Notes on ‘The Invention of News’ by Andrew Pettegree

The journey to get to professionally-verified information includes social, economic and political coursework. To share this journey, historian Andrew Pettegree focused in his 2014 book The Invention of the News heavily on the European development.

It is dense and comprehensive, at least in the continental sense. It’s been on my list for a year or so, and I finally dug into it, with pages of notes. Find reviews of the book in the Times and Guardian, and consider buying the book yourself. The book’s focus is between the years of 1400 to 1800, and it’s clearly written by a historian, rather than a contemporary media studies approach—I prefer this more dispassionate and distant view of the origins of an industry.

Knowing that printing had earlier roots in China, the book is decidedly Eurocentric. Still I would strongly recommend it to anyone as interested as I am in the foundation of media, news and journalism. Pettegree’s stance is that the industry of professionalizing information-gathering was a European concept, which is his focus. This was one of several books on early journalism foundations I’ve read in the last year.

Find my notes below.

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Note on “Reporting the Revolutionary War” from 2012 by Todd Andrlik

As Mark Twain put it: “History is the pale and tranquil reflection” of news.

Before the patriotic tales of heroism, there was urgent, partisan and divided reporting about the relationship between American colonists and the British crown. In his 2012 book Reporting the Revolutionary War, Todd Andrlik gives us a chance at seeing the events when there was nothing predetermined.

The book is heavily reliant on scanned copies of original source newspapers (both from colonial and English accounts), with some contextual interpretation from 37 historians. I recommend the book for a visual look at the fast-paced beat reporting the era. Below I share just a few notes that stood out to me.

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Notes from reading ‘Sapiens,’ a brief history of humankind

Our species, Homo sapiens, first grew powerful by banding together through myth-making. That self-deception is our strength and our curse.

That is something like the thesis of Sapiens, a kind of pop anthropology anthology that has — like all books that generalize heady issues — caught both praise and derision. Written by Yuval Noah Harari, it was first published in Hebrew in Israel in 2011 and in English in 2014. I was gifted a copy by a collaborator of mine, Deborah Diamond and I ready it in a couple weeks. I’m sharing here some of what I got from reading it.

Public intellectuals seem to face a harrowing choice. Either dive deeply into their subject matter to influence their peers but risk their ideas remaining obscure, or focus on translating and synthesizing for a broader audience, and attract scorn from those deeper situated in the academic. Harari is squarely in the latter category, garnering a 2018 New York Times profile focused on the adulation he’s received from tech executives, despite his criticism of their work.

Like a breakout hit in linguistics that I read, I approach these books with neither extreme. I find them fun, discover ideas to dive deeper into and often get inspiration. That was my experience with Harari’s book — even though I found myself ignoring extended passages of his extrapolation. I enjoyed it.

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A few quotes I read recently that are stuck in my mind

I often try to capture ideas from my reading. So I sometimes internalize those ideas by sharing notes here on my takeaways from something I’ve read.

Most usually that’s with nonfiction; though I’ve done it with fiction too when something really connects for me. But other times, I have a habit of squirreling away quotes or shorter notes, more often from fiction, in all sorts of places.

I had a few bundled up and thought I’d just share them here, if only for me to come back to more easily. They aren’t precisely tuned or themed, other than to be about life in some way or another.

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How we speak signals education. But it is not the same thing as education: Robert Lane Greene

Language and the stories we tell about its origins are highly political. To understand one, you need to be mindful of the other.

That’s the main thesis of the 2011 book You Are What You Speak by Robert Lane Greene, who also writes a twice-monthly column on language in The Economist that I adore as a subscriber. I finished the book earlier this year as part of my continued assault on better understanding language’s history — read other reading notes of mine on language here.

This book helped cement my understanding that my favorite part of linguistics is philology, or the historical and comparative elements that seem quite cultural.

Below I share pieces of the book that stood out to me. But as always I encourage you to buy your own copy and read it; I only write nerdy posts like this when a book has really added to my worldview. So I strongly recommend it.

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Nobody wants to follow someone who made General in Peacetime: notes from Tribes by Seth Godin

I had read other books by popular marketer Seth Godin (I was a regular reader back in 2009). But not one of his best known, one most aligned with work I do, his 2008 Tribes.

A friend (thanks Kristin!) handed me a copy last year and told me to get it done already. Godin is so ubiquitous in web circles that I stopped pursuing his work. I do respect his perspective and approach; I just expect to come across it from his passionate follower base. I supposed a friend handing me the book was just that.

I read it in a weekend last fall, and I just came across the notes I wrote down for myself. Below find them.

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Punctuation today: notes from the 2006 bestseller “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”

Modern linguistics is based largely on a descriptivist view of language, describing common usage. Many grammarians follow a more prescriptivist view: if we don’t prescribe, language will falter.

I read a host of pop linguistics books this year, challenging my prescriptivist publishing origins with a small library of descriptivist perspective. I also consumed podcasts, articles and other interviews with experts on the matter. (Most recently this conversation.)

Along this exploration, I was familiar with several of the most-cited grammar classics (King’s English and Elements of Style among them). But I hadn’t read Eats, Shoots and Leaves, published by Lynne Truss in 2006. So I changed that late last year.

I wanted to share a few notes below.

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Notes from ‘The Hard Thing About Hard Things’ by Ben Horowitz

Prominent investor Ben Horowitz’s 2014 book ‘The Hard Thing about Hard Things’ is among the seminal business philosophy books from this era of Silicon Valley entrepreneurship.

Horowitz is half of the founding team of Andresson-Horowitz, an iconic Sand Hill Road software-focused venture capital firm. His work and perspective has influenced today’s funding and startup climate, and so I finally dug into the book.

I enjoyed it and took away several insights. As per my habit, find some of my notes below.

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Lessons on “The Messy Middle” of business from Scott Belsky

You know startups. You know exits.

Most of the work of business takes place somewhere in between the very start and the very end. Yet a lot of media attention focuses on those two iconic poles. So you might know a lot less about the space between the two poles.

We need more guidance on the work stage. That’s the approach in The Messy Middle, a new book published late last year from Scott Belsky. He founded Behance, which sold in 2012 to Adobe for $150 million, and has been an active  investor.

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Language is more like fashion than math: “Words on the Move” by John McWhorter

We get it wrong: language is always in motion, more like fashion, than science or math. This changes how we treat language and its uses.

We don’t quite say someone is wrong for wearing bell-bottom jeans today. It might feel outdated. We also might think they could return someday in some form if fashion and culture moves in the right way. It’s just not what most of us would consider common today. That is a pretty good approximation of language.

This concept is the big idea from linguistics that John McWhorter most gets at in his sublimely readable and thoughtful Words on the Move book from 2016. (Read the New York Times review here)

I first read this book earlier this summer, part of a binge on McWhorter’s books and linguistics generally. I finally wanted to share my notes from reading this. But if it interests you, you really should buy it, because there’s so much more.

Below I share my notes.

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