November Review

It seems that my book amount has steadily decreased to one. I hope this isn’t a trend but I think these past couple of months have been outliers because of NaNoWriMo (which I won!) coupled with big books that I’m reading right now have slowed me down. I’m aiming to top the year off with three books and currently on track for that.

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo [4/5 stars]

 

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Another month, another job for the Dregs in the conclusion to the Crooked Kingdom duology. And what an end: heists, heartbreak, and heroics (?) are aplenty this time around in a crystallisation of the strengths of Bardugo and her Grishaverse.

The flashbacks are still here, though! They’re good bits of character depth but they’re overlong and distracting. Not as bad Six of Crows‘ mind, but still noticeable. Characters—new and from the past trilogy—rub shoulders, shining alongside the ever-expanding world.

When you’re having so much fun it’s hard not to feel sad to be parting with them all. Hopefully they’ll be back in time, in some form or another. If not in their own story, perhaps someone else’s. At the very least, more books in this universe as the world is slowly building in interesting ways that I’d love more follow-up on. Bardugo continues to grow as a writer and we’re the richer for it. Recommended.

 

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Farewell, Autumn (and other poems)

Farewell, Autumn

We exposed ourselves at the dawn of autumn
Like the branches that laid bare all their leaves.
Cast aside all stern words of caution
To collect on the pile of what summer made us believe.

Trees in the evening

The carpet of gold in the shadow of your gaze,
Your smile is my sunlight in shortened days.
A sun-dappled path of emerald, amber, and rust
Your arm coiled in mine speaks of trust.

Feet at autumn

Your laugh mists out in staccato bursts
As sweet now as when I won your first
Folded over like our fear;
We lose ourselves along the river in this aged year.

Tree
You kissed along the cracks of my ailing heart
And said that life exists beyond stops and starts.
Love for you is one smooth reminder or a gentle bet
Of a time past the rains to see a clear sunset.

Sunset at Sandwell Valley

 

Waterloo

The sound of our love carries over the clattering and drilling,
Your lingering hand invites mine,
To follow wherever I am willing.

The axis of my heart tilts towards you,
Growing with every footfall
As we continue forwards always to
Break away from our fears and all
We walk towards and never through
That glassy outline of erected walls.

I don’t where or how or why,
But I’m glad I got to you ‘ere we die.
For despite the noise and the pollution being high,
I envision our kin
Wandering the streets we went through just like him.
Aye, that’s the kind of city worth living in.

Busy

Staring at screens and not giving a fuck
Poring through pages and pages of books
Wandering around the pool of swans
Finding that mood where you felt as one.

No phones can reach this place.
But everyone seems to pierce this grace.

Sugar

All my life I have dissolved
Into your desires
Mixed and stretched thin like a wire
But now my own faith will be my new resolve
Insoluble.

Rhyme

I’ve searched for words that rhyme with you
Long and far,
Through cities and over lakes, guided by the stars
No results made me love anew
That through and through you’re
Incomparable.*

 

First Fragment: Cosy Nights

We had to unload all of our plights
As Fukui took us deeper into the night.
I thought about (if I dared)
Would you let me run a hand through your hair?

 

Notes and errata

 

Farewell, Autumn: I wrote a love poem to autumn! That is how much I love it. Farewell and rest well, my love!
Waterloo: I worked right next to Waterloo station before. My window overlooked a road nearby and I could see a lot of people going about their day. I saw a woman hold her hand out for her partner and it inspired this poem. You can argue that this began my thirst to write poetry. This was before my streak of November, however.
Busy: For days when you can’t stop being switched on.
Sugar: Someone standing up and believing themselves, untainted by the influence of others.
Rhyme: A poem written in reverse.
First Fragment: I thought of a lot of things; being infatuated with someone when I was a teenager, the fur of my friend’s cat, making music like Ryo Fukui who was playing when I was chatting with my friend. Nothing present, only past and future.

*99.9% a poem like this exists already. I don’t know what to search for though.

October Reviews

Autumn deepens but stays warm and busy, bringing this month’s readership down to only two. But that is not a problem! I also have to apologise for the lateness of the post: I’ve been busy doing NaNoWriMo and that swallows more time than you give it credit for. I did win again though, so there’s that. But I’ll talk about that in another update.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline [4/5 stars]

This was a fun, yet flawed adventure playing on a nostalgia that I don’t possess for a decade I never lived in. I’m a bit younger than the intended fanbase—I didn’t grow up in the 80’s—but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment too much.

2044. The world has gone to shit and the only pleasure that people worldwide can enjoy is an immersive MMO (massive multiplayer online) game, accessed through VR headsets. The book follows Wade Watts in his hunt for the Easter egg that the game’s creator left, which will allow the winner access to his fortune of a significant amount of billions of dollars. (The creator had a love for the 80’s since they grew up then, and part of the hunt is understanding his obscure interests so 80’s fever has swept the world.)

The world is quite detailed in the beginning so the book does suffer a bit in its pacing. It’s not too much of a problem because in general it adds a certain enjoyable richness.

Also, I’m not sure if it was intended to be so easy. I was talking to my brother about this and he raised a good point: it felt very objective-led, like a game. Fascinating, that. What I mean is that everything Wade wants, he gets. Without spoiling it, it could be argued that Cline is structuring the book like a game, which are designed to be able to be completed [*waves hands* “Me~eta~a”] but convincing book it does not make. If I step back and allow it to be “a bit of fun” it holds up, except that too is unsatisfactory when some other spoilery world-grounding elements are introduced, which remind you actually this shit is not a game. So the objective-led aspects undermine the more serious parts to some extent.

