Fran Lebowitz on reading

There’s a great interview with Fran Lebowitz in the New York Times:

When do you read?

Pretty much all the time. Especially if I’m supposed to be doing something else. I was very frequently punished for reading as a child because I was reading when I was supposed to be doing homework. I got in trouble in school for reading, I got in trouble at home for reading. My mother would actually bang on my door and say, “I know you’re reading in there!” In my adult life, I’ve gotten in trouble for reading because I’m not writing when I’m reading. So it’s really rare that reading is unaccompanied by guilt for me. But I’ve learned to live with it. I feel guilty pretty much all the time.

The only time I read without feeling guilty is on a plane, because what else could I possibly be doing?

What moves you most in a work of literature?

I think it might be the word “move” that kind of perplexes me, because that’s a word connected with emotion. I don’t really seek out emotion when reading. The feeling that’s most important to me when reading is that I’m absorbed. I just want to be taken away. I really like being dazzled. That would be nice. The thing I care least about in reading is the story. I just don’t care that much about stories. That may have to do with being older. Tell me a story I don’t know.

But really, I read in order not to be in life. Reading is better than life. Without reading, you’re stuck with life.

I also highly recommend two other Lebowitz interviews.

First, a 1993 piece in The Paris Review (side note: always worth reminding people of this tweet):

You never enjoyed writing?

I used to love to write. As a child I used to write all the time. I loved to write up until the second I got my first professional writing job. It turns out it’s not that I hate to write. I hate, simply, to work. I just hate to work, period. I am profoundly slothful. Practically inert. I have no energy. I never have. I just have no desire to be productive. Now that I realize I don’t hate to write, that I just hate to work, it makes writing easier.

And The Awl from 2012:

I’ve read about other artists and writers who lived through the worst of the AIDS epidemic and felt like they had to take a break from their art. While reading your book, I wondered if that might have been the case with you, because the world you described was essentially obliterated.

It is exceptionally charitable that you call these 900 years “a break” but I’ll take that. And yes, it was very shocking to live through. It’s always shocking to young people when their contemporaries die. Even in a war, it’s shocking. I mean, as a soldier. It was shocking, especially because we were the only generation that thought sex was really good, like vitamins. We thought that about drugs too, okay? Sex was really good and the more sex the better. It was helpful. Like now, the way people think of bike riding, which I think is a childish activity. I know people now think the bike is a sign of virtue and I think it’s a toy, but we said sex was good for you and it turned out to it could be bad for you. Really bad. And yeah, people became terrified, of course. People were “terror-stricken” is the term I would use. And because when you look at it in retrospect, like all things you look at in retrospect, it seems very linear. The great thing about history is that it’s in the past and people have time to compile a narrative, but that’s not how it seems when you are living through it.

(NYT piece via Kottke)

How to keep a reading journal

Sarah Ditum:

I don’t really – not really-really – know anything until I’ve copied it out, by hand, with pen and paper. Note-taking helps me to memorise the most useful, interesting, beautiful or aggravating parts of a book. It also means that whenever I want to retrieve a reference from something I’ve read, I can find it in my notebook. Not marked with a torn-up train ticket and then replaced on a bookshelf but I’ve forgotten which bookshelf, or given to a charity shop in the hopeful belief I’d never need to think about it again; but in my notebook, with a page number, marked on the contents page.

Ditum goes on to describe her method and tools. See also this post about keeping a journal and collecting.

Do emojis have their own syntax

Rachel Tatman on emoji order (ignoring the singular/plural discussion):

So a while ago I got into a discussion with someone on Twitter about whether emojis have syntax. Their original question was this:

As someone who’s studied sign language, my immediate thought was “Of course there’s a directionality to emoji: they encode the spatial relationships of the scene.” This is just fancy linguist talk for: “if there’s a dog eating a hot-dog, and the dog is on the right, you’re going to use , not .” But the more I thought about it, the more I began to think that maybe it would be better not to rely on my intuitions in this case. First, because I know American Sign Language and that might be influencing me and, second, because I am pretty gosh-darn dyslexic and I can’t promise that my really excellent ability to flip adjacent characters doesn’t extend to emoji.

So, like any good behavioral scientist, I ran a little experiment. I wanted to know two things.

  1. Does an emoji description of a scene show the way that things are positioned in that scene?
  2. Does the order of emojis tend to be the same as the ordering of those same concepts in an equivalent sentence?

How social media broke our democracy

Mike Caulfield:

I could not sleep last night at all. So I organized my notes I’ve been taking over the last year on the problem of doing politics in distributed feed-based systems.

I know this election was about so much more than that (so much more), and our problems are so much deeper. But I remain convinced that even if social media is not the fire or the fuel of Breitbartian racism it is in fact the oxygen that helps it thrive and spread.

There are 537 pages of notes in this PDF, and it may not be immediately clear what each has to do with the book, but in my head at least they all relate. They are worth a read.

[pdf]

Wow—this is fantastic, and exactly what I was getting at in my earlier post about indiscriminate collecting. I’ve started using DEVONthink to collect and organise my notes and web clippings. I hope to get to a point where I have a similar collection. Not only does it help my understanding of concepts, but it enables me to make unexpected connections between them.

How to create your own thesaurus

John Saito has an interesting approach to writing product copy—he created his own thesaurus from common themes he frequently writes about.

These words aren’t exact synonyms of the word “mobile.” But they’re words that you can use when talking about the benefits of a mobile app. I found this list a lot more helpful than anything I could find in thesaurus.com.

