In his latest post Bryan details why, despite the potential blow back, he only writes controversial books:
I want to advance human knowledge. While I have many conventional views, multiple books ably defending these conventional views almost always already exist.
I want to excel in my writing. My greatest intellectual strengths – imagination and iconoclasm – help me create high-quality controversial works. They wouldn’t help me craft conventional works. Probably the opposite, really.
I want to enjoy my work. While I have many conventional views, they rarely excite me. Controversy is fun.
The world is wrong, in the spell of an array of bizarre political religions. As a result, the controversial position is often true despite its unpopularity.
McPhee has built a career on…small detonations of knowledge. His mind is pure curiosity: It aspires to flow into every last corner of the world, especially the places most of us overlook…McPhee’s work is not melancholy, macabre, sad or defeatist. It is full of life. Learning, for him, is a way of loving the world, savoring it, before it’s gone. In the grand cosmology of John McPhee, all the earth’s facts touch one another-all its regions, creatures, and eras. It’s absences and presences. Fish, trucks, atoms, bears, whiskey, grass, rocks, lacrosse, weird prehistoric oysters, grandchildren and Pangea. Every part of time touches every other part of time.
– Sam Anderson McPhee, John. The Patch. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018 (see back cover blurb, hardcover edition)
I wanted to capture this passage for the language: Words like macabre and detonations stoke the linguistic fires. And nudge me towards the dictionary.
But also, it’s a returning theme in this commonplace book – curiosity.
The people that fascinate me; the Thomas Jeffersons, the Paul Otlets, the Temple Grandins, the Benjamin Rushes, are eternally curious. And curious about an eternal amount of subjects.
Sam Anderson is spot on. Learning is a way to love and savor our world.
For many seafarers, therefore, keeping a log or writing journal was not just a case of navigational necessity – to work out where they were, and where they were headed – but a way of locating themselves emotionally in a world turned upside down. A journal could combat loneliness, fear, frustration, even mutiny. For William Bligh of the Bounty, cast adrift in an open boat, keeping an accurate logbook was important testimony. As he navigated his way to safety through little-known Australian reefs, he took care to describe the men who had abandoned him; his pencil notes of the marks on their skin might identify them in a future manhunt. And despite all the hardships he suffered, he also took time to describe the new shores they touched on. Always exploring, he was an immense mariner and a deft artist, not the the sea-monster Hollywood films might suggest. A small journal helped to keep Bligh and his companions alive.
The trick is to maintain a kind of naive amazement at each instant of experience-but, as Montaigne learned, one of the best techniques for doing this is to write about everything. Simply describing an object on your table, or the view from your window, opens your eyes to how marvelous such ordinary things are.
How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne, In one question and twenty attempts at an answer. Sarah Bakewell. Chapter 2 Pay Attention, pg 37.
This could be a productive writing exercise. 200 words describing the closest object near you.
I’ve been waiting months for this podcast episode. Tyler Cowen and Lydia Davis did not let me down.
For a writer of her stature, Lydia openly admits she finds very long books hard to approach:
COWEN: Do you think the late Thomas Pynchon became unreadable, that somehow it was just a pile of complexity and it lost all relation to the reader? Or are those, in fact, masterworks that we’re just not up to appreciating?
DAVIS: Since I hesitated to even open the books, I can’t answer you, because I do find — not all long books — but very long, very fat books a little hard to approach, and some of them, I try over and over. If I sense that it’s really a load of verbiage, I really don’t. I fault myself for not having the patience to get through at least one, say, late Pynchon, but I haven’t.
Don’t despair! Lydia Davis also struggled to read Ulysses. It took two cracks and a move to Ireland for her to finish:
I had a problem a long time ago trying to read Ulysses by Joyce, and started it twice, and finally read it when I lived in Ireland, which made it much easier because I had his context. That too — I suppose because it had different chapters, each of which approached the ongoing story in a very different way — I found that possible too.
I’m believing more and more, that what great books do, what the internet at it’s brightest light does, is make introductions.
Today’s introduction? The Catalan writer Josep Pla:
There’s a book by a Catalan writer called Josep Pla that’s called The Gray Notebook. That’s very fat, but I keep going back to it and delighting in it, but I’m not reading it all at once. I’m going back to it and just sort of nibbling away at it. It was an amazing project. He took an early, very brief diary of his when he was 21, I think, and it only covered a year and a half. He kept going back to it rather than publishing it. He kept going back to it and expanding it with more memories and more material, and I love that idea. Maybe that’s why I can read it.