That being said, look at the rating! It’s fun, and geeky in all the right ways. The prose is simple and smooth and the general pace is pretty good, especially towards the middle and end. But I don’t think it has a lot of revisit value. Maybe I’m too young to really love it and I think that’s partly to do with the fact that the 80’s was not my childhood. Ah well, if you like video games and anime and are looking for a good read, you’d could do much, much worse.

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari [3/5 stars]

 

Don’t be alarmed by the three stars. I had a lot of fun reading this: it’s smart and funny, just like Aziz Ansari, who’s turning into a bit of a cultural virtuoso: actor, writer, screenwriter (of some incredible TV), comedian … I dig someone who wears a lot of hats. Makes other generalists like myself feel at ease that one can find success in multiple things. But back to the aims of the book!

Unfortunately, it was not quite the sort of book for me. Not that I wasn’t showing up for a distillation of modern romance; no, that’s what I got this book. It’s more that the sum of its parts equalled everything I already knew about dating in the modern age, barring perhaps information about places like France and Japan, which were fascinating and the most enlightening to me. I recommend anyway but if you only read those bits, it’s worth it.

Basically, it’s well-researched, well-written, very funny, but if you already have a few intuitions—or better yet, direct experience—about dating in the present day in comparison to before smartphones and such, you’ll have already known about 70-80% of the book’s material. It’s not a bad thing if you genuinely don’t know but my appetite is only whetted by the end of this book, not sated. For non-fiction I really want to mostly learn more vs. what I already know and this sadly didn’t deliver.

Edinburgh

Not everyone gets to do what they want.

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A coach is the nine-hour bridge from the humble middle
To a north unseen,
An unspooling riddle
Of a city and what its spirit means.
Edinburgh is beauty, long terraces hewn from stone.
It’s an understanding of distances; hills to inspire moans.
History in the streets and statues, with gulls as crowns.

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Locals puffing and pacing, gripped by frowns.
Streets sag with options, cobblestones, and flyers,
Stalls, vendors, and charmed buyers.
Who knows what the sights on the next corner will be?

Wide open space.

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The place where land meets sea,
Upon high, there is only majesty
Of glittering waves beneath sheltered sun,
Winding paths and tumbling fun,
Clumps of green under chalky clouds,
Conversations and parents proud …
I cling to the idea of being free.

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Art, music, bookshops, and cafés, history, race.
How did I live before I wandered this place?
I must learn to thrive and grow when displaced
Become balanced by ignorance

For there are lessons
If I could only open my heart
And there must be ways yet to play a part.

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Connection lies in callbacks every hour of every day;
There are no coincidences when our minds point the same way.
Poetry.
Joining hearts and ears in the dark
We happy few, us wanderers in a far-off land.
I can’t help but wish to leave my mark!
Laugh and call out, take friends by hand—
But

Alas, not everyone gets to do what they want.

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To be alone is not about who you’re with, but how you feel.
It’s not in the places away from the turning of wheels.
I was soberer than I wanted to be and it’s unreal
To be awake, to gently heal.
It’s a heady thing, this emotional meal.
Missed showings and poor navigation,
Failure as punishment, crushing exaltation.

This is merely a beginning.

Will I ever get to be what I want?

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A rattling carriage in the twilight,
Understanding formed on our lips,
And on the words we will write.
I approach the call of London, trying not to weep,
As I bid farewell to you, sweet Edinburgh—
‘Til next year sleep.

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September Reviews

Summer has wound to an end and autumn opens its arms, nestling us in its embrace. Leaves blush in the growing cold, and the season of jumpers and pumpkin spiced—blahblahblah cozy descriptors (I do genuinely love autumn tho it’s very Branded™ now). Adventure, mystery, and robots awaited me in September, that glorious young autumn month.

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo [4/5 stars]

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My relationship with this book has come full-circle after nearly two years: I went away and read the Grisha trilogy, took a break, and have returned. I have to say it was not disappointing.

Six teens are put to an impossible task: a prison break from the most secure place in the region. Six of Crows is a brisk and wonderful book with a fun and interesting cast, set in an intriguing world. We’ve moved away from the palaces, courts, and Good vs. Evil to the much more morally grey criminal world. Set in the same world as the Grisha trilogy (two years after book 3, I believe), but in a different country, one most certainly does not to read the Shadow & Bone trilogy to read this duology. There are polite Easter eggs for those who have but it won’t detract from your experience because extra-textual references are kept to a minimum: this is a story with a different cast, although we do get some added depth to the world, perfect for someone who likes links between texts.

Despite it’s many successes, it does suffer a bit from the length of the backstories. They’re illuminative enough to give depth and motivation to the characters, but they are quite long in a fair number of cases which makes the forward motion of the plot judder a bit. Not too disjointing, but significant enough*.

Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate Collection, Book 1, written by Brian Michael Bendis, illustrated by many [4/5 stars]

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Picture this: Spider-Man is your favourite superhero, rubbing shoulders with Wonder Woman and Batman. Since 2002 there have been 6 Spider-Man live-action films with three different actors. You know this story all too well. And yet, you still get emotional over Uncle Ben and Peter’s story.

