Writing for Busy Readers

More words add nuance but clutters central message. Which is your preference: the details or the point?

It isn’t always one or the other, but if you’re writing for busy readers and broader audiences, you ought focus on the point. That’s among the themes from a new book by Jessica Lasky-Fink and Todd Rogers called “Writing for Busy Readers: Communicate More Effectively in the Real World.” Add it to a helpful collection of writing about writing that I enjoy.

They have a nice simplified chart here on a site of resources. Below I share my notes for future reference.

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Born in Blackness by Howard W. French

The so-called Age of Exploration wasn’t driven by Europeans chasing goods from Asia, a continent with which they had tied for centuries. European developed modern navigation and empire-making in pursuit of the gold-rich African empires that were beginning to open.

That set off the last 400 years of history, including the modern, caste-making of race, simplifying all African peoples into a single “black” category. That’s from the 2021 book by longtime journalist Howard W. French called “Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War.” (A review here)

Below find my notes for future reference. I didn’t take as thorough notes as I often do because I found myself reading with a near-toddler but it’s a start.

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Simon Sinek’s Infinite Game

Most games have fixed rules and clear ends — the sports and activities we associate with play. Other games have the single goal of keeping in the game — war, politics and life being the most prominent.

That’s a framework first established in a 1986 book by academic James P. Carse (1932-2020), and reinterpreted by The Infinite Game, a 2019 book by consultant, speaker and business-book author Simon Sinek. Sinek turned it into a business book bestseller.

His version references Apple, Microsoft, Walmart, Starbucks and other popular big consumer brands because that’s what all these books do. There’s some nice framing but on the whole it reads like an audition for Sinek’s next speaking or consulting gig.

Below I share my notes for future reference

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The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World

In the 1798, English economist Thomas Malthus described a common phenomenon: successful societies tended to increase their populations until food systems couldn’t keep, triggering population collapse.

He correctly described much of recorded history before him. Ironically though, just as he was writing, the first few rich states were escaping the “Malthusian trap” with the rapid improvement in food production efficiency. For the next two centuries, successive waves of countries beat the trap, and saw their populations soar. Only now do demographers look out into the future and expect population decline by 2100, thanks to slowing birth rates.

The remarkable acceleration and now deceleration of population growth is the human tide that is described in the 2019 book by demographer Paul Morland called “The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World.” I’m fixated by how big global trends like these shape empire, and Morland’s book does a fine job explaining the trend. I recommend it. Below I share my notes

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What do we do with the art of monstrous men? Whatever you need to do with it

Consuming a piece of art is the collision of two biographies: the artist who can shape the viewing and the consumer who views. This makes evaluating art created by people who have done heinous things in their personal lives especially subjective.

Hemingway and Picasso, both of whom were especially cruel and vicious to the women in their lives, are the 20th century icons of this tricky question. Hemingway’s third wife Martha Gellhorn wrote that the great artist needn’t be a monster but rather monsters can only hide behind art: “A man must be a very great genius to make up for being such a loathsome human being.”

In the end, which art we set aside, and which we can still enjoy is up to the viewer, and the time period. (Chuck Klosterman writes about how art is reinterpreted by each new generation). Admittedly, if you have the choice of hiring or elevating a creative today who is cruel, you might choose differently. But in terms of consumption, well, that’s up to you.

“The way you consume art doesn’t make you a bad person, or a good one. You’ll have to find some other way to accomplish that.” Or so argues culture critic and essayist Claire Dederer in her book from this spring called Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma.

I first came across Claire and her writing in her 2017 essay “What do we do with the art of monstrous men?” It seems to me one of the defining questions of the last few years, so I appreciate the effort she put into shaping mine and other’s perspectives. I recommend it. Below I share my notes from the book for future reference.

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Can we mourn men who have done terrible things?

How should men who have committed heinous acts be memorialized in death?

I was asked that after a video I posted about a friend’s murder, and I’d like to answer it with a different personal story. Years ago, one of my closest childhood friends was accused and convicted of one of the worst crimes we have in our society.

I hadn’t seen him in many years but it’s hard to learn something like that about someone you once knew so well. I thought a lot about his victims, people I never knew and how they’d have his scar for the rest of their lives. I looked back for signs, I considered what it said about me to have once been so close to someone who did a thing like that.

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Bullshit Jobs

Two-fifths of jobs in the rich world are bullshit, not including those – such as office cleaners – that service the bullshit jobs. These legal, financial and clerical roles don’t add any economic value. Note the difference between “bullshit jobs” (they’re meaningless) and “shit jobs” (you’re not treated well).

They’re capitalism’s equivalent to Soviet communism’s needless roles to maintain high-employment. Or so argued anarchist-anthropologist David Graeber’s 2018 book Bullshit Jobs. The book came five years after an essay the author wrote on the topic went viral. He struck a chord.

The book’s criticism centered on how much time Graeber spent on definitions for a definitionally murky topic — relying heavily on subjective surveys to define what a “bullshit job” really is. Still the term entered lexicon and so is worth reading. After Graeber’s early death in 2020, I resolved to finally get to it, which I did. Below I share my notes for future reference.

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Lessons on writing from four Russian masters (and George Saunders)

We live our life letting only some instruments in the orchestra play, so when we write fiction we can explore the rest. To create great fiction, we must emphatically pursue our “radical preference,” and remove everything else

Few do it as well as the greats from a 75-year period of Russian masters. So argues George Saunders, today’s most celebrated American fiction writer and a well-regarded writing professor, in his 2021 book: “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life.”

He shares stories from four greats and intersperses his notes, based on a course he teaches. It’s approachable and generous. Below I share my notes for future reference.

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What if We’re Wrong: by Chuck Klosterman

Beliefs today, both objective and subjective, won’t necessarily be true in the future.

Discoveries upend scientific truths. Culture shifts in surprising ways. Art is used to interpret today and it’s repurposed later to interpret history of that future time, and these don’t need the same things. That’s why artists popular in one era aren’t necessarily remembered in the future, and so we might predict that the artists remembered from this era won’t be the ones celebrated in the future.

That’s among the big themes from But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past, a quirky and charming 2016 book by media critic Chuck Klosterman.

Below I share my notes for future reference.

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