Digital Declutter

Effective immediately, I am beginning thirty-day break from social media. I just finished reading Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism and I liked a lot of what I read. The only way to know for sure if it will work for me is to give it a try, and so that is what I am going to do.

Why? There’s no reason other than the fact that I feel I want to scale back. Eleven years on Facebook is a lot, and I’m tired of it. The time I spend on social media can likely be put to better use. I also want to see if a month entirely off social media will give me a generally better sense of well-being.

A few things that I took away from Newport’s book that are important to note:

  1. The thirty day break is a break from optional technologies in my life. Right now, I see those things as: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. It does not mean giving up digital technology as a whole.
  2. Along those lines, I still plan to writing blog posts during this social media break. My blog is setup to automatically announce new posts on Facebook and Twitter. Those announcements will continue, although I will not be monitoring Facebook or Twitter for responses. I will be keeping up with the blog, and will respond to comments posted here.
  3. I am also trying to get into better habits with email. To that end, I’ll be checking personal email first thing each morning, and again in the evening, but not in-between. Keep this in mind if you email me and don’t get an immediate reply.
  4. When the 30-day break is over, I will start to look at Facebook and Twitter again, but only from my computer, and only once or twice a week. I’ll see how I feel about them at the end of this break and decide if I will be actively using them at that point.

This is something I have been thinking about doing for some time, and is part of the reason I decided to read Cal Newport’s book. I was impressed by his arguments, but need to see for myself if I get the benefit he suggests comes from digital minimalism.

This is something I want to do because I think it will be good for me. I may or may not write about the experience, although I’m leaning against writing about for one simple reason: it has been written about by many, many people already and I’m not sure I’d have much to add.

I am happy to answer questions about this experiment, however, so if you have any, drop them in the comments.

I’ll Get To It Someday

When it comes to book recommendations from friends and family, I’m a poor target. I’ve mentioned this before. No one has a better grasp on what I like to read besides me. Then there’s the butterfly effect of reading. Even if someone whose opinion I trust recommends a book that seems interesting, it might be a while before I get to it.

But, if I think the book sounds interesting, I will get to it eventually. It’s just a matter of time. Sometimes, that can be a long time, and those recommending the book have to be particularly patient. A recent book illustrates this in a rather dramatic way.

Sometime back in 1998, my friend (and boss at the time) recommended two “must-read” books. The first was Consilience by Edward O. Wilson. The second was Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jarod Diamond. Not long after he recommended these books, I went out and bought them, and they proceeded to sit on a shelf and collect dust.

This went on for 21 years. Meanwhile, during that 21 year period, I read 780 books, none of which were Consilience or Guns, Germs, and Steel. Until last week.

Consilience by Edward O. Wilson

On March 2, I started to read Consilience by Edward O. Wilson, and I finished the book on March 5. I was in a lull, and trying to figure out what to read next. I was also in the process of packing up books in preparation to move bookshelves so that the walls can be painted. I saw the book sitting on the shelf, and decided it was time.

Why Consilience and not Guns, Germs, and Steel? Well, I’d read and enjoyed other Edward O. Wilson books, most notably Letters to a Young Scientist.

I enjoyed Consilience, thought it a good book, although I thought the first half was better than the second half. What I found most interesting was that the book was written in the early days of the Internet, when the Human Genome Project was still incomplete. Reading Wilson’s predictions about what that would mean for humanity was interesting when compared with what we see today: 23andMe, and similar companies.

So, the book was recommended to me 21 years ago, but I finally got around to reading it, and I feel pretty good about that. I suspect it will be a while before I get to Guns, Germs, and Steel, however. Once again, that butterfly has flapped its wings. Since Consilience, I’ve read Teacher Man by Frank McCourt, and have now moved onto the David McCullough books that I haven’t already read, beginning with 1776, and continuing with the possibility of re-reading some of his books that I have read, most notably John Adams, which is my favorite biography, and which I have already read at least twice.

Sorry, Jared Diamond, it might be a little while, but I’ll get to it someday.