Brian Michael Bendis is the guy who’s everywhere in comics. Most of my brother’s comic collection has his name printed on it. He’s responsible for some of the most iconic “event” Marvel comics like Secret Invasion, House of M, as well as a shitload of other Marvel superheroes. He’s also the co-creator of Jessica Jones. There’s a reason for this: he can write. Bendis, alongside the artists, have managed to make teenage Peter Parker’s tale still feel fresh and emotional, despite it being so familiar. One advantage of the comics over the films is that it can take its time building character relationships which, again, it does well.

Art: the art for me was interestingly exaggerated which made action scenes punchier. Two gripes, however: 1.) The sexualisation of Mary Jane was uncomfortable reading, considering she’s a child (they’re fifteen when this begins). A fairly sedentary teenager with an athlete’s body read almost more like parody than problematic but still, not super cool with that. 2.) The inks are bit heavy for my taste.

Other than that, this was great reading. Comic collections like this are really good to build reading confidence in a slump. I’ll be sure to move along through Spidey’s Ultimate Collections.

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov [3/5 stars]

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Last but not least: The Caves of Steel. 

I must admit, I was fairly disappointed by my first foray into Asimov. I became interested in this because I was to use it as research for a project I’m working on. From an entertainment standpoint it was … fine?

The set-up: a futuristic Earth where there are tensions between humans and extra-planetary Spacers are rife. The two communities are separated: humans cloistered in their caves of steel, large networks of urbanised area inside and homogeneous instead of how we know them; the Spacers meanwhile are in their own domed communities free from the disease-carrying humans. A robot Spacer is teamed with a human police officer to investigate the death of a (fleshy) Spacer.

Sound good so far? Unfortunately, despite the real and clear animosity the humans have for robots, as well as the philosophical discussions of the nature of reality and the relationship between humans and androids, it was kind of boring. That’s a shame, considering the towering influence that Asmiov possesses. Perhaps I started in the wrong place. The philosophy makes it worthwhile enough but that can’t mask a fairly by-the-numbers detective story, which might be fine if that’s what you want.

A personal note:

I met Leigh Bardugo at a signing a couple of years ago. She was touring the UK alongside Brandon Sanderson and Bradley Beaulieu (I recommend Twelve Kings by him). I was there for Sanderson but I had chance to talk to all three in turn and I found Bardugo to be immensely charming and friendly. The conversation was enjoyable despite having lost my voice. Hearing her read and speaking to her had me sold: I bought the book that night and got her to sign it. Because of the amount of people in the queue for signing you had to pre-plan what would inscribed within, but I manage to finagle a different inscription per author. Here’s what she decided on:

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I can’t remember if I said to her that I wanted to be an author, but this has always been polysemic to me: I’d lost my voice when we met and would undoubtedly get it back; more poignantly, though, I would find my literary voice and become an author. This is an Important Inscription so take note, everyone, because I will keep talking about it.

 

August Reviews

A wild graphic novel appears! I had every intention of reading graphic novels again (my friend very kindly bought me a collection of Watchmen) but I was always intimidated by the size of the universes that comics have built. Especially Marvel, which has a continuous universe since inception. But my brother and I got digging and we found a list for where newbs can get stuck in.

I had a stint where I collected Japanese comics so now I’m turning my attention back to superheroes. Soon I want to look into non-superhero comics (got my eyes on you Saga.)

Okay, without further ado, August:

Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole [3.5/5 stars]

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Huh. I put this as four stars but in retrospect it just misses it. Why? There’s no plot or characterisation to speak of. What we get instead is essentially an observers brief foray into Nigeria, in particular Lagos which is interesting as it is shocking. The prose is spare with a gently burning passion. It read more as journalistic writing than fiction, which is pertinent because some people have stated that it reads as a thinly-veiled “fictionalisation” of Cole’s own story: a man who left Nigeria for America as a youth and is revisiting it later in life. I don’t mind too much, especially with the short chapters interspersed with some of Cole’s photos.

So overall, good writing and subjects, no real sense of character—I barely remembered the narrator’s family, for example. That’s a bit of a deal breaker for me, sadly.

House of M: Written by Brian Michael Bendis [4/5 stars] (Full credits through THIS link.)

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Like superheroes? Like crossovers of various Marvel properties? Want a good plot and art? This is the book for you. I’m going to have to withhold a more detailed analysis/breakdown for when I’ve read more comics to compare the style to: obviously the rules are going to differ to novels, with obvious visual advantages but some storytelling deficits.

This is a collection of the eight stories that make up this arc in the Marvel Universe. For a newbs first foray into Marvel after about 15 years, I enjoyed myself quite a bit and did make me want to see what’s after this. Have a peek.

The Silver Tide by Jen Williams [4/5 stars]

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And so comes to an end a story of friendship and adventure. This book demonstrated Williams’ growth as writer which keeps rewarding readers with more fun, being the vision of what a final book should be, and what I imagine she hoped her first book to be. This one deals with time but in a way that keeps the concept surprisingly fresh.

So long, Black Feather Three. A touching and wholly “right” ending to a solid series. I’ll be definitely sure to check out Williams’ next trilogy (starting with The Ninth Rain, the book that put Williams on my map). Probably starting when book two drops next year.