Lydia admits the Harry Potter series didn’t captivate her. She preferred the writing in Philip Pullman’s The Dark Materials trilogy. But she understands, Harry Potter’s greatest value is hooking kids on reading:
COWEN: How would you articulate why you don’t like the Harry Potter novels?
DAVIS: That’s fairly easy, although I should have a page in front of me. It’s always better if you have the page, and you can say, “Look at this sentence, look at that sentence.” At a certain point, my son was reading Harry Potter as kids do and did. I think he was probably 11 or 10 or 11, 12, 9 — I don’t know. Also, the Philip Pullman trilogy, whose name I always forget. I thought it would be a lot of fun to read the Harry Potter books because I knew a lot of grownups were reading them and enjoying them. I thought, “This is great. There are a lot of them.”
But when I tried to read them, I didn’t like the style of writing, and I didn’t like the characters, and I didn’t like anything about them. Whereas, I opened the first Philip Pullman book and read the first page and said, “This is wonderful. The writing here is wonderful.” I really think there’s an ocean of difference. I wouldn’t put down the Harry Potter books because, as we know, they got a lot of kids reading and being enraptured with books. I think that matters more than anything, really — getting kids hooked on reading.
Brilliant and insightful. Do give it a listen or read the transcript in full here.
Home and Away is an underrated football book. It’s the rare football book not written by an ex-pro or football journalist. Instead, it’s two friends, two writers, Karl Ove Knansgaard and Fredrik Ekelund, corresponding during the 2014 World Cup.
Between exchanges on fatherhood, immigration, writing, feminism, and reading there’s the football, and what it means to each of them. And while these letters were sent via email, their tone brings back the days of pen-pals and ink stained stationary.
One passage in particular struck me. In an entry marked Glemmingebro, 18 June, Knansgaard intertwines Diego Maradona and Virginia Woolf’s generational talents. He concludes that unless you’ve tried over and over to play in midfield, to play the perfect pass, or control the ball under pressure, or labored for years over words and sentences and bringing characters to life, that it can be difficult to appreciate how amazing Maradona’s and Woolf’s feats are.
What is it about Maradona? Why does he merit our admiration? After all, he was only a footballer. Perhaps you have to grow up with football to understand, go through all the stages, perhaps it is not possible to understand how liberating it can be, how impossible something is if you yourself don’t physically know the ground rules, the framework and its limits? It is a little like writing. Only the person who has written a lot, really tried to form words and sentences for many years, with total dedication, can actually understand and admire the opening of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which I have chosen as an example because of the theme, because only someone who has tried themselves will be able to appreciate how extremely difficult it is to breathe life into a character as Woolf does, not only that, into a whole era, milieu and culture, and render it in such fresh, vigorous, indeed such uniquely precise terms. If you have run around the midfield for many years and hit passes to teammates, simple, unspectacular passes, if you have chested balls, laid on crosses and shot at goal, you know in yourself how magical and impossible, original and amazingly unexpected Maradona’s play was. I can’t think of anyone who has even been close.
But why admire that?
It is only football after all.
It won’t lead anywhere, change anything or create anything either, for the moment something is done it has also disappeared. Nothing lasts in football.
The counter question is why not?
It is a game. It is anti-seriousness. Anti-meaning. Anti-intellectual.
It is the kitten chasing after the ball of wool, it is the horse running alongside the fence snorting, it is the falcon gliding on the wind, it is the otter sliding down the snow-covered mountain on its back, it is that which has no meaning, it is only fun. It is a sparkle.
And no one had more of that sparkle than Maradona.
Copywork has long been an essential practice for writers. Notable practitioners include Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, Benjamin Franklin, Hunter S. Thompson, Mary Karr…
But copywork isn’t limited to writers. Composers too, have appreciated the benefits of copywork. In his memoir Words Without Music, Philip Glass shares how copying Gustav Mahler’s scores was vital to his development as a composer:
My second study of the orchestra came through a time-honored practice of the past but not much used today-copying out original scores. In my case I took the Mahler Ninth as my subject and I literally copied it out note for note on full-size orchestra paper. Mahler is famous for being a master of the details of orchestration, and though I didn’t complete the whole work, I learned a lot from the exercise. This is exactly how painters in the past and present study painting – even today, some can be seen in museums making copies of traditional paintings. It works the same way in music. This business of copying from the past is a most powerful tool for training and developing a solid orchestration technique.
Copywork, regardless of the discipline, helps you understand how a “thing” is constructed. A piece of art, music, a car engine, can all be better understood by taking each piece apart and reassembling it in the same manner of its original creator.