Once I had this list, it was so much easier to write some quick copy:

  • “YouTube goes where you go”
  • “Bring your music with you and never miss a beat”
  • “All your favorite videos—right at your fingertips”

You get the idea. Once your list is big enough, you can just pick a few phrases and iterate from there. Copywriting becomes a lot easier when you have a list of words to start from.

Charles Paget Wade Before Snowshill

My pal Paul Capewell wrote a booklet on the artist, architect and collector Charles Paget Wade. Aside from wanting to read the booklet, I was caught by this paragraph in Paul’s post:

So I took some time off to get the words down. Fortunately, and partly as I was writing in chronological order, it flowed smoothly. It turns out that if you do the slow, painstaking work of collecting quotes, dates, examples and context beforehand, one’s brain actually does a pretty good job of condensing it all into a readable format.

I’m reminded of Rachel Leow’s great 2008 post Only Collect:

Only Collect; that is to say, collect everything, indiscriminately. You’re five years old. Don’t presume too much to know what’s important and what isn’t. Photocopy journal articles, photograph archives; create bibliographies, buy books; make notes on every article or book you read, even if it’s just one line saying “Never read this again”; collect newspaper clippings and email them to yourself; collect quotes; save your ideas for future papers, future projects, future conferences, even if they seem wildly implausible now. Hoarding must become instinctual, it must be an uncontrollable, primal urge. And the higher, civilizing impulse that kicks in after the fact is organization, or librarianship. You must keep tabs on everything you collect, somehow; a system must be had, and the system must be idiot-proof. That is to say, you should be able to look back on it six months for now and not be completely stymied as to why you’ve organized things that way. (The present versions of ourselves are invariably the biggest idiots, and six months will make that clear).

Steven Johnson has written about his writing process several times over the past decade. He’s an indiscriminate collector too, and he uses software (specifically DEVONthink) to organise it and reveal unexpected connections, which help direct his books and articles:

For the past three years, I’ve been using tools comparable to the new ones hitting the market, so I have extensive firsthand experience with the way the software changes the creative process. (I have used a custom-designed application, created by the programmer Maciej Ceglowski at the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education, and now use an off-the-shelf program called DEVONthink.) The raw material the software relies on is an archive of my writings and notes, plus a few thousand choice quotes from books I have read over the past decade: an archive, in other words, of all my old ideas, and the ideas that have influenced me.

Having all this information available at my fingerprints does more than help me find my notes faster. Yes, when I’m trying to track down an article I wrote many years ago, it’s now much easier to retrieve. But the qualitative change lies elsewhere: in finding documents I’ve forgotten about altogether, documents that I didn’t know I was looking for.

What does this mean in practice? Consider how I used the tool in writing my last book, which revolved around the latest developments in brain science. I would write a paragraph that addressed the human brain’s remarkable facility for interpreting facial expressions. I’d then plug that paragraph into the software, and ask it to find other, similar passages in my archive. Instantly, a list of quotes would be returned: some on the neural architecture that triggers facial expressions, others on the evolutionary history of the smile, still others that dealt with the expressiveness of our near relatives, the chimpanzees. Invariably, one or two of these would trigger a new association in my head — I’d forgotten about the chimpanzee connection — and I’d select that quote, and ask the software to find a new batch of documents similar to it. Before long a larger idea had taken shape in my head, built out of the trail of associations the machine had assembled for me.

Smart quotes for smart people

A cheat sheet for using the right quotation marks in your writing:

“Smart quotes,” the correct quotation marks and apostrophes, are curly or sloped. “Dumb quotes,” or straight quotes, are a vestigial constraint from typewriters when using one key for two different marks helped save space on a keyboard. Unfortunately, many improper marks make their way onto websites because of dumb defaults in applications and CMSs. Luckily, using correct quotation marks and apostrophes today is easier than you think.

Strictly correct plurals of flower names

Geoffrey K. Pullum on Language Log. Click through for his list of ’30 count nouns naming flowers, together with their approved grammatically correct plurals’, then read his pay-off:

Don’t be bullied by prescriptivist or purist nitwits who imagine that status can be achieved by learning the formation of Latin and Greek plurals. Look at ordinary practice in order to decide what is probably correct English, and accept that there may be variation within Standard English morphology. (But do get phenomena right: it’s the plural of phenomenon. One must have some standards. You will not be invited to the right literary lunches if you say It was a strange phenomena.)

 

Stop adding pull quotes

Jeremy Keith:

You either end up learning to blot them out completely, or you end up reading the same sentence twice. Blotting them out is easier said than done on a small-screen device. At least on a large screen, pull quotes can be shunted off to the side, but on handheld devices, pull quotes really make no sense at all.

I’ve never really understood their use. Or rather, why they are employed so freely.

On many CMS I have used, they are merely styled blockquotes. You end up with the content repetition Keith describes.

Better to use blockquotes for their proper purpose—quote passages of text—and use headings, lists, figures and images if you want to help users scan your content.

The Diversity Style Guide

The Diversity Style Guide is a project of the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism, based at the Journalism Department at San Francisco State University. The center’s mission is to make journalism more inclusive from the classroom to the newsroom. An earlier version of The Diversity Style Guide was produced in the 1990s by CIIJ’s News Watch Program with help from many journalism organizations.

In recent years there’s been much talk about “political correctness.” This is not a guide to being politically correct. Rather, it offers guidance, context and nuance for media professionals struggling to write about people who are different from themselves and communities different from their own. No one person can determine the correct usage of a word; this guide takes wisdom and advice from leaders in the field who have researched and considered the cultural, political and linguistic meanings of words. Most of the terms are taken directly from style guides prepared by other organizations. In those cases the terms link back to the original guides.