CPB Goals 2018

How many posts can I write about my 2018 goals? We’re going to find out!  

(Don’t know what a commonplace book is? Read about it here.)  

So as you saw in the previous post, my co-blogger Vicky is quite prolific with her commonplace book. Me, not so much. As with many things in my life, I love the idea of a commonplace book but find it hard to keep up with. Well, not hard exactly. The truth is that I’m lazy. I have a backlog of audiobook clips to transcribe into mine and Kindle notes to copy. I keep lists of words I look up in the dictionary, and they have found a home in my CPB as well, but at the moment I have several of those sitting on stickies on my desktop waiting to be added. I can pull out that old “I just don’t have time for it, with everything else going on in my life” card, but that’s getting a little broken record-ish, no? I think it’s time I start making time instead of complaining that I have no time to begin with. The time is there. I just have to find it. That is my new mantra.  

That decided, I have a few questions I need to answer first:

1. Do I enter things in my CPB right away, as I read them, or wait and do one big dump on a schedule, say once a week or twice a month? 

Right now I’m basically doing the big periodic dump. I’ve added a few things as I come across them, like clips from other blogs’ posts and snaps of snippets from magazines, but for the longer works, I’ve been lax. I highlight and note as I read in my Kindle, but then when I’m done with the book, I let it sit for quite some time without adding those highlights and quotes to my CPB (which, like Vicky, I use Evernote for). I have to find the right balance. I feel like posting as soon as I’m done reading the book is the way to go, so I’ll try to do that instead of procrastinating.

2. How do I handle print books? 

 One of my reading goals for this year is to read more print books. So, how do I record quotes from them in my CPB? Vicky’s post outlined how she’s able to take pics of print materials and edit them down to include only the text she wants quoted—I’m going to have to pick her brain on that one, because my attempts at same have not been successful. This seems like a better, quicker method than typing up every quote I want to save and less complicated than highlighting quotes and going back to snap them later (as I’ve tried…so time consuming), so I must master it.

3. And what about those word lists, anyway? 

So I have what the kids these days call a side hustle as a book editor. My clients are all self-published authors. It’s interesting, and while I complain about it a lot because hey, who wants to work two jobs, I do enjoy it. I love editing in and of itself, and I get some satisfaction from hopefully helping people who have chosen the nontraditional publishing route to put out the best product possible and maybe become better writers in the process. 

I also have a full-time job as a copy editor, where I edit audiobook descriptions. Yes, it’s as exciting as it sounds, but again, I love editing, so I like it. Anyway, between these two jobs, I look up a lot of words in the dictionary to check for proper spelling, hyphenation, compounding, etc. (I wrote a blog post about that a while back. I have a lot of feelings about editing, okay?) And I keep lists of these words, have done for a while. Why? Well, there’s a practical side to it—once I look up a word during an edit, if I list it, I can just refer back to the list and won’t have to look it up if it appears again. Largely, though, it’s all about self-amusement. Curiosity. And a plain old love of all things wordy. Maybe I’m just a word hoarder. I don’t know. 

So now that I have a CPB, I have someplace to collect these lists, rather than just amassing a myriad of sticky notes on my various computer desktops. Which is great! But I feel like I need some larger purpose for these words. Recording them is fine, adding them to my CPB is brilliant, but what then? This is what I must figure out. How do my word lists fit in to my larger CPB goals, and what inherent weight do they hold? Is there something more I can be doing with them?  

These are all questions I will answer in time. The most important thing is to jump in and start posting in my CPB more often. In fact, I think I’ll go and catch up on some of that audiobook transcription right now. 

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!

 

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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Vic’s 2017 Top Ten Books

Dah, dah, dah, dah!! Here is it, my annual list of the top ten best books I read this year. Not all of these were published in 2017, but they all made my year a little brighter.

As I look it over there are two takeaways for me. First, I was surprised I liked a fair number of these because they aren’t genres or descriptions I would normally gravitate to. This is a good push to more-than-occasionally dip my toe outside of my reading comfort zone. And second, if you asked me whether I preferred fiction to non-fiction, ten times out of ten I would say fiction. But my top ten list this year does not support that: it is dominated by non-fiction. Eight are true stories, five of those are memoir. I guess I can drop my perpetual goal to try to read more nonfiction. It seems to have finally worked.