July Book Reviews

No theme for July but definitely weighted towards more non-fiction, which is good news for me; bad for you. With every bit of knowledge earned, I grow more powerful!

In seriousness though, I recommend all of these books, but some more than others.

Doing Good Better by William MacAskill [3/5 stars]

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Interesting thesis with a supposed “counter-intuitive” element to it. To me, it was logical and plausible, especially considering his clear explanations. Perhaps because I went in wanting to be convinced. Rather than aimlessly trying to be altruistic, the purpose of the book is to get people to be more thoughtful and deliberate with their actions without disadvantaging one too much.

His desire to skirt past assumptions about being utilitarian were amusing but didn’t do so well to me. To me, it still reads as a (admittedly modified) form of utilitarianism. This was especially with the amount of people who get left out by the decision-making process. Read it and see for yourself. At the very least, though, this book will aim to make us take charity very seriously by help us make decisions that affect us directly like moving city or getting a new job. Whether you believe in effective altruism is up to you. I recommend that you read it and make up your own mind. Even if you’re not convinced, there’s some worthwhile knowledge there about the nature of charity work.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro [3/5 stars]

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This book has been on my to-read shelf for a number of years so I was pleased to see that I could get it from my library. I must say, though, it was quite disappointing. The book’s topic was interesting but it wasn’t told very well at all. What should have been moving only elicited a shrug from me and an idle wondering of “what next?”

It’s a shame because there are some really good parts but was mired by too many dull, reflexive recollections of more mundane aspects of school life.

Self by Barry Dainton [4/5 stars]

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We round this month of with some philosophy! As a philosophy grad I’m surprised at how little philosophy I’ve read, so a slim book such as this should be a nice way to re-enter a scene I put aside for other subject areas.

Dainton states arguments in metaphysics and philosophy of mind in lucid, unpretentious prose. As I understand it, it’s part of a series of philosophy books for breezy explorations of topics of interest. If the aim of the book was to examine some aspects of philosophy of mind and metaphysics such as existence over time, as well as the problems of consciousness, then it succeeds. It’s no textbook and doesn’t pretend to be but it also isn’t very nuanced. It does cover a lot but not deeply which is a shame given what I thought I would be getting. I suppose it’s my thinking that’s at fault.

Ah well, Dainton’s own theory of C-continuity for his additions to the problem of consciousness was interesting to follow.

What this reminds me of is that I need to start thinking about my future philosophical reading: this was aimed at someone with less philosophical knowledge which, again, is fine but not what I’m after.

That’ll do. This month I’ve begun to read comic books—sorry, graphic novels— in earnest. You’ll have to see what they are but I’m surprised this didn’t happen sooner. More on that next month.

23 Years and Counting

I have an uneasy relationship with self-improvement. One day I want to give it the kind of cathartic treatment it deserves but I’m busy and it’s too early into this to get too vulnerable, I think. We’ll get there.

Today is my 23rd birthday.

Birthdays after 18 are sort of lacklustre so as the years stretch on I become less enthused when my birthday comes around. With the end of puberty I’ve become a lot more diffusive with my ego so I see my birthday as a bigger fuss than everyone else I know does; my friends have repeatedly made a bigger deal of my birthday than I have. I suppose I need it if this is my reaction. I’d much rather they did than didn’t—I’m thankful for that much, at the very least. If they’re enjoying themselves, I guess I am too.

This year especially, I think because I’m still quite behind in my larger ambitions, I’m not feeling up to celebrating or doing anything fun, feeling like I’m “slacking off”.

Anyway, instead of a treatise of my relationship to birthdays, I’m going to do my second follow up to the goals I set on New Year’s, see how the goal-setting thing is going. The good thing about birthdays is that they can sometimes be a good catalyst for change for self-improvement, starting from reflection of lessons learned. I’m not going to do a “23 things I’ve learnt in 23 years” because I don’t want to. Instead I’ll pick three key ones.

First, being unemployed has given me a lot of space to think about who I am and my relationship to the world. Old relationships have fallen away and have not been replaced with newer ones. I don’t think I should think in terms of replacement, but beyond my general malaise, there’s a certain tenacity that I’ve been trying to mitigate by rapidly producing. I’m not certain if it’s healthy. Again, post later down the line. Preemptively thankful for your continued interest.

I haven’t learnt this one so much as I’ve had to keep reminding myself of this: failure happens constantly, and that’s okay, necessary sometimes. It’s what you do next after failure that defines you as a person. Repeated failures take steadily more decisive blows to one’s self-esteem so that message of positivity gets eroded. It’s good to be cognisant of that when the road gets tough, though.

Lastly, the inspiration for creativity will almost never come. I have to Make Good Art, rain or shine, especially rain which is most of the way.

Okay, let’s look at the road travelled, shall we?

This will be the penultimate one of these before December to see how I’ve done re: my goals.

