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At Years End: Our 2020 Favorites

The criteria for our 2020 favorites is simple.

What media did we revisit multiple times in 2020?

Let’s find out.

Interview:

Art of Manliness podcast #587:

How to Get More Pleasure and Fulfillment Out of Your Reading with Professor Alan Jacob and Brett Mckay.

This interview rejuvenated my reading life.

Here Professor Jacobs presents reading on a Whim. The idea that one should read what interests them, rather than what “you’re supposed to”.

Professor Jacobs argues reading shouldn’t be a chore, but rather a pleasurable experience.

You don’t have to read according to an assignment or according to a list of approved texts. Enjoy your freedom. Go out there and follow your whim. And by that, I mean follow that which really draws your spirit and your soul and see where that takes you. If it turns out that you spend a year reading Stephen King novels or something like that, that’s totally fine. That’s not a problem. Read your Stephen King novels, but there are also really good novels.

But whatever it happens to be, if you’re reading young adult fiction for a year, read young adult fiction for a year. After a while, you probably got to have enough of that. But don’t go around making your reading life a kind of means of authenticating yourself as a serious person. It’s just no way to live. So, I would always tell them, “Give yourself a break. Don’t make a list. See where Whim takes you.”

Professor Jacob’s reading advice to his students

YouTube Video:

Kevin Kelly’s 68 Bits of Unsolicited advice

Kevin wrote this as a letter on his 68th birthday as a gift to his son (He practices the Hobbit tradition of birthdays).

Thankfully, he recorded and shared the advice on his YouTube channel. It is a word of encouragement for us all:

There is no limit on better. Talent is distributed unfairly, but there is no limit on how much we can improve what we start with.

– Kevin Kelly

Book:

On the Move: A Life By Oliver Sacks.

This book took 5 years to finish, not because Sacks’ memoir isn’t compulsively readable, but because there were other books I thought I should read instead.

Sack’s life is one to emulate. Not by becoming a neurologist and cultivating a British Accent. But rather by seeing life, all of life – love, career, hobbies travel, failure, success, as an adventure to pursue.

At one time, my father had thought of a career in neurology but then decided that general practice would be “more real,” “more fun,” because it would bring him into deeper contact with people and their lives.

This intense human interest he preserved to the last: when he reached the age of ninety, David and I entreated him to retire-or at least, to stop his house calls. He replied that home visits were “the heart” of medical practice and that he would sooner stop anything else. From the age of ninety to almost ninety-four, he would charter a mini-cap for the day to continue house calls.

Dr. Sack’s on his father’s career

Article:

The life of Philip Glass, by Dan Wang

Dan Wang’s article on Philip Glass’ memoir –Words Without Music was inspiring.

Learning that Glass drove taxis, and was a self-taught plumber proves there’s no shame in taking day jobs to support one’s calling.

Learning that Glass didn’t succeed as a full time composer until his forties served as a reminder.

Stamina can take one to the impossible.

Glass didn’t work just as a taxi driver and as a (self-taught) plumber. He also worked in a steel factory, as a gallery assistant, and as a furniture mover. He continued doing these jobs until the age of 41, when a commission from the Netherlands Opera decisively freed him from having to drive taxis. Just in time, too, as he describes an instance when he came worryingly close to being murdered in his own cab.

Movie:

Paterson: written and directed by Jim Jarmusch

Kylo Ren’s new life as a bus driver poet?

I’M IN.

I’m more and more captivated by movies where the stakes aren’t the end of civilization. Paterson is a entertaining example of this idea.

Paterson was also a gateway to the poet William Carlos Williams. Who somehow I’d never heard of before 2020.

Twitter Feed:

Ted Gioia, @tedgioia.

Who else can recommend 4 books they “consult often” on Duke Ellington? Next level stuff, that.

Gioia’s Annual 100 favorite albums list is a must read. Here’s 2020’s:

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Podcasted: Alan Jacobs and Brett McKay on How to Get More Pleasure and Fulfillment Out of Your Reading.


If you don’t want a guilt trip on reading more than Alan Jacobs is for you.

Few people speak as eloquently on reading as Alan Jacobs.

Few people are less judgmental hoity-toity arses speaking on reading as Alan Jacobs.

So when Brett McKay recently interviewed Alan on how reading should bring pleasure and fulfillment to your life, I listened twice.


Alan admits, it’s OK not to read the great works everyday:

But you don’t read Shakespeare every single day and you certainly don’t read the tragedies every single day. Those are incredibly demanding for the same reason you don’t every night sit down and watch an Ingmar Bergman movie or 12 Years of Slave or something like that. You have to be able to give yourself a break from the demands of really great works of art.

Great works of art ask a lot of us and we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can rise to that occasion every single day. So, sometimes you ought to be reading Harry Potter instead of reading Shakespeare because you need a break. And I think both Bloom and Adler were reluctant to acknowledge that.

