content present in a relation and luxuriate in that in a way reality could almost never afford.

Of course, today, I started writing. Which I think is healthiest, like a constitutional.


MACK Photography Books

This publisher does something I haven’t seen before: they show most of the book. You can read it. You can look at most of the pictures. The value of a book of photography comes from the physicality, the quality of the print, the presence of the artifact in the hand. Flipping through blurry non-retina images is not the same. But it does let potential buyers shop as they would in a bookstore. I like it.

This one stood out:

Majoli’s photographs result from his own performance. Entering a situation, he and his assistants slowly go about setting up a camera and lights. This activity is a kind of spectacle in itself, observed by those who will eventually be photographed. Majoli begins to shoot, offering no direction to the people before his camera. This might happen over twenty minutes. It might be an hour or so.

Perhaps the people adjust their actions in anticipation of the image to come. Perhaps they refine their gestures in self-consciousness. Perhaps they do not. The representation of drama and the drama of representation become one. The camera flash is instantaneous and much stronger than daylight. But all this light plunges the world into night, or moonlight. The world appears as an illuminated stage. Everything seems to be happening at the end of the day. Just when the world should be sleeping, it offers a heightened performance of itself.

MACK – Alex Majoli’s Scene
Books Reviews

Books in Brief: The Nocilla Trilogy

Get the books.

The Nocilla trilogy is strange. It feels familiar in the way the internet does. The first two books are told in a similar style: they present about a page of text in the third person about a person struggling with their relationship to something or someone—typically something, manifested through their relationship with someone. I can’t claim to understand them in any overarching or systematic way. They seem like they present a vision of our relationship to allegory and metaphor while playing in a space that feels similar to 2666, in the sense that if we can’t have a coherent narrative or present a singular story we all rally behind we can still have something. It builds on that, even though the author admits to never having read it, though there is a character who airs out his theorems on clotheslines much like a character in Bolaño’s novel airs out a geometry book on a clothesline. We spend time in both books thinking about what this means to the character and to us as readers, and I’m not really sure we get super far in a way I can set down definitively, though the experience is interesting, if not enlightening.

The last book, Nocilla Lab, is where things change. The form changes suddenly: the first part is a single 64-page sentence. I liked this part a lot, though it was challenging to read because the style of the previous books remained: nearly but not quite verse, but set in prose. I won’t spoil the rest of the book, but it plays with form and representation and metaphor in a way few pieces of media do.

There are parts I don’t like. I don’t like how most of the characters are men, how there’s a kind of universality to the phallocentrism of all the narratives, even the ones about women. I don’t like how in one case, a character offers a terrible description of a fat woman after she chides him for smoking in a non-smoking area. (The author loves cigarettes more than almost anything. This comes through clearly in every book.) This character offers a page of beautiful description and metaphor and inference about how terrible this woman is, how she embodies all that is bad in humanity, &c but does not turn his critical lens on himself and both what he was doing to prompt the rebuke and what his own behavior means in the context of what he’s discussing. Perhaps that’s kind of the point. It’s a good writer that can make me continue to read a book after I loathe parts of a character.

These books are absolutely worth your time.

Books Reviews

Books in Brief: Kafka on the Shore

Get the book.

Kafka on the Shore was one of those books I fought with until about three-quarters of the way through, when the wind was at my back and we started sailing and everything was smooth and beautiful. I started reading it on the recommendation of some friends online, who thankfully didn’t tell me anything about it, other than that if I wanted something light and liked magical realism, I should read it, or if I wanted something dark and moody, I should read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. So I chose light.

“Magical Realism” is a frustrating category to slot something into, because it’s never clear what that means in the context of the book. Does that mean that our grip on inductive inference and causality slips a little bit and has some slack to flap around in the wind? Or does it mean that descriptions of things are to be taken more as metaphor and less as objective truth? Or does it mean the author has given up on creating a fully cohesive and linear narrative and is throwing scenes and descriptions and people at the page to try to communicate something they couldn’t communicate otherwise. (As a wise reader once said, Tolstoy had some ideas and tried to explain them to his neighbors, who didn’t understand, so he went off and wrote a book about a lady and train safety to say what he couldn’t say directly.)

Kafka on the Shore falls into the last category here, I think. But that was only apparent after reading most of the book. In the beginning I was frustrated by the protagonist Kafka and his teenage logic and over-reliance on values of toughness, strength, and solitude. I think that was just good writing, rather than some seepage from the author through the page. That relationship continued through most of the book, where someone or something would bubble up and I would get frustrated with their description, or what they said, or how they described something else. (I still think describing Price playing in the background as “like a mollusk in your head” is either a translation error or an artifact of the kind of popular literati writing between 1995–2005.)

Perhaps the first three-quarters of the book are the setup I needed to get in the headspace where the last quarter could do its work, where it does become a world of loose categories and concepts, of nonlinear time, of impressions and scattered paint. If this book makes sense in a way that can be written down and described linearly then I missed that. But I don’t think that’s an important part of the experience of reading it.

All of the following was written before I read the last quarter. It’s still relevant, but I like the book more and have warm and gentle feelings with it. There are still some ambiguities, and some expressions in the face of death and change that I disagree with, or think maybe are against my experiences and lessons with those things, but I liked the book and will more readily some of his other work.

It’s a confusing book. There are rapes abound, but it’s all washed up in this person being a representation of this memory, or maybe not, or whatever, and it’s a big psychosexual mess. In one sense that makes it exciting as a kind of vague representational poem, so I like it for that, but on the other hand, this lady rapes this kid, this kid rapes this other woman in a dream, but it’s real(?), there’s cat murder, but maybe it was metaphorical, or not, and there are embodied concepts that show up as people and act in the world. It’s not a consistent book but it’s not supposed to be. It’s interesting. Some of the descriptions, though, are really… bad. It’s a kind of writing that flourished between 1995 and 2005, and came in the tail-end of that trend: “Prince sings on, like some mollusk in your head.” I don’t understand Kafka’s why, why he’s doing most of the things he’s doing in the book. I very much like the “discussions” with the boy named Crow, and the turn from first-person to second-person in some places. (Nightvale’s The Story of You is one of the better things written this decade.) All in all I enjoyed it and it certainly evoked a reaction in me throughout, where I was talking to the book, asking it what the fuck was going on, expressing disappointment in this or that character, asking the author why this was happening after that happened. That’s a good sign, even if the book didn’t sign to me like a chorus of angels like Moby Dick or Swann’s Way. What I don’t like is the ambiguity between the author-as-character and the author and the character. Kafka’s written as this kind of old soul but is still a petulant little kid. There’s almost no discussion of masculinity or the toxicity present in Kafka’s actions as a man. That’s frustrating, but perhaps it’s an expectation of me and the time we’re in and the place I am in my life, where I look back at myself at that age and think mostly about what an utter fuck I was as a result of those expectations.

Me, rambling before finishing it.
Books Reviews

A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros

This is another entry in what I’ve come to think of as “Craig Mod books,” reflections on walking and what that activity does to thought through the body. I initially read Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust on his recommendation from that essay and loved it. It treated walking as something with a history, with many purposes in time and in different cultures, and treated those purposes with respect and a genuine criticality that reflected the impossibility of covering as broad a concept as “walking” in a book only a couple hundred pages long.

Books Reviews

Books in Brief: Authority

I started reading Authority by Nathan Barry. It’s one of those cheap e-books that’s motivational. But it does get at a point I’ve sucked at: I should teach what I know, and teach what I learn. I’m starting to feel selfish keeping knowledge to myself, as though I’m hoarding it, or when I learn something and don’t share it, or specifically when I don’t reinterpret it through my own lens, that’s when I’m most vulnerable to a kind of guild the educated privileged feel when they encounter someone who doesn’t know that what they do even is something one could do, let alone the specifics of what it is that you do.

I explained skeuomorphism to someone yesterday and got paid to do it. It was fun and easy. I explained it in the context of redesigning a very simple and flat user interface for an educational iPad app. They wanted to have better icons for students who were just starting to read. That makes sense: students might not be able to read what the “Erase” button says. But I had to caution him against his instinct of making it “look like an eraser.” Which eraser, from where, and how do we make that look like an eraser while keeping the rest of the theme consistent. I explained the difference between an iconic representation of something and a realistic representation because they were going to talk to an artist to commission some icons, and I wanted to make sure my app design wasn’t compromised, which tries so hard to be faithful to the physical thing that inspired it.

I could very easily turn around and write a blog post about that. Just to share that little bit of story. Or go deeper, explaining that iconic things ultimately try to evoke affordances, to show what a thing is for, while realistic things focus more on trying to convey the metaphor. Imagine we want an icon to replace a button that says “Erase.” Our choices are between a realistic depiction of a pink gum eraser or a trapezoid with a line underneath it to one side. The former is obvious; we’ve seen erasers before and used them. Their affordances are pretty transparent. As long as I know what to do with an eraser like that, it’s easy to infer what the button does. The trapezoid with a line underneath it, meant to convey the standard gum eraser and its action, mainly dragging across a page to erase, relies on one large hurdle: the user has to infer what the trapezoid is.

If the design is well-done, proportions just so, then maybe it’ll succeed. But children are not the best at focusing in on a single interpretation of an iconic design; this is why our children’s applications tend to have a lot of detail, shading, color, sound, and responsive interactions. I don’t think any of this is necessary. (I see a lot of this as trickery to entice children to stay in your application, a kind of frosting and sprinkles, or as is parroted without much critical thought, “chocolate-covered broccoli.” Make an apple or a carrot. Still sweet, fun to eat with nothing but your hands, more sustainable, and better for those who want to eat more.) To succeed with a minimal design in technology for children indicates good design.

Or not. When I was a kid, in our (Montessori) school we had about fifteen computers scattered about our classroom, for a class of 30 kids between 4th and 6th grade. Many of the tasks we were assigned to do every quarter involved progressing through a series of problems about grammar or arithmetic administered through computer programs written by the head teacher (in QBasic, the language we were all taught to program in). The computers ran DOS on old monitors; they were donations, mostly from professors and business people who upgraded their homes or offices or labs. The school was a non-profit so their donations could be written off on their taxes. The programs were simple things, white text on a black field with color here and there, used to represent and connect to other parts of the curriculum. (I still think about these colors and shapes when I think of the parts of speech; the point of the task, which starts in 2nd grade with big metal manipulatives, is to develop a kind of synesthesia when thinking about a sentence and its constituent parts.) They were simple. But they were engaging enough that we played them on our own time, which at a Montessori school is most of the time. We never dreaded them, and only complained about them in the same way that workers in an office complain about any work they’re expected to do. They were enough. And they’d hold up now, though a four-year-old with an iPad is afforded far more complicated, nuanced, and potentially better learning design and spaces than what we were given with a 5lbs steel keyboard in front of a CGA screen atop an 8086.

Anyway. I wrote about something I know about. It felt good. You should do it too.