  1. I want to create more. I have been playing guitar a bit more, drawing a little bit too. Still not to an adequate standard that fit my specific goals for these skills but I’m working on restructuring my days and life. A bit more structure is up ahead and so appropriate planning of my days will need to occur*.We’re in the midst of Camp NaNo. I’ll confess to slacking off and forgetting a tonne so I’m very behind. If I’m to reach my goal of 150k, I’m gonna have to step it up in the ensuing months. Ambition is only as good as your ability to follow through on it. Back up tough talk with action. I might need something similar for my other mediums.
  2. I want a job. In progress still, one year on. Hopefully come year’s end I can scratch this one firmly off the list. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t bothering me but life’s unfair and there’s not much else I can do; no use moping, I just gotta keep plowing ahead. To quote Pops from Luke Cage: “Forward always, never backward.”
  3. I want to read more non-fiction. I think I need a quantifiable goal to support this. Let’s say at least five more before year’s end. Perfectly doable. Either that or more curated content. What sort of non-fiction do I want to be reading? Should I read more difficult stuff? A goal I’m considering for next year is to assess the books I’ve read in 2017 and look about deepening my understanding. Bonus brownie points for the same topic in the corresponding month of 2018 that I first read in 2017. [Example: I read I Contain Multitudes last month so I’ll give myself a firm pat on the back if I deepen my knowledge of microbiology in June 2018**.]
  4. I want to finish Infinite Jest. In progress. Gonna get back to it in earnest come August.

No update on that mystery Big Thing. I’m doubting its existence a bit but it’s coming. I’m starting to think it’s wishful thinking at this point.

This’ll do for now. New content on its way. Look at for it.

Have a lovely day!

Currently reading: Self by Barry Dainton (full thoughts on this hopefully early next month!)

Currently listening to: Are We There by Sharon Van Etten. Recommending in the wake of something serious and difficult to describe. One of those perfect sound for the perfect time albums. Not for the faint-hearted.

*Again, a nuanced approach of ambition/improvement/goals is definitely needed soon but it’s a bit of a double-edged sword: on the one side, it leads to more exciting experiences, but on the other there’s an almost consistent restlessness.

**the idea of curating my future self’s reading is interesting. I’m excited to see what I am like in the future, where I’ll be. Spoiler alert: I suspect I’ll be living in a new city with *gasp* a job.

 

June Book Reviews

I’ve found very gentle themes that have drifted across my reading habits. This is purely accidental but I find it amusing. June’s reading has taken me away from the more sprawling studies into more intimate settings. I lead with a new found favourite.

I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong [5/5 stars]

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Reading a five star book for me has been a bit like a four leaf clover. I also have a weird paradox: I want to find favourites pretty readily but also their scarcity makes them precious, a book class of their own.

I Contain Multitudes in short: the world as we know it is dependant on in a large part to that which we cannot even see. Our health, behaviour, and the ability to do anything is down to a healthy relationship with the trillions of microbes that live within us.

In the book we get a look at microbes in nature, like in a bobtail squid there are certain microbes which allow them to glow and protect them from predators.

Eye-opening is an underwhelming adjective to describe this book. It’ll have to do, unfortunately. I left this book with a new perspective of the complexity and wonder of the world. Highly recommended!

Parade by Shuichi Yoshida [4/5 stars]

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Ever read a book at the perfect time in your life? Like the stars aligned and produced a bit of content that fitted your exact mood? This is what Parade was for me. Again, I was gripped by the melancholia of post-graduation, a long shadow of uncertainty stretching far into the distance.

It follows five Japanese under 30s in various states of discomfort, stuck in unfavourable situations and uncertain how to go forwards. Basically: same. If I were to describe this book, I would say it’s about nothing, not even growing up per se which might sound like a not very interesting overview. For me, though, it’s part of its appeal: it feels like we’re taking a slice out of these characters’ lives, bearing temporary witness to a space of time that they all occupy until the final point.

Anger and violence are sleeper themes in this also. I read it in a day so it felt a bit more intense that it might have been if I paced myself. Good reading.

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust (À la recherche du temps perdu #1) [4/5 stars]

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I did it! I have finished volume one of Proust’s epic. Like the sun that crests an autumn horizon, gently bathing that once frigid landscape with its pale light that unfurls like the banners of your country’s army, near those frozen fields by old Combray that are awakened to the prospect of a new dawn, the story unfolds in a gorgeous, but slow manner, such as in the case of that old gentleman Swann, that storied champion with whom we spend an excellent period exploring the tragedies of love and jealousy, those visceral emotions that can make a man as much as they destroy him, a consuming battalion of emotions not unlike the effects of illness, taking us completely whole without chance of rebellion or clarity, which in our fevered grip we hold onto some notion of self as it has changed from memory of a time we have lost, namely such as a time when mind and body were not overwhelmed with illness, not racked or distorted but completely whole.

Reading this book you will find yourself reading a lot of sentences like this. While isolated it might even be quite endearing, but it made  for slow reading, especially to begin with; more than once I wrestled with the notion of abandoning it. But I didn’t. And, being on the other side, I did enjoy it but I must say “overwritten” is a word that comes to mind. Especially when it comes to simpler ideas. In exploring the nuances of emotions, Proust has no rival, and he writes a mean description too. But it poses a problem when you lose the point of the sentence after the 20th comma. I wonder how much is down to the translator. I may never know. What you do have though is something with real flourishes, a piece of literature deserving of its esteem. I’ll check back in but not too quickly.

How We Can Master Our Habits: The Diamond Age of Content (Part II)

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Nasty Habits

For part 1, go here.

There’s an anecdote that David Foster Wallace recounted in an interview that keeps playing on my mind*. He talked about the fact that he didn’t own a TV because of the great anxiety it brought him; he would spend hours in front of it, mercilessly flicking through hundreds of channels, never actually watching anything, continuing to look for something “better” (without any real sense of what that meant) instead just watching one show [skip to 42:43 if you’re on a tablet/mobile device].

