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:

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

Literary Karma (the good kind)

Two Great Memoirs

I’ve read a lot of books about cancer lately, and two of my favorites are When Breath Becomes Air and The Bright Hour. Both memoirs were published after the authors died, both authors left spouses behind. Those widowed spouses? They just made public the fact that two years later, they are now in love. It is the sweetest story. Here’s the piece in the Washington Post.

365 Days of Memories

I’ve tried to keep a diary my whole life. I have boxes and boxes of notebooks in my closet to prove it, dating as far back as grade school. None of them more than a quarter full. I start out strong and then drop off quickly. Maybe ten or twelve entries. But not 2017. 2017 is the first time I’ve ever successfully started and kept a daily diary for an entire year. I’m so proud of it I could throw up.

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I knew last year was going to be different and that helped motivate me. My husband was diagnosed with cancer on December 31, 2016 — happy fucking new year — and we immediately braced ourselves for a year of intensive treatment. One of the most consistent pieces of advice I got was to write about what was happening. People recommended it as a way to communicate to loved ones who couldn’t be with us, to help me process everything that was going on, and to keep a record of what would likely be a dark and difficult time. I really wanted to, but for some reason I couldn’t get myself comfortable with it. I tried to start a dozen times, different platforms, different styles. How much information should I be sharing? Was it ok to sound as sad and pessimistic as I sometimes was, or did I have to pretend to be one of those endlessly optimistic cancer warriors? Did I have to write even when I felt terrible? I was too overwhelmed to figure it out. I might write about it all someday, but I couldn’t get it done this year.

I ended up with a paper solution, almost by default.

I had ordered a Moleskine daily planner (like this) at the beginning of December, before I had any inclination K was sick, in one of my overly optimistic, slightly manic One-Click moments (I would be mortified if anyone saw the length and variety of my Amazon order history), so it was already sitting on my desk ready when I thought that I might give the diary thing another shot. I started on January 1 and wrote an entry for almost every single day, right up to December 31. Because I wasn’t going to share it with anyone, I could be honest about how I was feeling and what was going on. There was no thinking required, I could just document my days.

Mostly I wrote brief notes about what was going on and how I felt about it. Sometimes it was just a laundry list of things about my day (“Hospital. Coffee. Brenda. Walked the dogs”). Sometimes I sketched, sometimes I painted, sometimes I printed out cheesy little photos on my inkjet printer. I wrote down a lot of quotes as I came across them, making it a little bit of an old-fashioned hand-written commonplace book.

Yesterday my 2018 planner arrived. Same format, different color. I hope this year is easier, and I hope I can keep up with the writing.

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