What I’m Reading

I’m doing a shitty job of hitting my goal of writing weekly blog posts. We’re 12 weeks into the new year and I’ve only written eight posts (including this one) so I’m at 67%, which is like a D+. Gotta step up my game.

Anyway, I may not have been writing but I have been reading. I’ve finished 21 books so far this year! And even better than reading a lot, the ones I’ve been finding have all almost magically been great books. Here are some of the highlights:

  • The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantu: My book club decided to read this one, or I never would have picked it up. And I’m so glad we did because it’s fantastic. It’s a memoir written by a very bright young man who is obsessed with the US-Mexico border and becomes a border agent. It’s very good. There’s some controversy around but because apparently it doesn’t reflect everyone’s experience with immigration, but how could it? The criticism is wasted, I think, because this is a thoughtful look into a problem I think lots of us have opinions about with very little actual experience.
  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: This is Oprah’s latest pick for her newly revived book club and a very solid novel, telling the story of a wrongfully imprisoned man and the struggles he and his wife go through as a result. This is much more about the human reactions of two well-intentioned people than it is about big issues like race and politics, but of course those come into play as well. It reminded me a lot of Toni Morrison’s Jazz, one of my favorites.
  • The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah: This is one of those books that I read and thought, “Hmm, that was a very nice novel,” but didn’t really rate it very highly at the moment I finished. It has however, really stuck in my head, and I find myself thinking about it and referring to it often in the weeks since I read it. It’s an intriguing story of a girl growing up in the shadow of her father’s uncontrollable anger, and is incredibly evocative of place — very rural Alaska.
  • The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne: Is there a name for a novel that follows a person’s story from birth to death, showing the full arc of their life? That’s one of my favorite types of books, and that’s what this book does for Cyril Avery, born to a 16 year-old unwed woman in post-war Ireland and eventually is a gay man living through the AIDS crisis in NYC. It’s beautiful, and heart-wrenching, and very reminiscent of the best John Irving novels.
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: This was the first book I read in 2018 and it was PHENOMENAL. Beautifully written story on a difficult but important topic — the 16 year old African-American narrator’s friend is shot and killed by a white police officer. Thomas does a great job getting a wide range of perspectives and does an amazing job tackling a difficult subject in a voice targeted to young adults.

PS: Speaking of young adults, don’t those kids from the Parkland Florida shooting just inspire the shit out of you? Everytime I see Emma Gonzalez speak I get a lump in my throat. It makes me think of this great Tweet I saw a few weeks ago: I’m not sure why people are so surprised that the students are rising up — we’ve been feeding them a steady diet of dystopian literature showing teens leading the charge for years. We have told teen girls they are empowered. What, you thought it was fiction? It was preparation. @JenAnsbach (A Douglass College alum, what-what!) That last line just gives me the fucking goosebumps.

Books About Sketchbooks

I went to India last week for work. It was an AMAZING trip. When normal people make a trip like that they come back with jewel-toned scarves and golden bangles or delicious tea and spices. I unpacked and realized I brought back six new sketchbooks*.

You could say I have a problem, yes.

I’ve been obsessed with notebooks and sketchbooks pretty much my whole life but it’s really taken off in the past four or five years. I do all kinds of work in my sketchbooks — I write, I draw, I do collage, I paint. I have quite a few sketchbooks that I use to do art exchanges with friends. I have a couple I use to practice painting — one for watercolor, one for acrylics. I use one for a bullet journal, with notes and to dos for everything going on in my life. I keep another one in my bag for random notes or drawings (I got this idea from Austin Kleon). I keep a journal in a Moleskine daily planner.

A lot of my inspiration for sketchbooks comes from, well, books. Books about sketchbooks. Seems like there are just tons and tons of these out there. Sometimes they’re focused on other artist’s sketchbooks, sometimes they’re about visual journaling as a hobby, sometimes they are solidly in the memoir space. Most are beautiful — lots of full color photo spreads showing the range of styles and techniques that artists of all kinds use in their personal practices.

Here are some of my favorites:

An Illustrated Life: Drawing Inspiration from the Private Sketchbooks of Artists, Illustrators and Designers: This book is what really jump-started my sketchbook obsession. Each of the 50 or so featured artists is given a few pages to show spreads from their work as well as tell stories of their work and lives. Author Danny Gregory makes drawing accessible and fun and if you’re the slightest bit interested, you should start with him to get going. I also highly recommend his first book, Everyday Matters, the first of his memoir sketchbooks.

Drawn In: A Peek into the Inspiring Sketchbooks of 44 Fine Artists, Illustrators, Graphic Designers, and Cartoonists: Gorgeous little collection of work from different artists. I like this one because it introduced me to Julia Rothman, a wonderfully-talented designer and author, and her on-hiatus site Book By Its Cover, which has a great archive of reviews on art books and interviews of artists about their sketchbooks.

The Sketchbook Project World Tour: I am a big fan of the Sketchbook Project, a crowd-funded project that includes more than 35,000 sketchbooks that are housed in a dedicated museum in Brooklyn and regularly tour the US in a van. This book has an overview of the project plus a selection of entries from artists around the globe. I don’t love the organization –by geography — but it’s still lovely to flip through.

Graphic: Inside the Sketchbooks of the World’s Great Graphic Designers: This is one of those books that is a precious object in itself. It’s a big, beautiful book that I keep next to the couch and find myself flipping through often, enjoying all of the bold photographs of more than 100 designers’ sketchbooks. There’s very little text, but there’s enough visual inspiration to make up for that.

Freehand: Sketching Tips and Tricks Drawn from Art: Smaller than the other books on the list, I find this to be a great source of quick inspiration. Each page shows a different art technique with an example from an artist’s sketchbook. This is one of my favorites and a really great little gift.

Do you have any favorites that I’ve missed?

*To be fair I bought three of the sketchbooks during a very short layover in Rome. Groggy after a ten hour flight from Delhi, my heart nearly stopped as I walked past a Fabriano store on the way to the gate for my next flight. It was all I could do not to buy one of absolutely everything.

Thoughts on Fiction

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My coworkers and I were chatting about books earlier this week and I found myself trying to explain my love of fiction, maybe for the first time ever. I’ve never had to explain this to anyone before. I assumed most people read fiction for fun. Maybe they do. I probably read more fiction than any other category.

I’ve always worked with smart people, and of course smart people come in all shapes and sizes with varied interests and concerns. Some smart people like business books, some like romance novels. But the people I work with now are, without exception, much more intellectual than I’m used to. There is no one on my team who will admit to reading mysteries on a cozy weeknight; they’re all reading about cognitive science or global economics.

So over beers my coworker is telling me about the book he’s reading now, Violence & Social Order: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History. I could tell he was really enjoying learning from it and hadn’t just name-dropped it to sound impressive or superior. He was meeting a woman for a date the next evening and I had suggested he bring her a book as a way of starting a good conversation. When he told me what it was he was reading though I changed my mind. (I’m no expert in dating but starting off with a book about violence is probably not a great way to get laid. But I suppose I could be wrong. Who knows what those crazy millennials are into?)

I, meanwhile, was loving The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne. A great thick multi-decade novel about the life of a man called Cyril Avery, set mostly in Ireland. The story opens with his 16 year-old pregnant mother being exiled from the church and her family and follows Cyril as he grows and experiences many different types of love and loss. “Maybe there are no villains in my mother’s story at all. Just men and women, trying to do their best by each other. And failing.” SO. GOOD. It’s definitely the best book I’ve read so far this year and I’ve been reading some great ones (I also loved The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui).

Anyway, my coworker was explaining that the thing he liked about his book on violence and social order was that the author created a clear framework and helped him understand the impact of one on the other. I started a friendly little argument with him about it — how could you trust this author? Don’t you feel like you need to read another book with a different perspective in order to know whether the first guy knows what he’s talking about? Arguing with him made me realize that one of the reasons I love fiction is that you very rarely get the perspective of just one person — it was written by a single person, of course, but in order to make the story work, it’s imperative that other characters have different perspectives. And when it’s done well — like in The Heart’s Invisible Furies — you end up with a fuller and more nuanced view of the world. I’m not gay, I don’t live in Ireland, and my mother was much older than 16 when she had me. I have literally nothing in common with Cyril Avery. But after reading his fictional story I feel like I know something about what a person like him might have experienced. I know just a little bit about what it’s like to be cast out of your family and church, about what it might be like to love parents who don’t understand children, what it might have been like to be in love with someone you could never tell.

To be clear, I try to never judge what anyone’s reading. What you read is your business, and you don’t need to justify it to anyone. It doesn’t make you a better or smarter person to read one thing over another. It’s just a matter of personal taste. And I’m glad my friend is reading about violence because lord knows we could use some people to figure out how to solve it. My point is just that sometimes getting into a friendly argument with someone who sees things differently than you helps you better understand why you love the things you love. And I unabashedly love fiction.

How to Talk (and talk and talk) About Books

I love to talk about books. When it was my job I used to talk about books all day every day. Now that I don’t have that luxury I try to find other ways to scratch that itch.

Of course there’s this blog, where I can talk to Elise and to the rest of you about what I’m reading. It’s awesome and I love it but it’s not enough.

I’m in a book club (shout out to Quitters Club Book Club!) and I love it but we only meet once a month and talk about one book at a time. That’s not enough.

There’s also Goodreads, where I can see a steady trickle of what my friends are reading and rate and review my own stuff. I am a superfan of the Goodreads Reading Challenge and obsessively track what I’ve been reading. I also try to write a review of each book I read. A friend inspired me to try to write 25 word book reviews — long enough to be interesting, short enough to keep a reader’s interest. It’s fun but also not enough.

There’s also Round Robin Reading, a book sharing thing I do with one or two friends. Each of us buys a hardcover book that the others either want to read or are curious about. You open the book to the first page and write your name and the start date. Then you read it and you mark the hell out of it. You talk to your friends as though they’re right there with you. You underline passages, make notes about what the text says, make notes that have nothing to do with the text, draw smiley faces, exclamation points, hearts. You dog-ear and add post-it notes. Then you pass the book to the next person for them to do the same. And so on. Eventually the book makes its way back to the original owner and that person has a beautiful, well-read and marked-up object that is kind of a self-contained book club, sitting right there on your shelf whenever you might want to dip into it. It works best if each person sticks to one writing implement so you can tell who wrote what — maybe I’ll use a blue pen and the second reader will use a pencil and the third, a green marker. [Obviously this doesn’t work if you are one of those people who think books are sacred objects and need to be preserved in plastic — that’s not my thing, but you know, you be you. I like my books marked up and well-loved.]

Another option is to pick a book to work through with a bunch of people, sort of a one-time-only book club. My team at work is awesome, and all four of us are in places where we’re thinking about what comes next, whether it’s a new project or a new job entirely. We all read Do More Great Work and for a month we met every week over breakfast to discuss and do the exercises together. It was great, and I definitely got more out of it than I would have alone.

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But it’s still not enough.

(There might be something wrong with me.)

You & a Bike & a Road

You & A Bike & A Road (and some coffee)

I worked from home today and when I ran out to get lunch I grabbed this book to read. A friend of mine posted a very rare 5-star review of it on Goodreads so I ordered it from the library and just picked it up yesterday.

It is SO GOOD. It’s a short graphic novel with very simple pencil drawings, and is a memoir of a bike tour the author took by herself in 2016. It’s a little bit about depression and a lot about being a woman and traveling alone and the kindness of strangers and feeling good on a bicycle. Maybe a little bit about how fucked up this country is right now. The author live-tweeted it along the way but since I’m not really into Twitter the book was a much better way for me to digest it. You should check it out.

This was my favorite spread:

Me & A Bike & A Road

My Commonplace Book (CPB) Today

My Digital Commonplace Book
Keeping track of all the great things I read using Evernote

It’s been 9 months since I started playing with Evernote as a way to create a digital commonplace book (see our original post here) and I thought I’d give an update on how it’s going.

In a word: good. And getting better. But still not perfect. Today I have 436 entries, with anywhere from one to 50+ quotes per entry. Most of my entries come from books I’ve read on my Kindle, but I also have entries that include websites, physical books, and original notes I’ve made based on thoughts, ideas, and conversations with people.

My CPB process today

I use a single dedicated notebook in Evernote to save quotes, pictures, and ideas from things I read. It’s simply called “Commonplace Book” and I share it with the common place’s co-founder, Elise. I love the idea of a handwritten CPB but the advantages of digital (search, ease of copying long passages, always available on mobile/laptop/tablet) outweigh the benefits of creating a beautiful artifact (err, beauty).

I like Evernote because it has well-synced mobile and web apps, makes clipping from the web easy, and can read text within images. I have a Plus account, which is an upgrade that costs $34.99 a year, but I don’t need it for my CPB needs (I have another project where I upload lots of high resolution photos which require more than the 60 MBs you get for free in the Basic membership).

Here’s how I gather entries today.

Kindle Notes & Highlights

I’ve been using the Export Kindle Notes feature to send myself an email with a pdf of all of the highlights and notes I’ve made in a book everytime I finish one. I then go to my email and drag that pdf over to create a new entry in Evernote. This creates a single entry for each book. It’s ugly and an awkward process but it works (and it’s free!).

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This is what a kindle highlight looks like using the awkward export from kindle then send email to evernote process.

Just last week I came across clippings.io and it takes away all of the clumsiness of this manual process. It’s pretty much built for this purpose. I used it to upload notes from more than 300 books I read on my Kindle and it only took a few minutes. It costs $1.99 a month, which can be kind of pricey over time but it was totally worth getting this big archive into my CPB. I don’t yet know if it’s worth the price on an ongoing basis. I’ll report back in a few months.

Poser using clippings
This is what a kindle highlight looks like using clippings.io.

Print Books and Magazines

Most of my book reading these days happens on a Kindle but when I find myself reading an old-fashioned print book, I can still add entries to my CPB. I just snap a quick photograph on my smartphone. It works just using the camera function, but often looks nicer if I use an app like Scannable and if I crop it as neatly as I can so it includes only the relevant text.  Either way, Evernote is smart enough to scan the text within the photographs so that the content is searchable. It’s not usually pretty, but it works.

The Hate U Give
This is an entry for a print book I read; it includes two photos from separate parts of the book.

Clippings from Websites

Whenever I come across something interesting on a website that I want to include in my CPB, I use my Evernote Web Clipper plug-in for my Chrome browser. It’s an easy tool that allows you to clip entire articles, screenshots, or selections and because my default Evernote notebook is my Commonplace Book, it’s just a simple one-click action for me.

OpEd Advice
Clipping from the Washington Post using the Chrome plug in

Random Notes from My Day

Another fairly frequent entry to my CPB is snippets of conversations and ideas from my day. Those are easy to add by hand using the Evernote app on my smartphone. For example, last night I went to a reading with the delightful Nikki Giovanni and she said something I wanted to remember. I just opened my app and typed it in.

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Nikki Giovanni is a bad ass.

So, all-in-all, things are going pretty well and I am still loving my CPB. I still want to figure out a few things — an elegant solution for Instagram, a way to include excerpts from audio books or podcasts, and a way to randomly surface CPB entries, just to name a few — so I will continue to experiment and will, of course, report back. If you keep a commonplace book, I’d love to hear about how it works for you!