This example resonated with me because perhaps one of my worst habits is spending copious hours idling on the internet. Idling being key here. When there’s no notification activity going on my various social media accounts or email I’m filled with an almost anxious malaise, flitting aimlessly between my various accounts and scrolling, searching for a good feeling. The funny thing is that this rarely happens; I can swallow hours of time doing this to little effect. Part of this, I think is to make up for something. You know, like resisting that forever empty?

A background motivation is that I’m chasing that rush you get whenever you see all the likes pouring in. I don’t necessitate it but I do enjoy the validation. And without it, there’s that emptiness. When I flit about, I don’t get edified but neither do I feel terrible. Not only that, I use this method to “decompress” when I’ve been out, for example. It’s not just phone scrolling, TV can fall under this, too. I often unwind with it but not with moderation, neglecting more productive desires.

If I can figure out why it gets to this point perhaps I can end up doing the things I get upset not doing (including sleep!). I want to write my novel, these essays, go for a walk but I’m just glued to the screens. It’s a perverse Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) in overdrive.

This is partly due to the hook of modern entertainment is that it has the ability to tell more nuanced stories that explore a wide range of topics. And, with technological advancements, storytelling is at its most presentable. It’s very easy to immerse ourselves.

This kind of behaviour becomes ingrained. Had a bad day? I’ll watch some TV to make myself feel better. Didn’t get that job you were excited about? Fire Emblem’s looking enticing. Let’s do that instead of reading or writing or applying for more jobs.

Games like Uncharted 4 and The Witcher 3 can tell visually pleasing stories with an emotionality that rivals cinema and television. The culture and developers always had this desire to come about, but now we have the actual means to tell these kinds of stories because our technology has caught up with our vision.

I’m not saying that everyone should write a book or learn violin. Or even that unwinding in such a way is necessarily a bad thing—or at all!”Taking your mind off things” sometimes is necessary to be a functional and rounded person, I think. And entertainment can provide that brief respite. But surely entertainment cuts into productivity.

It’s just fascinating how we spend our time, when habits drift away from pure decompression and start bleeding into other aspects of our lives.

And the internet is fun because it’s brought me a lot of connectivity with friends close and far afield, as well as being a place for learning. The method that I researched and am sharing this essay, for example, can only exist because of the internet. Be that as it may, though, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t cause problems. We have options for media, that just begs us to click and Consume. Remember the tabbing issue? The Diamond Age is here.

A FE world map theme: Why get bogged down with the application process if there’s a 3DS game with beautiful music like this?

I always feel like I need to occupy my time in some way. I can’t sit with my thoughts, and have a quiet moment and hear the wind sing unless I’m doing something else. When there’s any degree of loading, like Netflix is booting up on my home console or on my TV, I’ll reach for my phone or, if I’m feeling “intellectual”, my book. It’s not long enough to do anything but I keep doing it anyway.

My suspicion is that we have so much available to us that our minimum threshold of stimulation has been greatly raised and so we need to keep doing something. In other words, the abundance of Stuff makes us aware of how limited our time is. So to make sure we get as much as possible from our 100 blocks per day to spend we need to be doing Something. We know implicitly that we can’t get through everything we want to but boy can we try.

Maybe the motivations don’t match up with my suspicions, but behaviour is certainly shifting more towards pluralism: according to a study done by Deloitte for American consumers of television, a whopping 90% of watchers reported doing something else when watching TV. The most common activity is surfing the internet (32%), followed by email, then texting (both 28%)—some groups doing up to three tasks at once.

And get this: the multitasking isn’t even about the show itself. Any of the generational groups studied (14 years and older) reported less than 30% of the time the multitasking they were doing was related to the actual show they were watching.

When I was reading this study I was sceptical. But then I reflected that it’s at least true for me. I tend to start with a search that relates to what I’m watching, but then it dovetails into a series of searches and clicks and then I’m on Facebook again and whoops it’s been twenty minutes without paying attention …

What I’m trying to say is that I’ve let bad habits seep into my daily life too readily. Although it feels like more of an inevitability, something beyond my choosing. And in a way, that’s correct. But it’s not a good feeling and I want to help assuage it by doing something about it. I’ll explain soon this supposed “correctness” but we have to zoom out a bit first and get a better feel of habits so that change can occur.

The Power of Habit

In my research about habits, one guy kept coming up: Charles Duhigg. He authored a book called The Power of Habit which will inevitably explore this topic in more detail. He indicates that up to 45% of what we do is habit, not decision-making.

Habits can be broken up into three constituent parts, also known as a “habit loop”. Identifying these aspects will help in changing them:

1.) Cue: the trigger for the behaviour to unfold.

2.) Routine: the automatic actions—the habits themselves

3.) Reward: This is what ensures the habit is encoded in neurology; there’s something to be gained from this action. It’s like our brain’s way of saying: “This is good. Remember this for next time.”

So to overwrite a habit, the best way, Duhigg argues, is to target the cue** and the reward.

The cue usually relies on one of five categories:

1.) The time of day.

2.) A certain place.

3.) The presence of others.

4.) An emotional state.

5.) Behaviour that is ritualised.

To get a habit broken, a good thing to do is to write down these five categories and figure out the cue. This will reveal the reward (or the craving). Rewards are pretty complex, though, so part of the challenge will be to locate a specific one.

Let’s take my TV viewing as one example. The time of day varies but it’s usually

1.) day time;

2.) in my room;

3.) without anyone else;

4.) with some distress and dissatisfaction with my life situation;

5.) and I do this at roughly consistent times of the day [usually in the early afternoon until evening where my activities become more computer based].

When it comes to how habits are formed, behaviour and routine are the main focus typically, but we should look at the reward to get the why. Why do I want to watch the TV? Because it’s entertaining. That’s a prima facie (on the surface) good reason for a reward. But that might not necessarily be the case. The TV could actually be the distraction from something: boredom? Close, but probably not enough.

The reality is much closer to feelings of unaccomplishment and, to not go down the rabbit hole of negativity, I distract myself. For me, I think TV is a stand-in: it could be any sort of media that is stimulating enough like music, games, writing a stream of tweets maybe two people read ever—whatever it is. The reward is I don’t have to deal with that shit in the moments that I’m doing those activities. At least that’s a little bit the case because they’re not assuaged, but we’ll return to that.

I mentioned this briefly before but the reason habits are so hard to break is that they don’t really feel like thought. This is what I referred to when I said “correctness” in thinking that this sort of behaviour is inevitable in some capacity. Now there’s two ways this can get cashed out.

The first way is when you don’t realise that you do something in a certain way. Take brushing your teeth. It’s apparently the case that you brush your teeth in the same way every time you brush them. If you start from the top then go to the bottom set, for example, you won’t even realise that this is so unless you actively start thinking about it. This is a good thing. It’s so we don’t have to think about every such action whenever we want to do it. It’s a neurological shortcut of sorts.

The second way is a far more stressful experience. It’s a realisation that this activity is not good but you do it anyway because not doing it is harder than doing it. You’re sat watching hours of Daredevil instead of revising for exams, for example, but keep going despite your imminent deadline. When I think of breaking habits, it’s this latter version. You slip into this state like a glove to distract yourself but of course the problem lingers, maybe intensifies. Why does this happen?

The basal ganglia is one of the oldest structures in the brain and is annoyingly and amazingly exempt from the process of what we call “thinking”, which is what Duhigg is getting at. It’s almost as if it’s run on autopilot. It’s the part of the brain that is linked to a lot of things like voluntary motor skills, procedural learning, and of course routine behaviours or “habits” like moving your eyes, cognition, and emotion. Its primary function is to make sure we can do voluntary actions more smoothly. Habit-formation is pretty strongly embedded into our lives and is necessary for us to function as we do.

screen_shot_2012-09-17_at_75637_am1347883157040
The basal ganglia and associated parts. In terms of habits, the basal ganglia can be contrasted with the cerebral cortex which is associated more with what we understand to be “thought” and awareness (consciousness anyone?)

Duhigg uses the example of complete amnesiacs who remember nothing, but are still able to form habits like everyone else. The “lack of” thought is why habits are so hard to overwrite. Think about walking or blinking. Providing that one is able, these are automatic things that we do and is part of our reality. Have you ever thought about changing your walk or thought about blinking? That’s the moment when those automatic things start feeling very, very weird. That’s because we don’t think about them in normal circumstances. I imagine it would be stressful to think about blinking while doing something else. Our brains are designed to make shortcuts so we can function and do other things like receive new information.

A quick note before we continue: I’m using “overwrite” here in lieu of “breaking” or “getting rid of” habits because I feel like overwriting is a more accurate picture of what’s happening when we change our behaviour. We’re encoding new activities that will be part of our passive everyday lives—so normal we won’t have to think about it. The elimination of one habit only allows space for a different—in our case better—habit to take its place.

Okay, let’s quickly take stock. There are three parts to a habit: cue, routine, reward. To overwrite a habit, you’ll need to look at the cue in depth and figure out, from the five categories above, how it came about and what the reward is. If you can do this, the benefits can bleed into many aspects of your life.

A keystone habit, for example, can cause a chain reaction that affects other habits. A common one (almost to the point of cliché) is exercise. Let’s say you spent a lot of time on the computer/phone/tablet/delete-as-necessary-or-until-I-stop-adding-needless-bits-of-this-forward-slash-list-and-want-to-do-that-less. You might consider going for a thirty minute run. As a result, you feel more awake and more productive, which in turn leads to less procrastination in general (it works, annoyingly). This is an example of a keystone habit. Identifying one of these might help in restructuring your relationship to a nebula of habits that you want to change, in rewriting your neurological code.

Next Steps

In psychology, there’s a term called “quantum changers” which refers to someone who is very specific about habits and their relationship with them, usually changing something in a pretty dramatic way, as the name implies. My Dad, for example, lost a lot of weight for his health in what seemed like all of a sudden. He did this through reshaping his diet alongside the exercise he did. What he and many other quantum changers have tapped into is the structure of habits. Once you understand that, it’s much easier to change things.

And it needn’t be big things, either. Incremental adjustments, in fact, are the things that change you; they are parts of a larger goal. The end result comes about because of these small steps. Remember stretch goals and a specific plan to get there? Well shit, we’ve come full circle.

In fact, not only is it a more realistic way of looking at habits, it’s probably the best. This is why you target the reward. The reward is the craving, a desire to be sated. The habit is just filling in the gaps, one way of many in order to achieve the same thing. It should stand to reason therefore that you can overwrite it by getting the same reward through a different habit.