Articles I Read–Week of 3 March 2019

Several good magazine articles in this week’s reading batch. Here’s what I managed to get through (and my effort to read an article a day has now stretched to 42 days as of yesterday.)

As always, bold titles indicate articles I recommend. An asterisk indicates a subscription may be required to read the article online.

Rules of Storytelling

At a recent meeting of my writers group, there was a lot of talk of “rules” for writing during the critiques. Among the advice offered was “it’s better to use short sentences in thrillers” and “try using at least three senses in description.” These kinds of “rules” bother me. They are more about the brushstrokes than the painting. They act as the writing equivalent of a hack, a shorthand for doing the work involved in telling a good story.

I don’t believe there are many hard and fast rules for storytelling, just as I don’t believe there are many hard and fast rules for writing. I can think of only one general rule for storytelling: a story should have a beginning, middle, and ending.

The meeting prompted me to re-read “the little book” a.k.a. Strunk & White, a.k.a. The Elements of Style. This book is about as close as one can come to a concise set of rules for writing. And even here, I’d qualify these more as guidelines than rules.

Ultimately, there is one and only rule for storytelling that I follow: tell the best story you can manage.

Why should thrillers require short sentences? Short sentences quicken the pacing of a story, or so the argument goes. I’d suggest that a good story swallows the reader whole, regardless of sentence structure. Few are the stories I have read where the sentence structure really stands out. If it did it would become distracting. When I write a story, I want the reader to forget they are seeing words on a page. An exception that comes to mind is No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, where the sentence structure establishes a rhythm to the story, a kind of backbeat that is always there. In the case of most good stories, I am almost unaware of the language as the story fills my mind.

When I write, I never sit down to construct an inciting incident or character arc. Instead, I consider if what I am writing is interesting. Do the words and images pull the reader along? “What happens next?” is my constant backbeat. When I review a paragraph I’ve just written I ask myself “how can I make this more interesting?” or “does that description create right image in my mind?” When writing dialog, I hear the characters talking in my head and try to capture it as quickly as I can. I don’t worry about whether I’ve used too many or too few attributions. (There can be rhythms to this, too. For a good example, list to William Dufris’s narration of The Human Division by John Scalzi.) Mostly I wonder if it is clear from the context who is speaking, and if not, how can I clarify it in such a way that it improves the story?

These discussions, during critique, often focus on the mechanics rather than the storytelling. Mechanics are rule-based, but story-telling is more intuitive. Where problems arise is when a writer has a good grasp of the mechanics, and good story ideas, but no intuition for how to tell the story. That is a problem I don’t know how to solve. Rules might help, and there are rules I find useful. They are the same simple rules of composition that you find in The Elements of Style. When my writing includes these elements, my storytelling seems to improve.

Most useful among the rules that Strunk and White have on offer is Rule 17: Omit needless words. When writing a story, particularly the second draft, I apply this rule not just to each sentence, but to the story itself: Omit anything that doesn’t drive the story forward. This means taking out passages which, while elegantly written, don’t do anything for the story. 

Other useful pieces of wisdom include: 

  • Do not overwrite
  • Avoid the use of qualifiers
  • Do not explain too much

Perhaps most important of all: Be clear. A story simply isn’t effective if it isn’t clear to me what is happening. But what is “clear”? Clear to the author is very different than clear to the reader. The author knows everything, the reader does not. I try to approach my stories with a split mind, a writer’s mind and a reader’s. It’s a tough game, because the writer knows what’s happening, but need to hide that from the reader until the proper moment.

I wish we talked more about story in these critiques, and less about mechanics, but I understand the desire. The mechanics act as hacks for the hard work of story-telling. In the end, entropy is a difficult force to overcome.

Three Reading Lists

I like to keep some curated reading lists handy for those times when I struggle with what to read next. The three lists I depend on most are:

  1. Modern Library’s 100 Best Nonfiction Books
  2. Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels
  3. Sports Illustrated’s 100 Best Sports Books

Slowly, I am chipping away at these lists. But I recently went through a patch of what-the-heck-do-I-read-next. After spinning like an unsettled top for a few days, I finally settled on two books that a friend recommended to me more than twenty years ago (yes, it can sometimes be that long before I finally get to recommendations). I’ll have more to say on those two books next week. At the same time, I went to my lists to see if anything looked interest and made a decision.

