Social Media and the 21st Century Commonplace Book

Commonplace book
Commonplace book
“Commonplace book” from flickr user vlasta2

In the midst of my recent move to Central Florida, I made some drastic decisions: my wife and I decided to move to our new home with only what we could fit in two cars. I had to sell almost all of my books, and kept only a few reference books and some books I had already started reading.

Then, for the week before we moved, we cut out our internet at home and sold our TV. I was left with only the books on my Kindle and a notebook for entertainment. So I started reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s lengthy Lincoln biography Team of Rivals. Goodwin’s thorough research and ability to tell a story keeps me hooked, but more importantly it reveals how socially connected Lincoln’s world was, even in the midst of war.

What’s most interesting about Goodwin’s book is her use of letters and diary entries to get a sense of what it was like in the moment. Most of her narrative takes place in the paces of letters sent from Lincoln’s closest friends and political colleagues. We learn about some of Lincoln’s greatest achievements from letters from Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward to his wife Fanny. We also learn how Lincoln’s treasury secretary, Salmon Chase, depended on letters to and from his daughter Kate to keep sane during the war and to refine social and political ideals.

The social connections through print in this era shows that our modern sense of “social media” isn’t that unique after all. The tools we use to communicate have changed, but the idea of sharing our ideas to those closest to us hasn’t.

Another aspect of 19th Century written communication is the commonplace book. These notebooks were like personal diaries, but they were written for a small audience of friends and family and passed around to be read by others. Writer Tom Standage recently covered commonplace books in his article “How commonplace books were like Tumblr and Pinterest.” According to Standage, these books conveyed the writer’s ideas and thoughts:

People would sometimes lend their commonplace books or miscellanies to their friends, who could then page through the entries and copy anything of interest into their own books. The similarities and overlaps between several manuscript collections compiled at Oxford University indicate widespread sharing of both individual texts and entire collections among students and their tutors, for example. Like internet users setting up blogs or social-media profiles for the first time, compilers of commonplace books seem to have relished the opportunities their newfound literacy gave them for projecting a particular image of themselves to their peers.

It wasn’t until the 20th Century that the personal diary became truly personal and only read by close relatives, if anyone. And reading was both a personal act and one people shared with others; it was not meant for personal fulfillment only.

With this 19th Century perspective on the role of reading and writing in mind, the role of the 21st Century blogger, particularly the book blogger, takes on a new social importance. (Well, at least it does to me.) Sites like Twitter and Pinterest, which help readers share clippings, brief thoughts, and other ephemera, give anyone the opportunity to share and build audiences of close intimate readers.

While some aspects of 19th Century “social media” are lost on today’s audiences, the idea of social reading and social media are alive today. The tools we have today give us even more ability to share and communicate. Over time, we will refine these technologies, but for now, the idea of sharing is alive and well.

Magnificent Obsession

This interesting reflection on a library book sale got me thinking this morning about the power of the book as a physical object. Is a part of this lost in the digital age? The more I use e-books, I’d say no, the physical book is still an integral part of my reading experience, and the local library is still where I like to discover books. As I say goodbye to some of my books, I wonder how long it will take me to build my collection again.

Essay: What Hollywood Doesn’t Get About Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre (costado)

Here’s a great reflection on a classic novel: Jane Eyre. As I sort through boxes this week and catch up on organizing my summer reads, I thought it’d be nice to share this excellent look at one of the 19th Century’s best novels.

David Foster Wallace On Perfectionism, Ambition, and the Urge to Write

David Foster Wallace

Back in 1996, David Foster Wallace sat down with Leonard Lopate at WNYC to talk about his novel Infinite JestThe interview soon veered off into topics about what led DFW to writing.

Blank on Blank recently animated parts of this interview and put it on Youtube. Check it out:

If you’re a fan of David Foster Wallace, or if you need some inspiration for writing or life, make sure you watch this video.

I enjoyed reading and annotating his novel The Pale King on this site last summer. Topics covered include boredom, anxiety, the value of work, and authenticity in narrative.

[Thanks to Maria Popova at Brain Pickings for the link! “David Foster Wallace on Ambition, Animated”]

Tim Ferriss: 4-Hour-Hero or just another asshat?

Tim Ferriss books

By Jason Braun and Kevin Eagan

Tim Ferriss is a polarizing figure. Some see him as a brilliant salesman and self-promoter while others think he is overhyped and self-absorbed.

I fall into the latter group. There is something about Tim Ferriss I can’t stand: he’s smarmy and arrogant in his approach. He promotes dubious “hacks” over doing authentic work.

So I got caught up in a conversation about Tim Ferriss with my friend and fellow blogger Jason Braun, who digs Ferriss’ work. (Readers may remember Jason from his post “Naked as a caveman, except for the tools.”) Jason recently lent me his copy of Chris Guillebeau’s book The $100 Startup, and that book got us talking about promotion and authenticity.

Handing back Jason’s copy The $100 Startup, I said I buy into Guillebeau’s approach more than Tim Ferris’s because Guillebeau ties it back to ethics and legacy. Then I said this: “Ferriss’ bullshit in last month’s Wired about becoming a superhuman through grey market drugs bothers the fuck out of me. It’s gimmicky, dishonest, and goes against the point of eastern philosophy and his idea of simplicity. I’m starting to realize that he’s a shill, and I’m tired of shills. Instead of taking random pills to wait and see what happens, he should have sat down for an hour to do some real work.”

Fast-forward to later that day, Jason wrote me on Facebook:

Jason: Picking up from our conversation about Tim Ferris before: I mean aren’t you at least a little impressed with the obsession that drove him to do drugs not for getting high and acting stupid, but to become part cyborg and greater than he was before? I mean, he was looking for the philosopher’s stone!

Kevin: My deal with Tim Ferriss isn’t all of his content, but his approach. He is very successful at what he does, I’ll give him that. But a lot of what he writes about is found in other books. In terms of his mix of Eastern and Zen philosophy and seeking fulfillment in work, I’ve read this before. You should check out Leo Babauta, for example. His whole idea is minimalism and breaking life down to the essential for self-fulfillment…so similar to Ferriss, but I guess I just like Babauta’s more subtle approach it’s more authentic–he’s like Yoda instead of the Death Star.

Jason: Just don’t hate me when I’m famous, Death Star or no. The easiest way might be the best way, and that’s what Ferriss does. I’d argue there’s no such thing as authenticity, and not every blog post or book needs to be a manifesto.

Kevin: I guess, but I think there’s something to ethics, legitimacy, and authenticity, however you define it. If everyone did what Ferriss did we’d all be loud asshats blowing things up instead of working together.

So readers, what do you think? Check out some of Ferriss’ work if you’re not familiar. Is he a 4-hour-genius, or another self-absorbed flash in the pan?

Oh, and Jason and I are still working this idea out. We’ll be back with more of our conversation soon.

Haruki Murakami on writing while running

Haruki Murakami. flickr creative commons user Bradley Wind
Haruki Murakami. flickr creative commons user Bradley Wind

Last week, I mentioned that a writing goal, like Chris Guillebeau’s goal of 1,000 words a day, can help you create the right writing habits. It’s the same for anything, really: if you can commit to something realistic, and do it every day, the rest will fall into place and you’ll see improvement.

For me, this same principle applies to running. As with my writing, my running hasn’t always been consistent, and I’m trying to change that. I try to run every other day, with another workout on off days to rest my muscles. Since November, I’ve been able to keep this schedule (for the most part) so it has become a consistent habit.

One of my favorite novelists is Haruki Murakami. His memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is a reflection on his career as both a runner and writer. Throughout the book, he admits his writing only became an artistic and commercial success because he wrote every day and kept disciplined throughout his career.

This discipline came into play through his running as well. In the midst of his writing career, Murakami has run a handful of marathons including the Boston Marathon.

I read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running a couple years ago, but I found this quote from the book to be just as relevant today as it was when I read it the first time:

Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life—and for me, for writing as well. I believe many runners would agree.

What I talk about when I talk about runningRunning, just like writing, is a difficult process. It requires commitment and drive, then it requires follow-through. It’s not something you can do every once in a while; instead, it takes years of practice to improve.

Maybe you’re not a runner or writer, but the same applies to other creative work. Just remember: this is a process, and it requires drive, persistence, and consistency to be successful.

How self-help books have changed the way we think

The Zen of the Zombie
Zombie finds self-help | flickr user e_monk

The “self-help” book has changed how we think, and many readers are OK with that. Here are some of my thoughts on why.

Over the last year, I’ve read a lot of popular non-fiction books, and I’ve noticed an interesting trend: many of these books incorporate some level of self-help writing. It doesn’t matter if the book is about neuroscience or running — they all seem to add in some type of life-affirming advice, a classic howto, or an inspirational (yet reductive) conclusion about the topic discussed.

Bright-Sided by Barbara EhrenreichEver since I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s well-researched Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, I have been wary of the self-help and positive thinking movement. Ehrenreich’s book shows how the current positive thinking movement comes from an American history split between two ways of thinking, one being a Calvinist, “pull-up-your-bootstraps” practicality and the other a naive belief that if you think it up, you can do it. The most successful people, we believe, are able to do both of these things well, and they don’t give up in the process.

I am cynical about this way of thinking, especially after reading Ehrenreich’s expose of the positive thinking movement. There are a lot of gurus and experts out there trying to get me to spend money on things that may or may not help me perform better, get more productive, or succeed in life. There is always a danger that I’ll spend my time and money on these things and delay the work I could do on my own without experts guiding me.

Yet I still find myself drawn to these popular non-fiction titles. I read them because they confirm things I know about myself, or they help me see things I wouldn’t have seen on my own. It’s human nature to want someone in an authority position to confirm something we already know about ourselves. Sometimes, we need to feel like we’ve been given “permission” to move forward. That’s not always a bad thing.

You can be an introvert, too

For example, I recently read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. In this book, Cain dives into the cultural and scientific reasons why some people are introverted and concludes that we undervalue introverts by honoring extroverts, and yet introverts are the ones changing the world. She begins her book with some convincing sociological studies that show an “introvert” is someone who gets energy from being alone, and in a society that honors outward appearances, many introverts get left behind.

I’m an introvert, so I found myself agreeing with almost everything she said throughout the book. But as I read through each chapter, the underlying theme became “yes you, the introvert, can be successful too!” And that’s when I started to realize something: this reads a lot like a self-help book. It might have scientific studies to back up the ideas, but it ends by giving advice to introverts who feel left out in today’s extroverted world.

After I read Cain’s book, it seemed like everyone I who had read it was suddenly an introvert. It was as if people who read the book were associating “I’m an introvert” with “I’m insecure about some part of myself” — two completely different things. Yet Cain seems to do this herself in the book: she sometimes uses “shy” and “by myself” to mean the same as introverted (whether intentionally or not). Here’s an example from one of the most highlighted passages in the book, according to kindle.amazon.com:

Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me—they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee. If you’re that rare engineer who’s an inventor and also an artist, I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.

This passage does a couple of interesting things: first, it confirms a belief that success comes from independence, not from groupthink (as in the “pull-up-your-bootstraps” ideal); second, it assures the reader that they’re OK (“most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me,” Cain writes, and therefore like you, the reader — the introvert).

Cain’s book is a great example of what I’m talking about because it was marketed as a psychology book. I started reading it because I thought it’d have some scientific studies to support the idea that introversion is a real thing. I got hooked and read to the end because Cain both confirmed and reassured me that I, the introvert, can be awesome too.

So where does all of this bring us? I guess I should go back to my original questions: have self-help books affected our view of success, and more importantly, have they affected the way we read? In general, are they changing the way we think?

The “tipping point”: Self-help is here to stay

This move toward self-help could be an effect of internet culture. Notice that these books have taken off in the past ten years, and writers like Malcolm Gladwell have pioneered the author-as-marketing-and-self-help-guru approach to non-fiction. Or, it could be a result of our changing economy: if you’re not portraying yourself as happy, successful, and productive, you won’t get noticed (or so we’re told), and as a result, you’ll be left behind.

In order to be successful, we are advised to give off the appearance of success. For example, writers are told to have a “platform” — a website, a social media strategy, a newsletter — in addition to churning out a series of bestselling novels. But in order to have the bestselling novel, it helps to write a lot, and that can only be done alone, away from the spotlight. (And writing is usually a gruelling process full of self-doubt, confusion, and depression, not to mention it’s incredibly anti-social.)

Jonah Lehrer, from Flickr Creative Commons, user Vivanista1, http://www.flickr.com/photos/54585499@N04/5471320337/
Jonah Lehrer, from Flickr user Vivanista1

This model of the non-fiction book that is really a self-help book seems like it’s here to stay because it is incredibly successful. Even readers like me, who tend to be cynical and guarded — I went to journalism school, so I was taught the old mantra that “if your mother says she loves you, factcheck it” — find solace and comfort in a book that uplifts and confirms.

What I hope is that this approach to non-fiction won’t lead to intellectual laziness, sloppy writing, or reductive thinking. We already saw this happen to Jonah Lehrer, the young non-fiction writer and speaker who was caught self-plagiarizing and making up quotes.

I also hope it doesn’t lead to a group of 20- and 30-somethings who are too busy reading books and articles about how-to-be-that or the-science-of-this that they stop creating things that lead to the next revolution. That type of future is scarier to me than a future filled with padded non-fiction bestsellers.

How I’m using Evernote and IFTTT to collect and organize my digital marginalia

Digital Disruption - Critical Margins

Digital Disruption - Critical Margins

If you enjoy this Evernote and IFTTT overview, check out three ways you can use IFTTT to get the most out of your digital reading.

This year, I’ve written about how digital marginalia — those notes, clippings, likes, and kindle book highlights — have re-shaped the way we read. In particular, I believe that we are entering a new era of reading, an era that has a social reading element similar to reading in the 18th and 19th centuries, a time when commonplace books and note-sharing were standard.

Recently, I came across an article in The Verge by Thomas Houston that covers this topic. Part of “The Verge at Work” series, Houston talks about the history of reading and note-taking, and delves into his personal 21st-century version of this:

Sixty years ago, Vannevar Bush imagined a hypertext information machine (a memex) in his essay ‘As We May Think’ that would act as an “intimate supplement” to memory. Bush imagined a desk-sized machine for keeping track of a user’s books, records, and communications, tracking what you read and your notes like a modern day version of the commonplace book. Years after reading a book or writing down a note, the user would be able to return to it, tracing written thoughts in “trails” that can be recalled, shared, and stored. “Thus science may implement the ways in which man produces, stores, and consults the record of the race,” Bush wrote, surely unaware of where hypertext would take us.

Stumbling on all of this years ago got me thinking, and I started playing around with my own notes after reading author Steven Johnson’s article in the New York Times where he described his own system. He saw digital tools helping “the subtle arts of inspiration and association,” providing a unique way to not only augment memory but share idea creation with the machines. Johnson used an app called DevonThink to store his writings, notes, highlights from a decade’s worth of books, and other things that had influenced him, building a personal database of reading, writing, and thinking (dig into his process at his personal site). But it’s not just for having all of this information at your fingerprints, Johnson explains. The promise of the system was its ability to find documents that he’d entirely forgotten about, “documents I didn’t know I was looking for.”

Houston then goes onto explain his own way of collecting all of his ideas digitally: he uses Evernote and IFTTT to organize his online reading life.

Before explaining my own process — which, as many readers have noted, has evolved over the last year — I’d like to explain briefly what these two tools can do. First, Evernote is a note-taking app that does everything from basic word processing and note taking to advanced Website clipping and social sharing. If you can think it up, you can do it with Evernote. Second, If This Then That (or IFTTT) allows you to automate online services. For example, with IFTTT, I can send each tagged photo of me on Facebook to Dropbox, Skydrive, or Google Drive without having to find them on my own. The service does the work for you, and it allows you to access whatever you want wherever you want it.

IFTTT has several Evernote “recipes,” including some that allow me to save notes from the internet and archive old tweets without having to go through the steps myself. After months of trying to organize my digital life, I think I’ve found the best solution. Here’s what I do to organize my digital marginalia:

1. Simplify the sites I use. I used to be all over the internet, and now I stick with these reading apps: Twitter (for finding stuff), Flipboard (which links to my Twitter and Google Reader accounts), and Instapaper. I also link my Kindle to kindle.amazon.com which tracks my Kindle book notes and highlights.

2. Use Evernote to collect everything noteworthy for me. Whenever I read something on Flipboard, I star it. This sends it directly to Evernote, and it saves the article in one of two notes: a Twitter “favorites” note and a Google Reader “Starred Articles” note. With Instapaper, I collect the best articles, then send a compilation of these articles to my Kindle for reading on my free time. If I like it, I hit “like” on my Kindle and it sends a copy of the article to Evernote. By the way, all of this is set up using IFTTT recipes. This takes some getting used to, but it’s totally worth it. Check out IFTTT help for more information.

3. Tag my Evernote articles for later reading. I also use smart tags (via IFTTT) so that every article is tagged appropriately. Again, this is just a matter of editing the individual IFTTT recipe.

4. Download my clippings.txt file on my Kindle to Evernote. Every Kindle has a clippings.txt file which stores all of your highlights and notes. This is done manually, and right now, all I do is connect my Kindle to my computer, then copy and paste new notes from the clippings.txt file to Evernote. If someone knows of a way to automate this process, let me know. For now, I don’t organize these notes in any other way.

I’ve also set up IFTTT to automate some of my social media posts. I also use Hootsuite to schedule tweets. IFTTT has some powerful Facebook Pages recipes as well.

For now, this works for me. It allows me to create my own digital commonplace book, and it reminds me to go back and read important and interesting articles for later.

Why I love my Kindle Keyboard

Earlier this month, Amazon released a collection of new Kindles. One of the new Kindles is the Kindle Paperwhite, a front-lit e-ink multi-touch Kindle with one of the crispest displays Amazon has yet released.

After reading the tech buzz surrounding this new Kindle (which doesn’t come out until October, so hasn’t yet been reviewed), I wanted one bad. It has all the elements of an amazing e-Reader: functional touchscreen, responsive page-turns, crisp text, a front-lit display that is not as sharp on the eyes as an LCD screen, and the best contrast for any e-ink screen on the market. Also, the price is right: it’s only $119. Sure, it’s not the cheapest Kindle, but it’s still affordable.

I was ready to pre-order and sell or give away my current Kindle, the Kindle Keyboard (or Kindle 3 as it was called when it was released). I ordered this Kindle when it came out in Fall 2010. Before this, I had owned the Kindle 2, and while I liked this Kindle, its screen did not have the pixel density and sharpness of the Kindle 3. It was also heavy and wasn’t receiving the same software updates as the Kindle 3, so I sold it on eBay and used the money to buy the new Kindle.

Immediately, I was impressed with my new Kindle’s beautiful screen. It was so sharp that when I opened it for the first time, I thought the start screen was a protective sticker, and I tried to peel it off before realizing it was the e-ink screen. At first glance, I didn’t see pixelation around the text; it looked like a printed page. As I began using it, I would notice some pixelation, but overall, reading on this Kindle was as close to reading on paper as I’d ever come. It was lighter, too, and easier for me to forget I was reading on a device. The pages turned quickly, and I was happy with my choice to upgrade. The Kindle Keyboard outperformed my expectations and made up for the shortcomings and annoyances I had developed with the Kindle 2.

I haven’t upgraded to any of the current e-ink Kindles because they just aren’t as useful or beautiful as my Kindle Keyboard. Yes, 2011 brought the Kindle Touch, a multi-touch Kindle with a faster page-turn rate and a lighter/smaller form factor. But from my tests with this Kindle, it didn’t live up to the hype. I’ve grown to love typing on my Kindle Keyboard, and since I love to take notes while reading, a keyboard seems like an important feature. The multi-touch keyboard isn’t as responsive as a multi-touch keyboard on a smartphone or tablet. This was a deal-breaker for me. I decided to hold on to my old Kindle, even though it was already a generation behind.

I also found the Kindle Keyboard’s screen to provide a much better reading experience. Initial reviews of the Kindle Touch suggested that because an extra layer was added to the screen for touch functionality, the text lost some sharpness. Text looked greyer than on the Kindle Keyboard and the standard $79 Kindle, according to these reports (which, by the way, was ruled out by me because it did not provide an easy way to type notes). Although this has been fixed with software updates, I grew to like the way the Kindle Keyboard felt in my hands and didn’t see the need to upgrade. I appreciated its simplicity and ease of use, and the battery life was still sufficient enough for my needs.

So I kept the Kindle Keyboard, waiting for an upgrade that mattered to me. The core functionality I sought out was screen contrast and resolution (the higher the better), usable touch that doesn’t compromise on readability, and a decent, built-in light. Also, high battery life, light and thin form factor, and decent software to handle reading a variety of publications, not just books.

It seems the Kindle Paperwhite is that device. I want to upgrade, but I keep going back to how much I love my Kindle Keyboard. Amazon still supports the Kindle Keyboard; in fact, it just updated the software, bringing even better screen resolution and updates to the new Kindle book formats.

Now that I’m considering an upgrade, I have to decide: is losing a great keyboard on a device that I’ve learned to love — and that, by the way, still gets software updates — worth gaining some incremental perks, such as touch capability and a well-designed front-light? Some days, I think gaining these new functions makes the upgrade worth it, but then I sit down and read a particularly engaging section of a book on my Kindle Keyboard and fall in love with the device all over again. It seems trite, but it’s true: I love my Kindle Keyboard because it provides the best reading experience.

Ultimately, what’s most important is the act of reading itself. Maybe it doesn’t matter which device I use. If the book is good enough, I’ll fall into it in the same way.

True, but I haven’t had this experience reading on my smartphone or Kindle Fire (which I don’t plan to upgrade, even though the new Fires look pretty cool). LCD screens don’t allow me to “fall in” to books because I’m distracted by apps and notifications. Reading on my Kindle 2, an e-ink Kindle, always felt artificial, although it was an OK experience while reading outdoors. I’ve tried Nooks and Sony readers and have felt the same way: something I can’t name is missing.

For now, the Kindle Keyboard has the best attributes for a perfect reading experience, and I’m not sure I want to give up on that. I have yet to decide, but I think I’ll wait it out and stick with my Kindle Keyboard, even though that Kindle Paperwhite looks awfully tempting.

I’d be interested to know what readers think. Do you have a reading device you’ve grown to like and don’t want to give up? Are you considering the Paperwhite or another device? Should I reconsider the Nook Glowlight or some other device I’ve dismissed? I’m curious to know more.