And you need to actually do it. This sounds trite but how many times have you said that today’s the day you’re going to read 100 pages, write 1000 words, do the seminar reading, go for a run, etc. and end up not even starting? It’s upsetting isn’t it? Being in the right frame of mind is only a tiny fraction of it, but it is along the right lines. My research has revealed a lot of things and while intentions aren’t the be all and end all, they are an important stepping stone to overwriting habits.

In fact, it’s been shown that the more you believe you can, the more you can actually change it. Take Alcoholics Anonymous, a support group to overwrite the habits of alcohol with something like work. The reason it works is not because of its scientific basis (the famous “Twelve Steps” were created not from psychological expertise but a combination of spirituality and philosophy), but because it operates as a machine for habit change through the simple method of looking to others for support. And not necessarily in the “Friend, help me for I have lost my way” sense. No, it’s more like “That dickhead is well-adjusted? Him?! Well if he can, I sure as shit can too.” The effect of watching others to help us change is astonishing.

Other Strategies

Here are three principles which will help in cultivating positive habits:

1.) Derail existing habits: where you make space to act on new intentions (see my point about overwriting, not destruction? It’s a replacement, homie.)

Moving city, for example, is a great way of doing this. Part of the call to move city must be tapping into the notion that a new place = change of existing habits.

Of course, this is an extreme reaction. Nobody my age*** has the kind of capital to all of a sudden move city, unless there’s a specific reason (i.e. university, a job or family.) On the more affordable end of things, going on holiday can actually help in rewriting habits. The cues (and as result rewards) are going to be different because of not only the setting but the context of them as well. It’s a good chance to change the habit. You’re not thinking in terms of your daily routine, but away from that all.

Smaller changes go a long way too, though. Let’s take phone use. Suppose your goal is to reduce how much your phone, try reducing your access. Some people lock themselves out of their phones. There are apps that do this sort of thing if you think that will help. I’ve found that having a lock code (that I have access to!) diminishes my access purely for the fact that I can’t as easily get to my phone. This means that I will only reach for it if I need it for certain purposes. That’s a tiny act but has put me on the right track.

2.) Repetition is key: It takes time to master but take heart because any goal can be subdivided again, stretch goals and specific plans. If you can do something for a little bit of the intended goal, over a longer period of time you will achieve it. Again, sounds simplistic, but the size of a goal is often enough to detract real effort.

The best way that I trained my thinking in this aspect is by doing NaNoWriMo which is when people challenge themselves to complete 50,000 words in a month, usually November****. The way forward is seeing the goal is over 30 days and 50,000 divided by 30 equals 1667 words (rounded up), the daily word count. Seen in this way, it’s still challenging but much more manageable. The task itself hasn’t changed, your thinking towards it has. The notion of writing daily, especially towards such a large goal, is quite daunting but once you get into it the actual process becomes more manageable.

NaNo needn’t be the only way you can change your thinking. There are other practical means with which you can apply this conceptual framework. Let’s say your room needs tidying and one of the tasks is to pick up the pile of clothes. The prospect of tidying the whole room is daunting: you haven’t tidied in months and there’s a lot of junk on the floor. But if you set yourself the task of dealing with one pile at a time, then the notion of the whole room being tidied feels a lot more realistic.

3.) Have stable context cues to trigger a pattern: a new cue following an existing one helps. Specific contexts attached to others help overwrite bad habits. Reading during breakfast/around it—either 10 minutes before or 10 minutes afterwards—for example will help in adding more reading into your life because it’s attached to the meal of breakfast.

The initial cue is necessary to create subsequent ones. This is like keystone habits.

Concluding Thoughts

If you can master your habits they won’t destroy you/consume all of your time. Some people go to extremes, like taking social media diets. Things like that must have something to counterbalance what they’re dieting. So the assumption is that they go on these diets to invest more time into things that social media is eating into, which tends to be the case. These aren’t the only way in which you deal with hangups, nor do I think they are necessarily the best. But if it works, it works.

For me, it seems I’m escaping in some capacity because I’m in a state that I dislike and I have to learn to be okay with that. I suppose it comes with life: there are bits of it which will be disappointing and painful but that comes with. If I can’t look at that in the face then I need to address why, especially if I just end up in a loop of Copious Entertainment instead of something productive. (Didn’t I say I want to draw more this year?)

Also, when I am “decompressing” with my phone, I’m endeavouring to reconsider that and just decompressing without any stimuli, just sit (or lay) with my thoughts for as long as needed.

To sum up: we learnt about habits, how they form, why they can become ingrained in our psychology and what to do about them. Pop culture is the most alluring its been ever—we’re in the midst of the Diamond Age—and establishing complex mental frameworks to resist passivity is going to be paramount, especially since this quality will only increase. With better presentation for entertainment, IMAX and 4k, for example, we’re constantly enhancing the experience of entertainment. We need to say no every once in a while, sit in silence and just hear the wind sing.

What about you: do you have any habits that you need to correct?

*I know I know I know I know, another dude talking about David Foster Wallace. But that particular anecdote freaked me the fuck out and will stay with me for a long time to come.

**I kept writing “the Cure” instead of cue. I feel a new habit forming.

***Dare I say: MILLENNIAL?

****How many times have I written this is in cover letters in the past year I wonder? I’ve lost count.