I see it on a lot of sites. The first that comes to mind is Shane Parrish’s Farnam Street. Shane has a “What I’m Reading” page that is frequently updated with the latest books he’s perusing. There’s many more examples out there, primarily on notable blogs run mostly by one individual.
I get it. When you reach a certain level of recognition, it’s just easier to create such a page and refer people to that when they ask you about reading recommendations. But there’s an insidious side to publishing and maintaining a list of what you’re currently reading that goes unnoticed.
Throughout my life, reading has been an intensely personal experience. Growing up, I read a lot because my Dad read a lot. But we didn’t talk about the books we were reading. Or if we did, it was only superficial discussion. In school and college I wasn’t a part of any “intellectual” clubs, or a member of any groups that enjoyed talking about ideas, stories and perspectives. Nowadays, I don’t operate in traditional academia or business environments, in places where what you read is touted like a badge of honour and an indication of status. As a consequence, when I do end up talking—not writing—about what I’m reading I always feel slightly impotent. Like I can’t say what I think. That’s because I lack the practice that others have had at articulating my ideas and impressions while they’re still in development. For me, it’s easier and more comfortable to stay quiet, to not say a thing and write about what I’m thinking further down the line.
Which brings me to the insidious side of making reading an activity you share openly with anonymous others; social pressure.
Consciously or unconsciously, the fact that you choose to publicly state what you’re reading will influence what you decide to read. You’re more likely to read books that are safe (boring), acceptable (popular), easy to summarise (lacking substance, depth and complexity), and easy to describe (belongs to a single category). You’re more likely to choose books that make you seem interesting to others, as opposed to books that you yourself are interested in.
For example, right now, I’ve got four books on the go. I’m reading Keith Johnstone’s Impro for Storytellers, William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and a few pages a day of the gargantuan Zibaldone: The Notebooks of Leopardi. But what if I wanted to read something closer to the edge? What if I wanted to read about where sexual desire originates from in paedophiles? What if I wanted to read book after book after book about Hitler? What if I wanted to read the entire Harry Potter series again? What if I just wanted to read illustrated children’s stories and collections of mystic poetry?
Am I more or less likely to read those things if I keep a public record of my literary wanderings? Won’t I just end up choosing something that preserves the image I’m trying to present to others?
Sure, reading is something we can, and should, share with others. But there’s a difference between sharing with friends and showing off to an anonymous crowd, between pursuing the trails that we find invigorating and putting on intellectual airs for other’s satisfaction. That’s why, now and in the future, I decline to keep a “What I’m Reading” list. I want my exploration and learning to be driven by nothing more and nothing less than excitement, surprise, interestingness and emotional connection.
How do you know when a person has stopped growing—intellectually, emotionally, spiritually? One indication is that they stop receiving answers. Another is that they stop asking questions. The two are not the same.
We receive answers only when we ask questions. But we can also ask questions that we are unable to answer. That’s why answers aren’t a good indicator of growth. In fact, I would posit that we don’t grow when we receive answers to our questions; we grow only when we ask questions which we cannot find a definitive answer for.
A question with an explicitly defined answer—”What is two plus two?”—doesn’t teach you anything. To change its status from asking to answered doesn’t require you to confront too many difficulties. But a question like “What is the meaning of my life?” forces you to deal with uncertainty, with fuzzy boundaries, with illusions and narratives, with intense conflict between different schools of thought, with your own un-knowledge. And even after wading through all of that, you’re still not going to come up with an absolute truth. The best you’ll manage is a relative truth that’s liable to change along with your circumstances and character.
So next time you look at your own life, or that of someone else, and try to figure out the rate of growth, go by unanswerable questions asked, not answers received.
BANG. There’s shouting. Everyone moves faster as the staccato stuttering of gunfire begins. People in the street scream. And then you feel a searing pain in your thigh. You shout, stumble and a squad member catches you before you hit the ground. The rest of the squad provides covering fire as you’re helped into the back of the Humvee. As you lay panting, you hear the rest of the team dive into the vehicle, and you all set off back towards the base.
At the base, you’re carried out of the Humvee and into the medical tent. The surgeons put you under and begin digging around, trying to find the bullet, extract it, and stitch you back together.