On seeing where your W-H-I-M takes you:

Yeah. So, I got this from the poet Randall Jarrell, who ended an essay that way, read at Whim. And Whim with capital W, W-H-I-M is a kind of a principle or a policy. Let me tell you how I came onto this. What would happen is that year after year after year, so I’ve been a college university teacher for 35 years now and I would have students who would come to my office and they would say, “I’m about to graduate, but there’s so many great things I haven’t read yet. Give me a list of things to read. Give me a list of books that every educated person should have read.” And they’re coming in with their notebooks and they’ve got their pins poised over the notebook. Like, “Give me these things.”

And I would think you’re just finishing up four years of school, give yourself a break. You don’t have to do this now. You don’t have to read according to an assignment or according to a list of approved texts. Enjoy your freedom. Go out there and follow your whim. And by that, I mean follow that which really draws your spirit and your soul and see where that takes you. If it turns out that you spend a year reading Stephen King novels or something like that, that’s totally fine. That’s not a problem. Read your Stephen King novels, but there are also really good novels.

But whatever it happens to be, if you’re reading young adult fiction for a year, read young adult fiction for a year. After a while, you probably got to have enough of that. But don’t go around making your reading life a kind of means of authenticating yourself as a serious person. It’s just no way to live. So, I would always tell them, “Give yourself a break. Don’t make a list. See where Whim takes you.”

How to read “upstream”:

Well, what happens is that there is a kind of an emergent structure in a way, things emerge. So, here’s one of the things that I will tell people. I’ll say, “Let’s say you really love Tolkien and you’ve read Lord of the Rings like 10 times and you’re not sure you want to read the Lord of the Rings again.” First of all, I will say, “Rereading is always a good idea. It’s always a good idea. But there may be times when you think, yeah, maybe I don’t need an 11th reading of the Lord of the Rings.”

And so, I’ll say, “Well then, let’s move upstream a little bit. Why don’t you ask yourself what did Tolkien read? What did he love? If you love Tolkien’s writing, what writing did Tolkien love and kind of go upstream of him and find out what he read.” And in that way, you’re doing something that is really substantial. I mean, learning about some new things, some important things, things that are really valuable, but you’re also kind of following whatever it is in your spirit that responded to Lord of the Rings. You’re taking it to that next level.

And Brett McKay shares how reading “upstream” led him to Empire of the Summer Moon:

Brett McKay:

Yeah. So, I’ve done this before, this going upstream, but in a different way. So, my favorite novel of all time, I said this before on the podcast lots of times is Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.

Alan Jacobs:

Yeah.

Brett McKay:

And then I started reading his like … I’ve read that thing like five times, but then I was like, I’ve got to read the prequels. I started reading like a Dead Man’s Walk and a Comanche Moon. And then I started learning about that. I was like, “These Comanche Indians, I didn’t know about this.” And so, I was like, I went on Amazon and just searched books about Comanche Indians and that’s how I discovered Empire of the Summer Moon, fantastic book. It was some of the best books I’ve read.

Alan Jacobs:

Right. But you wouldn’t have discovered it if you hadn’t been actually reading at Whim. You were not thinking, “Oh, let me see, I’ve read this Larry McMurtry book, now I need to read all the other books that were well-reviewed that year.” Instead you were following up something that was really drawing you on. In a way, you’re just obeying your own curiosity and that’s a much better guide to reading than having a list that somebody else has given you.

And rereading a book can shake your core:

Brett McKay:

Well, what do you think the value of rereading is?

Alan Jacobs:

Well, there’s a lot. I mean, first of all, if it’s a really worthwhile book and books can be worthwhile in a thousand different ways, you’re never going to get everything important out of it on a first reading. But then in addition to that, you go through different stages of life. And in those different stages of life, books speak to you in dramatically different ways.

I remember once I used to teach Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina almost every year. And one year I was reading it and I came across a passage, which totally knocked me out and I couldn’t even remember having read it before. I’d taught the book six or seven times and I had completely passed over this particular passage. And it’s a passage where one of the two protagonists, a man named Konstantin Lëvin, his wife kitty has just given birth to their first child. And he picks up his newborn son and the first thing he thinks is, now the world has so many ways to hurt me. And it’s just an incredibly powerful scene.

Why didn’t I notice it before? Because I hadn’t had children before. It was as soon as my son was born, I saw that passage in a way that it would have been irrelevant to me before because it was so disconnected from my experience. At that point I thought to myself, what’s wrong with you that you didn’t notice this? Did you have to have a child in order to understand how emotionally overwhelming it is to have a child? I guess so. So, I learned something about myself there. I learned about the things that I was paying attention to and not paying attention to.

Read on a W-H-I-M.

Forge your own reading path. You don’t always need someone’s list to guide you.

Listen to the podcast in full below: