I have a whole backlog of articles that I keep thinking I’ll get to—which means that I must be back on ye old blogging wagon—so here are two that I really liked. The first is that older thing about how Barnes and Noble is coming back. This part is so great:
This is James Daunt’s super power: He loves books. “Staff are now in control of their own shops,” he explained. “Hopefully they’re enjoying their work more. They’re creating something very different in each store.” This crazy strategy proved so successful at Waterstones, that returns fell almost to zero—97% of the books placed on the shelves were purchased by customers. That’s an amazing figure in the book business. On the basis of this success, Daunt was put in charge of Barnes & Noble in August 2019. But could he really bring that dinosaur, on the brink of extinction, back to life? The timing was awful. The COVID pandemic hurt all retailing, especially for discretionary items like books. Even worse, the Barnes & Noble stores were, in Daunt’s own words, “crucifyingly boring.”
I remember a while ago, years probably, writing a post called something like “Where Books Go To Die” and then going around and taking pictures of a lot of horribly bound classics in the discount section. It was pretty terrible. Now, though, my local B&N seems to be doing reasonably well. Prince Harry’s book is prominently displayed next to Michelle Obama’s, both for 30% off. And there is some kind of novel that you can buy for 5$ with “any café purchase” which always makes me shudder. But still, people are reading books, and the Monday Night Knitting Group in the café makes it feel like maybe humanity will carry on a while longer.
Poor Lex Fridman. Little did the computer scientist-turned-podcaster know what he was doing when, on New Year’s Eve, he tweeted what has since become known simply as “The List”: the 52 books he intends to read over the course of 2023. The plan, Lex explained, is simple. One book a week. No genre in particular: classics, non-fiction, sci-fi, and everything in between — all based on recommendations. And finally, a strict timetable: “Start on Monday, done on Sunday”.
Boy, that must be the single most astonishing picture of privilege I have ever heard of. Can you imagine having the time to read a whole book in a week? Even a short one? So anyway,
You probably know what happened next. More than any other platform, Twitter seems to be a magnet for disappointed former high achievers, desperate to find some way, in the absence of glowing school reports, to position themselves against each other in adulthood — or, better yet, to live out that role-reversal fantasy in which they, misunderstood bookworms, finally get to bully the literal-minded techie from Year 10. This, it seems, was their moment. Lex’s List, they smugly assured him, was “simple”, “embarrassing”, a “stupid person’s idea of a smart person’s reading list”.
That’s the ticket! Public shaming and recriminations for all the people! What a great time this is to be alive.
But all Fridman was doing was … setting himself the challenge of reading a book a week. Yes, some of the choices were a bit naff, but one genuinely terrible book (Sapiens) out of 52 isn’t awful — and in any case, sometimes it’s good practice to read a rubbish book, even if just to analyse what’s wrong with it. Sure, there’s also something a little forced about the project, but then who among us hasn’t read a book, in the first instance, simply because we felt guilty for having not done so yet, or to impress a crush, or because Lionel Trilling told us to — only then to fall entirely under its spell? Fridman, it seems, can’t win: he ought already, Twitter sneered, to have read most of the books on his list — but he apparently also needs to be punished for trying to make amends now.
I think so. People who try to do the right thing, or even anything, should just stop and crawl back into their underground bunkers and eat more jam.
The bigger question, though, is how should you read the books you do decide you’re going to read? If you haven’t read anything and want to try, what should you do? The writer of the article tries to sail through the turgid waters between Cilla and Charybdis:
Still, surely we still need to structure our reading somehow? One of the main — perfectly legitimate — criticisms of Generation Internet is that its grasp of culture is becoming increasingly fragmented. In the absence of any proper education, we resort to picking up scraps here and there from Wikipedia binges, social media, and long, winding journeys down hyperlink wormholes — gradually piecing together a lopsided, unique-to-each-of-us image of what’s out there. You see it on Twitter, in conversations between bright, young, ambitious writers, sharing with each other their latest magpie-like finds: snippets from books, snaps from exhibitions, links to music. The results are often quite comical: “Hey — check out this amazing guy, Kandinsky!” Clearly, repeated over several generations, such a haphazard and formless education would prove disastrous. But I’m not sure the solution is to trammel the genuine joy and enthusiasm on display with endless lists.
Allow me to put down my spoon of jam and say that I love keeping lists. I don’t do them out in advance, but as I read books (or listen to them) I write them down. Then, at the end of the year, I look back to see what sort of content I imbibed. Last year I listened to something like thirty Agatha Raisin books read by Penelope Keith. So that was too bad, and not the best use of my already very limited time. But still, I enjoyed myself, which is not something to sniff at.
This year I’m trying to be a little more, how shall I put it, high brow. I am determined to read all the books I meant to last year and didn’t. Like right now, while I’m toiling through all the stuff by Brianna Wiest I’m tempering my sorrow with stuff about Primal Religion. The whole self-help genre strikes me as being some sort of new version of that older, to me, more interesting way of thinking about God or the Universe or Whoever. It’s like self-care meets ancestor worship with the hand heavily tipped towards self-care.
Take essay 13 in Wiest’s 101 Essays that Will Change the Way You Think. It’s called “101 Things More Worth Thinking About Than Whatever’s Consuming You.” Quite the long listicle, I would say, with amazing ideas like this:
“The way you will quantify this year. How many books you want to say you’ve read, how many projects you’ve completed, how many connections with friends and family you fostered or rekindled, how you spent your days.”
Everything you honestly didn’t like about the person you’re no longer with, now that you’re not emotionally obligated to lie to yourself about them.
The fact that we assume people are as we imagine them— a compilation of the emotional experiences we’ve had with them— as opposed to the patterns they reveal to us in their behavior. It’s more accurate to sum people up by what they repeatedly do.
How many people go to bed at night crying, wishing they had what you have— the job, the love, the apartment, the education, the friends, and so on.
The whole list, NGL, was pretty tedious, so I thought I would make my own.
Five Things More Worth Thinking About Than Yourself
* The book you’re reading.
* Why and how God accomplished the salvation of sinners.
* How much dirt there really is under the fridge.
* How long it will take for Twitter to destroy the world.
Have a nice day!