In addition to my already stated reading goal for 2019, I am going to attempt to get through the top 10 books on each of the three lists by the end of the year. That would be a total of 30 books, but it turns out to be less because I have already read some of them. In 2018, I managed to read 130 books and 30 is a less than a quarter of the total. That is important because of the butterfly effect of reading.

The more I considered this additional reading goal, the more I began to see a bigger picture emerge. I eventually want to get through all the books on the three lists. 300 books is a big commitment all at once, but I’ve learned that slow and steady works well for me. (Hey, I’ve been at this blogging thing since 2005, and managed to accumulate nearly 6,400 posts over that time; slow, but steady.) If I aimed for 10 books from each list over each of the next ten years, I could get through all 300 books on those lists by the end of the next decade (2029). This year I’ll tackle the top ten, next year then next ten, and so on.

Some of the books are hard to come by. I have been slowly collecting Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History, which appears on the Modern Library’s Top 100 Nonfiction Books. Even harder to locate is Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China. But I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. I’m satisfied for now to tackle the top ten in each list. I may not get through them all (some books just don’t hold my interest), but I’ll try each one.

So, by the end of this year, here are the books that appear on those lists that I am going to tackle. Bold titles indicate I’ve already read the book.

Modern Library’s 100 Best Nonfiction Books

  1. The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams
  2. The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James
  3. Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington
  4. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolfe
  5. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
  6. Selected Essays by T. S. Eliot
  7. The Double Helix by James D. Watson
  8. Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov
  9. The American Language by H. L. Mencken
  10. The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money by John Maynard Keynes

Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels

  1. Ulysses by James Joyce
  2. The Great Gatsby* by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  3. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
  4. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  5. Brave New World* by Aldous Huxley
  6. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  7. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  8. Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
  9. Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence
  10. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

*I know that I read The Great Gatsby and Brave New World in high school, but I have virtually no memory of them, and since my official list begins in 1996, I am considering them new and will re-read them.

Sports Illustrated’s 100 Best Sports Books

  1. The Sweet Science by A. J. Liebling
  2. The Boys of Summer by Roger Kohn
  3. Ball Four by Jim Bouton
  4. Friday Night Lights by H. G. Bissinger
  5. You Know Me Al by Ring Larder
  6. A Season on the Brink by John Feinstein
  7. Semi-Touch by Dan Jenkins
  8. Paper Lion by George Plimpton
  9. The Game by Ken Dryden
  10. Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby

The total comes to 25 books, since I’ve already read five of the 30 books in the combined lists. Given that I managed to read 2o books in the first two months of the year so far, I don’t think that will be much of a problem.

I don’t plan to read them all at once, but spread them around. Ultimately, I am at the mercy of the butterfly effect of reading, so this could go sideways. Only time will tell.

Articles I Read – Week of 24 February 2019

We’re over the colds that ran through the family last week, but I spent a lot of the week catching up so things were mostly quiet here on the blog again. Hopefully things will be back to normal this week. Here are the articles I read this week, which took me through 34 consecutive days of my article-a-day experiment:

Note: bold titles are recommended. An asterisk (*) indicates a subscription may be required to read the article online.

R.I.P. Janet Asimov

I learned last night that Janet Asimov died on February 25. Janet was a psychiatrist, and a writer of books and essays. She was married to Isaac Asimov for the last 20 years of his life.

Over my many readings and re-readings of Isaac Asimov’s autobiographies, I felt like I came to know Janet as I came to know Isaac, without ever meeting them in person. Unlike Isaac Asimov, who died before I really started reading his works, I was fortunate enough to have a brief correspondence with Janet in the late 1990s. My correspondence began with my desire to express how much Isaac’s writing–fiction and nonfiction–meant to me, and how it shaped me as a writer. Janet sent me a courteous letter in response, dotted with stickers here and there across the page.