A few weeks ago, I had an essay--Zorba, Spock or Voldemort?—go live on Venkatesh Rao’s Ribbonfarm. I went to bed just as Ribbonfarm’s primary audience read and responded to it. Because I’m particularly prone to over-thinking, I lay in bed anxious about the response and the criticism I would receive. When I awoke in the morning my anxiety was unresolved, so before checking social media in the afternoon, I decided to write about what I was feeling. This is the latest example of an artistic principle I try to adhere to: explore while raw.
Imagine that every negative experience is Lady Fortune shooting you in the leg. The bullet she fires contains insight and wisdom and understanding. Generally speaking, it’s easier to extract a bullet or a fragment of a grenade when the wound is fresh and open. If you allow it to close up, to heal to a degree, it becomes a lot harder to get the bullet out. So it’s better to explore the event, the wound, while it’s still tender and bleeding and sensitive.
Another example of “explore while raw” is when I applied for a job at Book in a Box. I got an email saying I was unsuccessful, and rather than brooding and sulking, I decided to explore my feelings. The result was a post called Lessons In Rejection.
I think this method works. It helps me to process experience. Sure, it’s painful and hard, but it’s more than worth it. And yes, you could argue that distance and time and perspective allow the pain to ease and our perception to calibrate. But at the same time, distance distorts the message, the understanding and lessons we find. Our memories are notoriously biased and we load all sorts of impressions and analysis onto past events that didn’t exist at the time they occurred.
That’s why I think “explore while raw” is such a valuable practice. You see your emotional and intellectual response in it’s true, uncensored form. The immediacy of the practice allows you to extract the bullet of wisdom more easily. It compels the wound to heal at a faster rate. And it permits you a more accurate representation of the repercussions you experienced.
“Write what you know” is some of the worst writing advice I’ve ever heard. It’s up there with “1000 words a day.”
If you were trying to develop a skill, and you took that advice, what would happen? If I’m trying to learn to draw human faces, and someone said, “only draw what you know”, I’d spend the rest of my life drawing smiley faces and stick figures a seven year old would be ashamed of.
It’s only by writing what you don’t know, by attempting to draw what you find difficult, by trying to do what you haven’t quite got the hang of that you progress. To do otherwise is to stay comfortable, to remain within your boundaries. Have you ever heard of anyone getting better by playing it safe? Imagine a child learning to ride a bike. At some point, the stabilisers have to come off. Yes, they might fall a few times. It might terrify them and their parents to see them careening down the road, wobbling all over the place. But it’s a necessary part of the learning process.
You can stick to writing what you know. But understand that, by doing so, you’re ensuring that all you’ve ever know in the future is what you know in the present. And I bet that, right now, you don’t know it all.
One of the many curious properties of human perception is something called confirmation bias. Essentially, it means that we tend to see evidence of what we want to believe, or are looking for, and ignore evidence that contradicts it. Or as Nassim Taleb puts it: “Anyone looking for confirmation will find enough of it to deceive himself."
But what this idea seems to imply is even more interesting. If we see only what we’re looking for, then it follows that we don’t see what we’re not looking for. Now, most of the time, the answers and solutions and innovations we seek are unknown. So, perhaps the reason it takes us so long to find them is that we cannot—by definition—know to look for them.
Also, consider this beautiful and kinda-related idea from E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful:
“Yet a man who uses an imaginary map, thinking it a true one, is likely to be worse off than someone with no map at all; for he will fail to inquire wherever he can, to observe every detail on his way, and to search continuously with all his senses and all his intelligence for indications of where he should go."
Combine these, the idea of confirmation bias and Schumacher’s observation about operating with or without a map. What do we get? This: the best way to see everything is to look for nothing.
Think about it. If you don’t have a map, and you’re not trying to get anywhere or see anything in particular, you’re more likely to pay attention to the environment around you. Whereas if you had a map and an object in mind, you’d pass over everything you saw that didn’t relate to your objective. And because, a priori, it’s hard to know what matters and why, you’d likely ignore a tonne of potentially valuable information, and waste time, in the process.