June 28th, 2013 / 11:28 pm
Craft Notes

LOOSE RULES FOR OUR ATTENTION

As I get older, sicker, and more beset with claims on my attention, I find myself dreaming up simple rules for gracefully consuming my way through the world. As a person reliant on deeply industrialized and entangled societies for money, food, medicine and entertainment, I find that simple tricks help me feel sane. Heuristics are useful when navigating complex systems, be it 21st century America or your personal ethics.

The following rules of thumb might help if you feel overwhelmed with the incomprehensible amount of interesting culture to eat and be eaten by. Because books are the media that I chase and covet the most, I’ll use them here. Altering the immortal words of Gale: “So many books, so little time.”

1. When in doubt, don’t read it.
Err on the side of omission. You might die tomorrow—hell, you might die tonight—and wouldn’t you regret it if you slogged through fifty more pages of some book that just feels serviceable?

2. If the author’s a bigot, don’t read it.
This applies to Mein Kampf all the way down to that writer that said “I just can’t fuck any more NYU students with Jim Morrison posters on their wall.” With so much potentially transcendent literature written by not-immediately-obvious-assholes just waiting in libraries and in book stores, feel free to judge with severe intolerance.

3. If it’s new, don’t read it.
Like evolution, time is a critic without aim, but there’s a lot of literature that has been retold, copied, salvaged and painfully rebuilt because it’s wildly powerful or innovative to most people that engage it. The newer the book you’re reading, the more likely it’ll be buried by the sands of time.* Lately, I’ve been reading mostly ancient literature and looming works from a few centuries ago, and I’m having trouble returning to contemporary stuff. But this difficulty feels nice.

4. If it’s news, don’t read it.
The really important stuff will become hard to avoid, anyway, so no need to bury yourself in the miasma of information that’ll soon be the noise of history.

5. If it’s billed as “theory”, don’t read it.
Like all of these loose rules, there are so many exceptions. But a lot of works of theory that I’ve read exist solely up their own assholes, which would be fine if they felt fun or stimulating. But so much theory—so much of everything, according to Sturgeon’s Law—is a waste of time if you’re looking for empiricism or induction or beauty or simple, practical philosophy. In the day and age of fat-tailed distribution, I’d go one further on Sturgeon and say that 99% of everything is crap. Some days this idea feels liberating, some days it’s doom.

6. If it’s described as a “meditation on memory and loss”, or something similar, don’t read it.
Again: exceptions!

7. If it’s mostly well-reviewed, don’t read it.
If most people think it’s pretty good, that means it’s forgettable. I find myself rereading the books that are loved by a small group of people and hated—or dismissed—by everyone else. Don’t know why, but again: it feels right. Plus it gives me something to push against.

8. If you’re fifty pages in and you’re bored, don’t read it.
Books can be put down, sold back, given away. It feels great to relieve your attention of a bit of its future bondage.

And now the big and obvious additives:

A. If your friend wrote it, read it.
A recurring anxiety: I die before I’ve read my friends’ books, before telling them how great they are, before thanking them.

B. If you can’t help yourself, read it.
Curiosity is the slave driver.

These rules have helped me feel less overwhelmed and wasteful, but like any codified principles, please dismiss them at whim.

Watch out for paper cuts, and good luck.

* Please use this as an excuse to not read my books, if you’re looking for one.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

81 Comments

  1. Ken Baumann

      I see recommendations for dismissal, contingency and adaptation in my post.

      Are you anchoring on “rule” instead of the frequent modifiers that point toward flexibility?

      And again, if you’re willing to get specific, I’d love to know about your actual reading patterns and habits. Might they look less wildly diverse and egalitarian than you want them to/think they are? Because my reading habits are less stringent than this lest implies. Hence the room for dismissal, contingency and adaptation.

  2. Ken Baumann

      Never feel bad or apologize for not buying/reading something I wrote (for my sake).

  3. Ken Baumann

      Not joking on that count, no. I publish to be read, but I don’t hold it against anyone if my work doesn’t stoke or hold their interest. I consider my writing lesser than a huge body of literature, so if someone would rather go for something else, that makes me happy. I care that my work is available, but I don’t deeply fixate on my writing being sought out.

      And there are authors that come to mind that avoid reading much contemporary stuff, Nassim Taleb being my favorite (I tested most of these rules because I wanted to ape his logic for awhile/try it out). And philosophers, historians.

      Pleasure talking to you! And no problem on the problematic thing. My pet peeve to bear!

  4. Ken Baumann

      That’s how I feel about when I try to be so contradictory and taste-dissolving. I mean, self-dissolution is a good habit, but best practice intensely (otherwise you—YOU! pun intended—will go nuts).

      These rules rose out of years of mostly reading contemporary stuff, too. So maybe I’m just in the icky side of said oscillation.

  5. Ken Baumann

      Another nice thing about the Loeb classics, etc.

  6. Ken Baumann

      There’s a design in your impulsivity, even if it feels opaque. You agree?

  7. mimi

      the artist’s identity/history/behavior etc INFORMs my experience, sure (do i squirm a bit more watching N Kinski in Tess knowing RP directed her? yup)

      but is Tess a ‘worse’ movie because of RP’s history/behavior? no

      is RP’s history/behavior any more acceptable/forgivable for his having made art i consider ‘good’? no

  8. Guest487

      I agree, but “bigot” is a very strong word. A person can have prejudices and not be a bigot. Based on the historical documents available to us, there’s no evidence at all that most of these writers should be called racists, though I think there’s enough evidence to call Hemingway a sexist, even though gender scholars are now questioning that notion and making fascinating discoveries in both his personal and writing life that might suggest otherwise.

      (BTW, I mentioned race because Chad listed Southern writers who wrote about tricky racial subjects).

  9. Willis Plummer

      Who said I can’t fuck anymore NYU students?

  10. deadgod

      Wait: I don’t think I’m shuttling manipulatively between prescription and description.

      One makes choices, and those choices are a data set.

      One then looks ‘back’ at that set–a phenomenon one describes to oneself–as evidence of a prescriptive regularity.

      ‘I read a lot of sci-fi last year, mostly of the such-and-such kind.’ –that’s a description. But it describes a pattern that indicates a “rule” (or “rules”).

      Fair enough that the pattern itself isn’t the “rules”; I said that carelessly. But I think Ken’s point is strong: the choices one makes are, as we say, along certain lines. Those lines are evidence of inward (as well as social, cultural, historical) government.

      A purely free taking up of the next book that falls into one’s hands, again and again and again, with no projection of interest or will or desire onto deciding to read each book… I don’t see how this kind of randomness is humanly possible.

  11. deadgod

      Ha ha — with the old Penguins, too.

      But the Loebs, given that they’re half in Greek or Latin, are pretty limited in their advertiseability. I mean, what’s the point of buying the two Loeb Virgils when you can get Virgil just in English at half as many pages? unless you want the Latin alongside a rough crib? The available all-English Virgils, of course, have more-or-less groovy pictures on their covers, and you can bet that their publishers have empirical reasons for believing that each cover makes that edition more attractive to buyers (even if those publishers are empirically led astray). If some other publisher made a series of Greek/Latin translations available in the Loeb way–competed with Loeb directly–, Loeb would have to decide whether to stick with the green/red little hardcovers, with the advantage of brand recognition/loyalty, or to put images promising some desirable sense of the contents on the covers.

  12. Sidney Gray

      On Ken vs A D:

      I think it’s not Crazy Hard to balance a personal set of rules or guidelines or moral & aesthetic values or self knowledge about your preferences or your prior experiences with the desire to be “open” to anything and everything (celebrating all people and all art, the keeping yourself available for unexpected discoveries & transformations):

      I have a similar (although very different in the specifics) set of rules that shapes about 60-80% of what I read–for the remaining 20-40% I try to pick randomly in all kinds of different ways: hands into piles at bookstores, interesting covers, a push from a friend, a spontaneous purchase from a press I don’t know. I could imagine doing that for 100% of books instead of maybe 20% of books though I don’t personally feel the need to do so, and I think I gain a lot through mindful, intentional, targeted reading the majority of the time.

      But yeah: exploration is often its own reward. If we didn’t dip into possibly undesirable valleys every now and again we might never get off of our cozy and familiar hills to try to climb up other interesting, higher hills–we’d miss all kinds of beautiful vantage points (heck, even beautiful valleys). But I don’t eat at a different restaurant every single night out and I often cook meals that I know I’ll like beforehand. Balance?

      I have preferences about music genres.

      I don’t think any of this seems paradoxical.

      -s

  13. Ken Baumann

      Well put. Thank you.

  14. Ken Baumann

      He can be ferreted out.

  15. alanrossi

      yeah, that’s it. mine is like:

      probably will read things i’m intuitively drawn to.

      probably will read things that some people i respect recommend.

      probably will try to give a few very popular, very mainstream books a try every year.

      probably won’t read certain genres, but maybe will.

      probably will try to read some nonfiction, either like personal memoirs or essays on lit or something scientific, etc.

      probably will read a lot of certain buddhism.

      probably will quit many books and not feel to bad about that.

      probably will force myself to finish a few books that i think are “bad” or “dumb.”

      probably will consciously seek out books from other countries.

      i don’t know. i feel like over time you know what your thing is and then you try to cultivate your thing and also expand and be willing to change your thing (and by thing, i mean penis).

  16. mimi

      i don’t consider faulkner, o’connor, capote, mccullers, hemingway, fitzgerald or melville ‘bigots’ or ‘racists’ – didn’t mean to imply so

  17. Guest487

      Gotcha. I was going off what Chad wrote. I just think these terms are important when discussing race and gender. I hope AD Wannabe Alpha Dog Jameson approves this particular response to your post as non-trollish and productive.

  18. Guest487

      Ken, first of all, I apologize for impersonating you that one time several months ago. I hope you know that it was never my intention to do anything other than write that one ironic joke post and that I considered you a public figure and assumed it would be read easily as satire, and that any other posts under that name were unintentional.

      I also agree with you re: problematic. It’s a dumb, academic-sounding word and I should’ve used something better in that spot.

  19. Trey

      oh you

  20. jereme_dean

      Maybe one day you can jump in our bed too.

  21. Matt Rowan

      Yes, I must agree with guest and especially take issue with Herman Melville in there, who purposefully used peoples’ impressions of natives and whatnot in a satirical way. He was doing much with stereotypes, and certainly before it was “cool.” What’s more, he has a whole thing in “The Confidence Man” about how it’s possible Shakespeare was subverting racial ideas in his works, in a way that might well have been too hard for most of his contemporaries to glean. Benefit of hindsight. Melville rules. Don’t be so fast and loose with the “bigot” charge, is all.

  22. Matt Rowan

      Because I’m a rebel I will not be doing any of the things you tell me to do, Ken. Not a one. Or, I’ll do them, but not because you told me to do them.

  23. mimi

      productive – yes

      trollish – never entered my mind

      (also, i have no idea who you are)

      : )

  24.   elf Studio High Definition Loose Face Powder | Full Purchase | Amazon Partner

      […] More Loose Powder […]

  25. Chad Morgan

      Faulkner’s views may have been ahead of their (by “their” I assume you mean “his”) time, but using that as a evidence of a supposed non-bigoted nature functions to prohibit by proxy any argument about Faulkner re: his views on race within the context of a contemporary decalogue. Perhaps when measured against other gentleman of a very recently post-Antebellum south Faulkner might be less of a bigot, but what happens when you hold him up against the very stringent rules to which we expect the adherence of today’s public figures?

      In any case, we shouldn’t, as I suspect is happening in this thread (perhaps because I included (but did not limit myself to) a few southern writers on my list), conflate “bigotry” with “racism,” for they are not the same thing. Because it would be impossible for us all to decide on a definition of what a racist is, let’s look at bigot:

      From merriam-webster.com:

      bigot: a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance

      It’s an interesting definition, a two-parter, even! Based on the first part, it would seem that “bigotry” isn’t so much measured in the quality of a person’s opinions re: insert racial or ethnic group of choice, or at least not only, but also in the fervor of their devotion to those opinions or prejudices. Not just, Does so-and-so think Group A is inferior to Group B, but, rather, How badly does so-and-so think Group A is inferior to Group B? Moreover, how susceptible (or not) is so-and-so to having their opinions changed?

      The second part, the qualifier, (” EPSECIALLY one who regards OR treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance”) is trickier, mostly because it forces us to define for practical use other abstracts, namely “hatred” and “intolerance,” but even so, the use of the verb “to regard” is interesting, for it would seem that a person can be a bigot in a completely passive manner. I can simply regard a given demographic with hatred – I don’t even have to do anything about my hatred – and I can be a bigot.

      Which was my point to begin with. While I respect your prerogative to disagree with me re: whether Faulkner or Melville or any other writer is a bigot, as far as my understanding and the understanding of quite a lot of people is concerned, he was, many of them were. I stand by that. However, that belief has not kept me from reading their work. Because bigotry is such an umbrella term, to apply it as a deterrent to interacting with any piece of art is silly.

  26. Guest487

      Yes, I acknowledge the absurdity of the rule. We both agree that Baumman’s trivialization of bigotry isn’t worth debating and is easily dismissed. According to him, bigotry runs from Nazism to hating chicks at NYU with Jim Morrison posters on their walls (I fail to see how anyone can be a bigot for hating Jim Morrison, the most overrated musician in American music history, a guy who wrote lines like, “the snake is the lake”–or something like that–don’t ask me to look it up because I trashed my Doors CDs the same day I donated my Army jacket and dogeared copy of On The Road to Goodwill on my 21st birthday).

      Anyway, I don’t see any specific evidence in your post that supports this: “when measured against other gentleman of a very recently post-Antebellum south Faulkner might be less of a bigot, but what happens when you hold him up against the very stringent rules to which we expect the adherence of today’s public figures?”

      I don’t know, honestly, because you’ve presented nothing about his person, other than pointing out that he lived in a different time period. If you’re going for the “he was a man of his time” argument and implying that everyone like him during that time would be considered a bigot by today’s standards, then I think yours is a dangerously relativist position and one that renders our dialogue dead. How can I respond if your definition of bigot is to simply judge all people from the past by today’s standards?

      Since no specific evidence of his public life has been presented, I don’t feel comfortable slapping the bigot label on the same man who wrote “Absalom, Absalom”–have you read it? have you read Charles Bon’s character?–one of the single greatest critiques of race and the one-drop rule in literary history, a novel that obliterates antebellum mythology that was written during Jim Crow. While I understand that the author and his work are not the same, It’s difficult to imagine a bigot writing that book, because it’s so deeply saturated with innovative anti-racist critiques that would be extremely unlikely to appear in the work of a bigot.

  27. Chad Morgan

      If we’re separating art from the artist, it makes as little sense to say “He’s not a bigot because he wrote this” as it is to say “he is a bigot because he wrote this.” You’re asking me to present a real life circumstance in which Faulkner displayed bigotry, yet your defense for his views of racial harmony is a novel that he wrote. “I don’t know,” you write, “honestly, because you’ve presented nothing about his person.” Neither have you.

      Furthermore, why do you insist upon situating bigotry within a purely racial strata? Even if his views on race weren’t in anyway bigoted, that does little to address other areas in which he (or anyone, which is also important; you as well seem insistent on applying this conversation solely to Faulkner) might have harbored bigoted ideals.

  28. Guest487

      Actually, I don’t buy into the “author” as separate from his art in its most rigid sense, and I think people who do do so out of convenience because it’s much easier to pretend like an author is never responsible for what he writes, that what he writes is all fairy dust filtered through an other-worldly muse. I prefer to view intentional fallacy as a necessary reaction against the cruder forms of biographical criticism, not an excuse for the pendulum to swing too far in the other direction to the point where we argue that the author is literally dead or never in control, that his brain is somehow not part of the artistic process.

      Regardless, we are working from such a ridiculous starting point (e.g, KB’s silly rule that triggered our discussion) that I don’t see this discussion going anywhere. You think Faulkner is a bigot. I don’t. But the important thing is, that won’t stop either us from reading his work. Thanks for the response.

      ETA–I mentioned race because Faulkner is considered by critics to be a pioneer in that area. Yes, I made that assumption myself based on this fact, and you are correct to point out that an analysis of his supposed bigotry should not begin & w/ race.

  29. deadgod

      I agree that following that rule dogmatically would rule out reading more than a few great writers.

      (Ken’s clear in saying that he doesn’t follow this–I’m guessing, almost any–rule dogmatically; it’s just a pattern in his reading that he recognizes and values enough consciously to maintain for the most part. I’m guessing he’s saying, with this rule, ‘don’t poison yourself’.)

      I share guest’s curiosity in why specifically you think Faulkner is a “bigot”. Using the Merriam-Webster online definition you quote, where and how does Faulkner ‘regard members of a group with particularized intolerance for that membership’?

      Perhaps you mean that Faulkner was bigoted in his personal life; evidence? But my guess is that, since Ken and you are talking about “authors”, you mean that Faulkner evinces bigotry in his writing. Evidence?

      Along with Matt (I think), I never got the feeling that Melville imposes (his) intolerance for a group on an individual character in his writing. Evidence?

      An example of Hemingway’s narrator’s intolerance for a group is easy to remember from Hemingway’s writing: Robert Cohn. Jake introduces Cohn to us in plainly–gladly–anti-Semitic terms. One could easily short-circuit one’s reception of Jake’s moral sensitivity–which is the story of the story–right near the beginning of the book by thinking, geez, who cares what this creep thinks about bravery and sex and love?

      Of course, one could think, deviously, that Hemingway’s filter is colored in this way to a larger effect: Hemingway has achieved a metacomment on anti-Semitism by having Jake indulge in anti-Jewish sneering. This, I doubt; there’s nothing else, in my view, about Jake’s self-understanding or understanding of anything other than Cohn’s Jewishness that makes me suspect at least that his judgements are reasonable (albeit debatable). I mean that Jake tells us directly, for example, that he virtually pimps out the woman he’s in love with–make of that what you will, buddy. He’s not a twistily unreliable narrator–or show me how.

      I prefer denial: as a reader, I just don’t relate Cohn’s being a dick and an exemplary dick to his being Jewish–even if that’s exactly a connection Hem wants me to make. Fuck that silly shit, Hem!: Cohn’s a dick in the way that there are dicks in every group of more than a few men. And more: The Sun Also Rises is, to me, a beautiful novel partly through Cohn’s successfully expressed smallness as a person. I choose–maybe stupidly–not to connect Cohn’s failure to his being Jewish, even though I think Hemingway probably was committed to that connection in writing the book.

      Let me add that Fitzgerald employs a diametrically opposed tactic: Nick makes a show (in a small way) of Tom Buchanan’s moral idiocy by subtly ridiculing Tom’s (openly racist) reading recommendation. Where is Fitzgerald’s bigotry expressed or implied?

  30. Chad Morgan

      You’ll come around to seeing things my way, eventually. They all do.

      No, I’m kidding. I agree that neither of us is going to change the other’s mind (nor was that my intention). Sincere thanks for the discussion, though.

  31. Neil Griffin

      The “If it’s new, don’t read it” rule is, to me, very problematic. This is the same sort of rule that B.R Myers follows whenever he’s having a wank on a new book. It’s surely limiting to only read the vetted books of yore that professors have lectured about for centuries. You could have made a positive rule here and just left it at “Classics are classics for a reason, so maybe you should read them”, but to exclude all contemporary fiction, especially when there are some interesting things going on, seems hypocritical for somebody putting out books (asterisk or no asterisk).