Sometime later, prompted by a 400th science column that Janet Asimov wrote on Isaac’s behalf for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (Isaac Asimov had a regular science column in the magazine for decades, completing 399 columns before he died), I wrote to Janet urging publication of the remaining uncollected science essays. I told her that almost everything I learned about science, I learned from Isaac Asimov. Janet wrote back briefly, saying that she liked the idea. Alas, nothing ever came of the uncollected essays.

I’m sad to learn of Janet’s passing, but I know she lived a long life. She outlived her husband by nearly 27 years. I haven’t read Asimov’s memoirs for several years now, but I think I might crack them open again this spring.

What I Read in February 2019

I was back to my normal reading pace in February and it came as a relief. Of course, I didn’t have a video game sucking up hours of my time like I did last month.

I finished 14 books in February:

Henry David Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls (#855)

Cover for Henry David Thoreau: A Life

I’ve had an on-again, off-again fascination with Thoreau. His experiment on Walden Pond is one part of it, but I am always fascinated by prodigious journals, and Thoreau’s is certainly that. So I decided to give Henry David Thoreau: A Life a shot. In the introduction to the book, Walls said that her focus was on Thoreau as a writer, but I felt that Thoreau as a philosopher and Transcendentalist was the real focus. I would have liked to know more about Thoreau’s writing habits, and how he went about creating his remarkable journal.

Walking by Henry David Thoreau (#856)

Cover for Walking

An example of the butterfly effect of reading in action. Having finished the Thoreau biography, I wanted to read his piece on Walking. I thought it would be a mediation on the wilderness and hiking, but it was something else entirely. I kind of wish it was what I had hoped it would be.

Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII by Chester Nez (#857)

Cover for Code Talker

I knew of the Navajo code talkers of World War, but didn’t understand the role they played and how their code was unbreakable. Chester Nez’s fabulous book Code Talkers changed that. Nez writes with clarity about his experiences before, during, and after the war, and especially about his role as a code talker. This was a good read.

Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfighter by Tom Clavin (#858)

Cover for Wild Bill

Last year, I read Tom Clavin’s book on Dodge City and enjoyed it. So when I saw he had a book coming out on Wild Bill, I couldn’t wait to read it. I wasn’t disappointed either. I’m not sure where my fascination with the old west comes from, but I suspect it is the same part of me that desires open spaces, isolation, and what seems to be a simpler life.

Reading Clavin’s biography of Wild Bill, I was startled and amused to learn that at least some parts of the HBO series Deadwood had some basis in fact. Not just Wild Bill either, but even Al Swearengen. I would have sworn he was a made up character.

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (#859)

Cover for Into Thin Air

I read and enjoyed Krakauer’s Into the Wild so it seemed natural for me to read more Krakauer at some point. Into Thin Air is on Sports Illustrated’s 100 Best Sports Books of All Time list, and as that is one of the lists that I am slowly making my way through, I thought I’d give it a try.

It was an outstanding read. I shivered at the descriptions of cold at the summit of Everest, and was horrified and awed by the tragedy that took place there. Reading the book made me wonder why some people go to extremes like these, but of course, I know why. It’s what we do, it’s how we grow.

Growing Up by Russell Baker (#860)

Cover for Growing Up

I read about the passing of Russell Baker in the New York Times, but knew very little about him. I think it was Pamela Paul who mentioned his memoir, Growing Up, and as I am fascinated by journalists, I thought I’d give it go.

I enjoyed the book, but it was one case where the title was right on the money: it was about Baker’s youth and his growing up. It ended just when I thought it was really getting interesting. Fortunately, I learned that he wrote additional memoirs and I already obtained a copy of The Good Times and am looking forward to finishing it.

The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers (#861)

Cover for The Good Neighbor

I grew up watching Mister Rogers but knew very little about Fred Rogers. The Good Neighbor had been floating around my to-read list for a while, and I finally tackled it. It was fantastic, well written and researched, and just a joy to read.

After finishing the book, I put on an episode of Mister Rogers for my 2-year-old–a little girl used to watching Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and all kinds of things on YouTube. Later that same day, she had asked to watch more, and by that evening, all three of my kids were sitting around watching episodes of Mister Rogers.

The Stephen King Companion: Four Decades of Fear from the Master of Horror by George Beahm (#862)

Cover for The Stephen King Companion

I had a short trip to Pittsburgh in February. It’s a four hour drive from my house, and I used that trip to listen to The Stephen King Companion, not really sure what to expect. I was surprised and delighted by the book, which turned out to be a well-researched literary biography of Stephen King. The 8 eight hours I spent on the road (four there, and four back) flew by in a blink thanks to this book. And as you will see, the book also pushed me to finally read and finish several of King’s books that I hadn’t been able to get through in the past.

Insomnia by Stephen King (#863)

Cover for Insomnia

I started reading Insomnia two or three times over the last decade, and never managed to get very far into the story. I can’t explain why, although I wrote some thoughts on the subject. But after reading the Stephen King Companion, I decided to give it a go, and this time, I did manage to finish the book.

I wouldn’t consider it one of King’s better books, but it was entertaining, and its ties to the Dark Tower made it that much more interesting for me.

Lisey’s Story by Stephen King (#864)

Cover for Lisey's Story

Lisey’s Story is another of King’s books that I struggled to get through the first three or four times I tried. I think I managed to get halfway at one point before giving up. This time, I read the whole book, and was satisfied with it. It was better than Insomnia, but still not top shelf King in my opinion (although I know King has often stated that this is his personal favorite, and I can understand why).

Duma Key by Stephen King (#865)

Cover for Duma Key

Duma Key was far and away the big surprise for me. I think I tried reading it one other time, but didn’t get very far. This time, I could barely put it down (I was also sick at the time, and mostly staying in bed). Of the three King books I read immediately after the Companion, this was was by far my favorite.

The Green Mile by Stephen King (#866)

Cover for The Green Mile

During the last full week in February, the whole family took turns being sick. That, coupled with a snow day or two kept us mostly in the house. When I am sick, I mostly don’t want to do anything, but I often do want a good story. So even thought I’d read it once before, I returned to The Green Mile and got the good story that I was hoping for.

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King (#867)

Cover for Doctor Sleep

After The Green Mile my thirst for good stories was no slaked. I’d read Doctor Sleep when it first came out in 2013, but thought I’d give it another go and see how it held up. This is one of those books that like a good leftover lasagna, is better the second time around. I absolutely loved it on the second read.

Revival by Stephen King (#868)

Cover for Revival

Of course, not all left overs are as good the second time around. I’d read Revival when it first came out, and decided to give it another read. I remembered that the ending was particularly frightening, but couldn’t recall the specifics. I think the first half of the book is very good, but it kind of palls until that terrifying ending


What’s on tap for March? Right now I’m in one of those “I can’t figure out what to read next” phases. There’s the Russel Baker memoir, and I have an ARC of Jack McDevitt’s latest Alex Benedict novel, Octavia Gone on my desk. Baseball season is starting up and I often turn to classics in the baseball realm for fodder. I have a newish biography of Babe Ruth that I’ve been wanting to read for a while. I just need to get past this initial hiccup, and then let the butterfly effect of reading take over.

Articles I Read – Week of 17 February 2019

I started the week in New York visiting family, and with one kid sick with whatever is going around. I ended the week sick myself for a few days, with a couple sick kids on the mend, and several inches of snow in between. So things have been a little quiet here on the blog this week. But I still managed to keep up with my article-a-day reading. Here’s what I read this week:

Note: a * next to a magazine indicates a subscription may be required to read the full article online.

The In-Between Books

Over the years I have developed a pretty good sense about which books will interest me and which won’t. I don’t like wasting much time on a book that I can’t get into, and have learned to give up on them pretty quickly. Of course, there are those books that pull me right in, fiction or nonfiction, and I am lost, and don’t want to stop reading.