Without further ado:

  1. You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie:No one is more surprised than I am that this is on my best of list; I have a long-held dislike for Seattle’s favorite author. I find him smug and condescending and have, to my detriment, avoided reading him because of this. But my book club forced me to read this gorgeous memoir earlier in the year and I was literally stopped in my tracks by the beauty of Alexie’s elegy for his mother and by the way he just laid open his heart, imperfections and all. It is a beautiful book on grief and difficult relationships. I’m going to read the rest of Alexie’s back catalog next year.
  2. Thinking About Memoir by Abigail Thomas: I found a small hardcover of this book in my library, took it home, and devoured it in one sitting. Then I read it again. And then I obsessed about stealing it from the library, partially because some reader before me had dog-eared pages and underlined great quotes — magically the same ones I would have if it’d been my own copy– and partially because it’s now sadly out of print. Thankfully someone thoughtful tracked one down (thanks, Brooke!) and gifted me a copy so the original one made it back to the library system. It’s so good. It reads like it was intended to be a how-to book for older people who want to write their memoirs (it’s published by the AARP) but, like all Thomas books, it is charming and sweet and much more than a writing manual.
  3. Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel: The story of Chris Knight and the 27 years he spent living alone in the Maine woods is sad and beautiful and complicated, as is the story of Michael Finkel, the journalist trying to track him down and tell his story. This book is fascinating and well-written and it belongs on a very exclusive list of the best nature books ever written, right next to Into the Wild, The Golden Spruce, and Walden.
  4. Birds, Art, Life by Kyo Maclear: A memoir of an ordinary year, one that finds the author preparing for the death of her father, managing her anxiety disorder, and learning about bird watching. This is a book meant to be read slowly, I think, and savored in bits and pieces. The writing is spectacularly beautiful and quotes from the pages fill my commonplace book. “Strong one moment, vulnerable the next, we falter because we are alive, and with any luck we recover.” “Every love story is a potential grief story.”
  5. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: This is my favorite kind of novel — a multi-generational family drama that pulls you into the details of a world you previously knew nothing about. The story takes place in Korea over four generations, starting in the early 1900s and served as a great introduction to Korean (and Japanese) history. It’s about the unpredictability of life and the quiet strength of women and how, even after terrible things happen, life always goes on.
  6. Underground Airlines by Ben Winters: There’s nothing about the description of this book that would have led me to believe I’d like it. It’s an alternative history, where the Civil War never happened and in present-day America slavery is still legal in four Southern states. The story centers on a black man, Victor, who works for the government as a bounty hunter, and while the plot moves forward quickly, we also get a glimpse into how Victor arrived in this place. It’s shocking and brutal and makes for a great book club discussion.
  7. Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang: I’d seen an episode of the truly terrible ABC sitcom based on this memoir and had no desire to read the book until I started obsessively watching Vice’s Huang’s World. I’m so glad I finally did read it — this is a fresh and really smart look at the modern immigrant story. It’s funny and touching and taught me about Taiwanese and Chinese culture–not to mention American hip hop, streetwear, and by-the-seat-of-your-pants entrepreneurship.
  8. Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans: I wish that this book had been there two or three years ago when I was really struggling with a career change, but even so it’s an invaluable resource and I’m sure to go back to it next time I need to assess what I’m doing with my life. This also made me desperately want to attend Stanford’s d.school.
  9. Hunger by Roxane Gay: This book took longer for me to finish than any book in recent memory. It was beautiful, but filled with so much pain and a couple of scenes so intense I had to walk away and come back once I’d caught my breath. There are no epiphanies or easy resolutions to Gay’s story here; just an honest account of a complicated struggle that she’s faced for years and continues to chip away at one day at a time.
  10. How to be Champion by Sarah Millican: Right now go watch the YouTube clip where Sarah Millican, Vince Vaughn, and PDiddy are on the Graham Norton show. It is an awkward and hilarious few minutes where Millican shares a very personal story about farting. This is in a capsule Millican’s comedic genius. She is brutally honest, doesn’t care about looking good, and is brave in a way that warms the cockles of my feminist heart (ok maybe that last one doesn’t come through in the clip but it definitely does in the book). I listened to this on audio, mostly on a long plane ride, and I laughed out loud like a maniac for many hours. It’s good, and she’s a new favorite.

Categories

We’ve been writing about commonplace books –these old fashioned collections of quotes from books and readings– and working on our own versions for a few months now. When we started, a little bit of digital sleuthing quickly showed that most people break their CPBs down by category. I considered this for a few days, and even tried to come up with a short list of categories for my collection, but it seemed an impossible task. It’s hard to think about organization when you have nothing but blank pages in front of you. Now that we’re getting to the end of the year, however, I can look back and see some categories starting to emerge.

2017 has been a difficult year. My husband received a big and terrible diagnosis early in January and one of my ways of coping has been to just write this year off –I’ve said at least a dozen times something along the lines of “2017 isn’t a good year for me for ______. Let’s talk next year.” It applied to everything from socializing to taking on big projects to traveling to spending money. Although it sounds kind of pessimistic, I actually found it quite freeing — it was a little confirmation to myself that yes, this year would suck, but with any luck things wouldn’t suck forever. As long as you see an end to a difficult time, it’s much easier to get through it.

And I think because of this state of mind instead of using my reading to escape I’ve dug deep and read little that wasn’t about K’s illness or about how others have dealt with a shitty turn of events.

The big question that has been running through my head all year is “how do we comfort the people we love?” and the truth is that I’ve yet to come across any great answers. But I have started to build up a pretty sizeable fountain of other people’s wisdom when it comes to dealing with hard shit. I have lots of thoughts on this and will probably post about it again, but for now I thought I’d just share a few of the quotes from this year’s reading that have resonated the most.

“The secret of life is not about knowing what to say or do. It’s not about doing love or loss right. Life cannot be handled. The secret is to simply show up. It’s about witnessing it all, even the pain, and letting it touch you and make you not harder, but more tender. Showing up, feeling it all — this is my new kind of prayer. I call it praying attention, and it’s how, for me, everything turns holy.” Glennon Doyle, “The Secret of Life Is Simply Showing Up”, O Magazine July 2017

“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.” (found on a comment on a Humans of New York Facebook post 7/25/17)

I am reminded of an image…that living with a terminal disease is like walking on a tightrope over an insanely scary abyss. But that living without disease is also like walking on a tightrope over an insanely scary abyss, only with some fog or cloud cover obscuring the depths a bit more — sometimes the wind blowing it off a little, sometimes a nice dense cover.” Nina Riggs, The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying

“I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”  Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

“Every love story is a potential grief story.” Kyo Maclear, Birds, Art, Life

These are only from things I’ve read in the last ten months. I find myself wanting to go back and reread things I read long ago, things I read before I was keeping track of quotations in my commonplace book. I want to re-read Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking, the best book on grief I think I’ve ever read, about the terrible year that Didion lost both her husband and her only daughter. I want to go back and re-read Late Fragments by Kate Gross, which I listened to on a solo road trip through the desert a few years ago. It was wonderful, if wonderful is an appropriate word for the memoir of a very young woman with a horrible cancer that kills her soon after she finished writing the book. I want to go back and re-read Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Lifeby Amy Krouse Rosenthal, a book that I absolutely adored when I read it more than a decade ago. Rosenthal died from ovarian cancer earlier this year, just ten days after the NYT published a heart-wrenching dating profile she wrote for her soon-to-be widowed husband. I want to revisit the wisdom in Will Schwalbe’s The End-of-Your-Life Book Club and Abigail Thomas’ Three Dog Life.

I see now that this is not a new category for me. It’s just become more important to me this year. So, what should I call this category? Illness? Grief? How to live with death in your rear-view mirror? Oh. I guess that’s just called Life.

The Carnegie-Morrissey Connection

​Yesterday Elise and I had this text exchange:

I’d been sick the entire day and all I did was lay around reading, snacking, and napping. After this exchange I ending up thinking about all of these business plans I have. In addition to that brilliant scheme for middle-aged shower products, I have pretty well developed ideas for the following:

  • a luxury spa designed for working women
  • a cleaning service with citizenship support for recent-immigrant cleaners
  • a tinder-like book recommendation app
  • a plus-size bicycling and outdoors clothing line

I’ve been obsessing over business ideas for the past five or six years, part of my long thinking process as I was deciding to leave my comfortable corporate job. During that time I read a ton of business books, some good, some bad, but the business idea craze was definitely kicked off by Chris Guillebeau’s The $100 Startup. I started to compose a post about this book but then I had a vague recollection that Elise and I had already discussed it. Sure enough, it’s in my email archives back from 2013.

​Sweet! I’m so glad I had record of this conversation. These diatribes we’ve been writing to one another for 10 years have created such a great trail of breadcrumbs!

Anyway, so now that I know we both had the same point of reference for this book, I went to my Kindle archives to see what I’d highlighted in the book. I was surprised that despite how influential this book has been to my thinking, I barely highlighted any passages and the ones I did were not particularly meaningful. I flipped over to look at popular highlights (things other people highlighted) and that helped a little bit, but not really. I need to go back and reread the book. I kind of resent having to do that — I’ve got a whole thing about re-reading books. Re-reading books, even good ones, pulls me away from something new I could be reading. (I think that’s leftover PTSD from my days working in books — there was always so much pressure to be reading the newest thing that it felt sinful to go backwards in any way.)

But it made me think about a feature I’d like to figure out — as long as we’re making our CPBs digital, we should take advantage of the medium and make it collaborative.

Right now we each have a CPB going in Evernote, and we’ve shared them with one another which means that I can see Elise’s and she can see mine but there’s no obvious way to comment or highlight on one another’s entries. At least not that I can see.

I’m going to mess around with it to see what we can figure out.

In one of Elise’s recent CPB captures, she quoted Dale Carnegie — “Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain but it takes character and self control to be understanding and forgiving.” — which is a great line, but every time I see it I immediately think of The Smiths song “I Know It’s Over”. One, I loved The Smiths (so dramatic) and two, that song in particular was one of my favorites. I used this quote in my high school yearbook.


So I wanted to make note of this in Elise’s CPB. There’s no obvious way to do that — I was looking for something like the comments you can create in Word, like a little bubble with the author noted. So I just wrote my comment in next to Elise’s and marked it in red, like so:

This is kind of a sloppy hack though. Elise doesn’t get a notification about my note; she has to be randomly reading through her entries to notice it. Does anyone know of a more elegant solution?

​The Dunning–Kruger Effect

This weekend we were driving down to Tacoma and because it’s a long and boring ride we listened to a This American Life podcast on the way. Ira Glass talked to two researchers, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, who conducted some very cool studies. They gave a bunch of college students some quizzes — on grammar and logic and humor — and then asked them how they thought they did. They found that students who did poorly consistently thought they did better than they did. If a student was in the bottom 20% in terms of scores, they almost always thought that they did much better, sometimes as high as 80%. From the interview: “in short, there seemed to be a direct correlation between incompetence and an overweening sense of self-confidence. It wasn’t apparent in every poor-performing student, but it was in the majority of them. Most people who did badly thought they did just fine or even great. They had no idea.” This in itself is funny to me but the research said something else really interesting — this doesn’t happen because these people are assholes, it’s because they answer the question of how they’ve done with the same base of knowledge they used to answer the questions. Meaning you don’t know what you don’t know. And that happens to all of us sometime or another.

So, anyway, I’m with you — I keep hemming and hawing about organizational structure and categorization but in the end, I just decided to get started and learn as I go. Admittedly I have an advantage over you here — because I’m choosing a digital route, making course corrections is much easier for me. I decided to use Evernote for my CPB.

I’ve used Evernote for years and years now, but never to its full advantage. I mostly use it to keep track of accounts and logins but I know that it’s capable of much more and I figured if nothing else this testing would help me better understand how to utilize Evernote.

Why Evernote? I like that it’s always with me. I can access it on my work computer, on my home computer, or via the app on my iPhone. Evernote also has pretty cool Optical Character Recognition (OCR) scanning so I can take photos of text and it will recognize the text in a search. The downside is it is kind of unattractive, so that’s one of the things I’ll want to solve for.

So here’s my basic set-up:

Within Evernote I have two notebooks for commonplace books, one for quotes (the actual CPB) and another for the construction of a commonplace book (blog posts on how other people have set up their CPBs, for example). Both of those together make up a Commonplace Book stack (this doesn’t really mean anything other than it looks tidy when I view my notebooks).

In the CPB Quotation notebook, each entry is for a single body of work. This is easy to do but kind of ugly. ​
The body of each entry is just a long listing of everything of note I found or thought about the work.
Here’s an example of the OCR: I read an excerpt of Alec Baldwin’s new memoir in Vanity Fair and took a photo of a quote I liked (I, too, find making a good hire pretty damn satisfying.)

There are surely still lots of tweaks to make but this is where I am today.

PS: Love the convention of listing something from a recent CPB entry as the title of a post. I’ve obviously stolen it from you and will probably use it a ton.

PPS: Tell me more about looking things up in the dictionary. One of my favorite things about my Kindle is the ability to easily look words up but I always feel like I should do something with those words. I’m sure I don’t remember most of them after only looking them up once.

PPS: I think the question of quantity or quality is much clearer when you’re using a digital CPB: you definitely want quantity. There’s no downside to having too many quotes or entries. Search and an easy copy and paste solve for that.