This is the eleventh sending of Letters to J
. We hope this one encourages you to find a quiet study spot.
(Jasdev ⇒ Justin, 8/3/20)
Do you keep an antilibrary? If not, how do you decide what to read?
— Justin, in letter #10.
If I can call my shelves an antilibrary, then yes. But if I’m being honest with myself, they were filled less with the acceptance that I’d never finish them and instead with completionist dreams that I would.
Writing this out brings up an old favorite from the blog: “To my unread books.” In it, I talk through nixing my faux-productive book buying and cherish how they’re paper trails of attempts “to create different versions of myself. One who’s an amateur cyclist. One who returns home to mathematics. Or one who gathers poetry’s adjectives and hides them in the corners of nonfiction.”
And with that lens, bookshelves can chart out both explored and yet-to-be-explored selves.
Bringing me to “how do you decide what to read?”
I struggle with this question, especially when “what’re you reading these days?” comes up in conversation. My reading is scattered across this oddball constellation of blog archives, newsletters, and feeds for nooks of the Web, like your vocabulary list, Melanie Richards’ wonderful “Good Things” page, Matthew Bischoff’s Pinboard profile, and Summer and Yujane’s @shoutingpoems account.
Listing these out mid-conversation is understandably met with blank stares. Yet I continue. Adding edges between disparate parts of the Internet has given me a quiet spot to peruse or in another word I recently picked up from you, a phrontistery: a place for study.
I used to beat myself up over Not Book Reading. Why couldn’t I be normal — for some definition we all probably deviate from — and read book books? When did this tendency start?
It’s partly long-distance atrophy after having spent years in short- and middle-distance reading. But it also stems from my forum-reading childhood. I used to be way into Halo modding (a story for another time) and folks would write up tutorials and post them online. Each post was usually footed with “signatures” — think retro Twitter profile headers with links to personal sites — that taught me the thrill of finding an undiscovered blog archive.
There’s a penny-collecting charm to discovering a well-written personal site, saving a few posts as PDFs, and reading them from the comfort your Downloads folder, on paper, or in your app of choice. A writer’s archive lets you stride and link through their world in a way that static book snapshots can’t quite capture. And maybe that’s why I prefer this genre of sorts.
Since each bit of reading is backed by a URL, sharing with others often manifests as our trusty steed: the link blog. Coming back to the “constellation” metaphor, sharing links of what I’ve read feels like lobbing comets out from my orbit into that of others. Or at least that’s what I tell myself when sending links into the ether from my link blog: Substrate. It’s a feed of what I’m reading and for curious readers, I scribble in notes and tags on a Pinboard profile backing the account.
Sometimes I wonder if exhaustion from the public Internet commons — acutely felt as Twitter fatigue — can be eased if we spent less time idling there and more time in our own phrontisteries, returning to share the stardust we found elsewhere.
I took a break mid-writing this letter and remembered a recent back and forth you had with Robin that I nodded along with:
Justin: The most talented people I know of are largely ignorant of the zeitgeist. They work hard at their 9–5s and then spend their time [doing anything else].
Robin: Yes, yes, yes. I’ve found that a majority of the smartest folks in the field do gobsmacking work and then…just go home.
When office life returns, a paraphrasing of “do gobsmacking [(what a word)] work during [reasonable hours] and then go home” will be riff’s unofficial engineering motto (currently struggling with the “go home” part since most of my day’s contexts happen in an apartment bedroom, alas).
I’m curious to hear about folks in your life who have embodied this. Who’s the smartest person you know (in any sense of the word, acknowledging the dimensionality)? And as importantly, why?