Then there are the in-between books. These are book that I my finely-honed sense of what I will like tells me that I will like a book, and then gets erratic, like a compass caught in a magnetic field. These books puzzle me because they are interesting, and they generally do hook me, but I have a hard time making it through them, and often give up, only to return to them again and again.

These in-between books have been on my mind lately because I’ve recently tackled two of them. The first was Stephen King’s Insomnia. I think I started that book three or four times and never made it through–until last week. I had read The Stephen King Companion by George Beahm while on a road trip for work, and it once again brought Insomnia to mind. I decided once and for all that I would tackle it–and I finally did. It was an okay book. Not the among King’s top tier, but it kept me interested and entertained and I was glad to have made it all the way through it.

Finally finishing Insomnia gave me the courage to tackle another in-between book by Stephen King: Lisey’s Story. For a time (I don’t know if this is still the case) this novel was King’s personal favorite. Several friends told me how much they enjoyed the book. On three separate occasions, I have tried to get through the book, once making it nearly halfway before giving up. It looks like I’ll finally finish that one, too, later today.

Lisey's Story

There have been other in-between books: I’ve made it halfway through The Count of Monte Cristo twice, but have never gotten any farther. I’ve started Dan Simmons’s The Abominable three times, fascinated by the meta-fictional prologue to the book–but never made it more than a third of the way through that one, either.

In-between books are rare for me, and that is a good thing. What bothers me most about in-between books is that I get the sneaking suspicion that in these cases, the problem that prevents me from finishing is not the book, but me. As I have said, there are books that draw me in, and books that I know won’t interest me. Each case is fairly clear-cut. But with the in-between books, the typically do draw me in, and yet I am incapable of making it through the book. As I make my way through Lisey’s Story, I am beginning to think that is because I need to be in the right frame of mind, and carry around the right set of experiences before attempting these books. This gives me hope that I will, eventually, make it through other in-between books I have encountered in the past, and will encounter in the future.

A Writer’s Daydreams, 2019 Edition

Back when I started writing and submitting stories as a junior in college way back in 1993, I used to daydream of what it would be like to have a story accepted by a magazine. I’d be walking to class and imagining getting a letter back from an editor telling me that they liked my story and wanted to publish it. I imagined what it would be like seeing my name on the table of contents of a magazine, and on the byline of the story itself.

In all of this daydreaming, then absolute pinnacle for me, at the time, was to have a story appear in Analog. Analog was the cream of the crop of science fiction magazines. It was the same Astounding Science Fiction that Asimov and Heinlein had sold stories to beginning in the late 1930s. It seemed unlikely such a thing would every happen, but it was fun to daydream about it.

All these years later, I’ve sold many stories and articles, and my name has appeared in Analog‘s table of contents 4 times (two fiction pieces, and two nonfiction pieces). It’s always fun to imagine a fifth time, but with the most recent story I’ve written, my daydreams have started to change.

I finished the second draft of a new story the other day. It was the first story I’d written and finished in three years. Toward the end of my first phase of writing, my stories had started to change. There was usually a science fictional element to carry the story into the magazines that I’d grown used to selling to, but they were barely science fiction. Several reviews of my last two stories pointed this out.

This most recent story, while still maintaining a small element of the fantastic, is not what I’d call science fiction or fantasy. It’s a story. On the drive up from Virginia to New York on Saturday morning, I started to daydreaming about what it would be like if I sold this story, and I was not picturing the science fiction magazines. I was imagining what it would be like to sell the story to a place like the Atlantic or Harper’s. And the strange thing is that the daydreams were just as exciting as the ones that I remember dreaming up as a junior in college more than a quarter of a century ago.

Articles I Read – Week of 10 Feb 2019

A lot of driving this week. I had to drive to Pittsburgh for work on Wednesday and then back home on Thursday. Yesterday we drove up to New York for the long weekend. I still managed to read an article each day and my backlog of magazines has been shrinking nicely, just as the March magazines have started to roll in. Here are the articles I read this week:

%d bloggers like this: