Recommended Reading: News: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton

de_botton_1The News: A User’s Manual
Alain de Botton
Vintage, 2014
Paperback, 272 pages

If the Beatles’ song “A Day in the Life” were sung today, instead of singing “I read the news today, oh boy,” John Lennon might just sing “I saw the news today, oh boy!”

“Oh, boy!” Indeed.

On its Web site, CNN’s breaking news around 10 p.m. CDT July 9, 2018, is a photo of Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s Supreme Court Justice nominee, at a podium presumably at the White House or on Capitol Hill or somewhere in D.C., the president smiling smugly in the background, Kavanaugh’s family off to one side, wife smiling lovingly.

This is important news, right? At least for the U.S.? Then why do I almost automatically disengage from it? Why don’t I click the photo to read or listen to the story that follows?

Below the photo is a headline: “Trump’s Supreme Court pick is a DC insider who worked for special counsel Ken Starr during the Bill Clinton investigation in the 1990s.” That headline is among many about Kavanaugh.

Twelve hours later, Kavanaugh’s nomination is no longer the lead story. The lead is about the rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped in a cave in Thailand. Scrolling down, however, I can pick from five different headlines analyzing Kavanaugh. Still, I find myself uninterested enough not to click any of the links.

It’s not that I’m politically apathetic. I vote, I sometimes follow political news and even comment here and there, usually on Facebook.

The problem: There’s already so much analysis about Kavanaugh, just from this one source, it’s numbing. My problem, as with many of us who follow the news regularly, or not so regularly for that matter, is that it’s the same story different name as the last nominee. I could begrudgingly switch to the Fox News Web site, and though they’re likely to praise the nomination, the analysis, in general, will be similar. I’m disengaged because I’m bored with the analysis, no matter who’s presenting it; it will continue in the days, weeks and months leading up to the justice’s confirmation — and then continue afterward until his first decision, which, in turn, will get analyzed … well you get the picture.

This sort of disengagement is addressed in Alain de Botton’s The News: A User’s Manual, an analysis of how news, as it’s presented now, affects us, and how the news could be better and serve us better as consumers of it — and as providers of it, better present it.

“We regularly come across headlines of apparent importance that, in private, leave us disengaged,” De Botton writes. “Boredom and confusion may be two of the most common, but also two of the most shameful and therefore concealed, emotions provoked by so-called ‘serious’ political stories presented by the news organizations of modern democracies.”

De Botton is an essayist, philosopher and public intellectual known for such books as Essays on Love, How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Consolations of Philosophy. He also runs the School of Life, a school, as its Web site notes, dedicated “to developing emotional intelligence,” a sort of self-help school that promotes philosophy, art and literature over pop psychology as practical sources for changing lives and making one’s way in the world a bit more tolerable.

On the surface, in De Botton’s estimate, the news, no matter what’s covered — politics, crime, celebrities — doesn’t make our lives more tolerable. Even just a casual perusal of the news is likely to cause us fear or anger, despair or apathy or lust or envy, depending on the stories we follow, or where we happen to catch the 24-hour news cycle. Some news might elicit all these emotions at once.

The medium in which the news is presented doesn’t seem to matter. De Botton draws examples from print, TV and presumably online — given that most print media (or what once was print) is now followed online. (The book was published on the cusp of social media’s dominance as an outlet for news, even individually created “news,” and smart phone technology, but with minor adjustments, De Botton’s critique easily applies to those media as well.)

For instance, here are some headlines De Botton cites early on from the BBC that could have come across our newsfeed on Twitter or Facebook or on TV at any time and pretty much from any source, local, national or international:

  • “COUNCIL SPENDING ‘LACKING CLARITY’”
  • “ANTI-TAX GROUP LEADS CONSERVATIVE CHARGE”
  • “SYDNEY MAN CHARGED WITH CANNIBALISM AND INCEST”

Only the third headline might command our attention, but probably just insofar as to cause us anger or outrage at such hideous acts. The story itself would in print probably run three-to-four-hundred words in length or gain a minute or two of broadcast time, and then it would become a mere piffle in our minds. Just a few of us, including the journalist reporting it, would follow the story from arrest to prosecution to sentencing — unless the Sydney man happened to hold celebrity status or the story itself, especially in trial, were to reveal gory, gruesome and macabre details. Otherwise, it’s water-cooler talk.

Which, is the issue, De Botton says. What’s the point?

De Botton offers possibilities to improve news and its presentation, primarily suggesting news dig deeper into the “whys” of events or people it reports on are important. Why should we care about a war in Africa when we’re drinking our coffee in our kitchens in the U.S.? What if we see the every day lives of those caught in the war, to see the universals in their lives, then maybe we might just care some? Or we might see a crime as more than just an event in which in which we can express our self-righteous outrage at the perpetrator.

“The tragedies of others should remind us of how close we ourselves often are to behaving in amoral, blinkered or violent ways,” De Botton writes. “Seeing the consequences of such impulses harrowingly played out in the lives of strangers should leave us feeling at once scared and sympathetic rather than hubristic and self-righteous.”

While on one hand De Botton’s suggestions for how news should be gathered and presented is highly idealistic — especially to the reporter, the journalist who is frantically trying to daily fill column space or airtime with something to keep his job — on the other hand, his ideas are intriguing and his critique of the news is spot on in the way it influences those who consume it.

As reporters, we often just go about writing the city council story, knowing the city’s budget will usually fall short or that the next Supreme Court justice will influence the workings of the nation one way or another. We will too often go just to the people in power to get some quotes and then go onto the next story and talk to more talking heads. We ask the same questions and get the same narrative. We don’t always go out with our notebooks to understand the whys of a story, to dig out what a story means, if anything at all.

The kind of journalism De Botton seems to advocate does exist in longform magazine writing, it existed at its best in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s as The New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, et al, emerged. But then, that style peaked by the ’90s. Still, those journalists ferreted out meaningful stories by training literary lenses on their subjects.

Is this the kind of journalism consumers of news now want? Do they have the attention span to read such stories, to watch a lengthy documentary film? Perhaps after reading De Botton’s book, they will want more of that kind of journalism, rather than what they are getting?

I want to think that’s what news consumers want — news with meaning and richness of texture, news that looks at the world in its ordinariness as an artist does. It’s why I am encouraged when I read a great narrative piece in a magazine, online, or even in a newspaper. It’s why I was encouraged that until a few weeks ago CNN had a great show that showed us the world through its people, its food and its culture in the late Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown.”

I would like to see De Botton’s idealistic approach put to the test. It might be more encouraging and less “Oh, boy!” than you think.

— Todd

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Recommended Reading: Audiobooks

downloadAs a child, who didn’t like being read to? While I don’t think audiobooks make up for discovering in the sound of your dad’s voice language and reading and its nascent joys, they certainly can be boon companions on long commutes or while washing dishes. How long was my last commute, you ask? To work and back again, I listened to all of Dune in about two weeks. All. Of. Dune. (Counting appendices and cartographic notes, my paperback version is 535 pages of dense 10-point type. In other words, it’s a long book.)

It’s just been in the last couple of years that I’ve begun to appreciate the companionship of audiobooks. Since then, I’ve listened to many more. On YouTube, I found a copy of Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great, read by The Hitch himself. Oh, to envy that voice, sneering, snarky and cigarette-and-whiskey-smoked slamming it to the deity.

I followed that up — also on YouTube — with Richard Dawkins reading from The God Delusion.

Of course, most writers don’t read their own audiobooks, though I wouldn’t have minded hearing Terry McDonell reading his memoir The Accidental Life. The version I downloaded from Audible is narrated by Jason Culp and runs 11 hours and 30 minutes.

Though McDonell doesn’t narrate the audiobook, it’s nonetheless a great listen, part reflection on nearly 40 years as editor of magazines including Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated and Esquire, as well as a reflection of McDonell’s interactions with the writers who wrote for them: Hunter Thompson, Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane, James Salter and Peter Mathiesson, to name a few.

It’s also in part an instructive book about editing and writing and the often rocky relationship between the two crafts.

It’s the kind of book (I’m reading the hardback now) that makes you nostalgic for the days when editors and writers held a bit of the public’s imagination, even if it wasn’t necessarily for writing — the writers McDonell spent time with partied like rock stars with drugs, booze and even women, or men, depending on one’s preferences. It also, without demonizing it too much, reveals how much the writing life has changed because of the Internet and technology — there’s lower pay, for sure, in a trade that’s already hazardous to your cash flow. The real problem, as it always seems it has been, is the suits. McDonell takes a peek at that part of the life, too.

Currently, I’m giving a listen to Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief. Wright narrates the introduction but the rest of the book is read by Morton Sellers.

I’m about 6 hours into the 17 and one-half hour audio and it’s absorbing. Just the biography of Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard and the way the science-fiction writer evolved his philosophy into a cult and elevated it to a religion through a variety of means is gripping. Hubbard’s methods are common to cult leaders: coercion, charisma, abuse, outlandish punishments, isolation from family and friends, demands for absolute loyalty, demands for money and attempts to falsify and discredit accounts of ex-followers and critics through a variety of means, including threats and lawsuits.

There’s much to be said, even listening to the first few hours, about the dangers of the cult of personality that seems to take a grip on us daily. Strong, charismatic personalities pull us away from natural skepticism, working on our flaws and insecurities; they rarely seem to work on our strengths. We can see it in other figures: Jim Jones, David Koresh, even Hitler and our current president. They dismantle hearts and minds, even whole countries. Cults rarely come to good ends — unless they manage to become normative, slip into the mainstream, as religions — they usually end in Kool-Aid and conflagrations.

Scientology seems to have a disturbingly far reach: though Hubbard ranted against psychology, I think back to several of the self-help books I’ve read over the years by psychologists, and their advice seems strangely like that in Hubbard’s Dianetics; I think, too, of the paranoiac rantings of talk-radio host Alex Jones — a science-fiction fan — whose rantings can be followed at Prison Planet (Hubbard theorized Earth was a prison planet). How many people has Jones riled up with his rants (our president appeared on his show. How much the president’s rhetoric seems like Jones’.) Was Jones influenced by Hubbard or Scientology in any way?

Listening to Wright’s book has made me uncomfortable about contributing a little to one wing of Hubbard’s empire: The Writer’s of the Future contest. And yet, as a writing contest, it gives beginning science-fiction and fantasy writers a chance at a wider audience. It’s launched some good writer’s careers. I’ve had friends published in it, and I have received accolades from the contest. Am I caught in an argument that I hate: learn more about a particular writer and it taints that writer’s work. Does it really? Can I still love Junot Diaz’s fiction, for instance, though he’s been MeToo-ed?

Those are probably questions for another post.

For this one, I especially have to recommend the latter two audiobooks for your reading and listening pleasure.

— Todd

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Writing: Staying focused and maintaining interest in writing projects: advice from Joe Lansdale

Joe_lansdale_2013

Joe R. Lansdale at the 2013 Texas Book Festival, Austin, Texas, United States. Photo Larry D. Moore. 

I wrote a little about this yesterday, about my mind jumping around from interest to interest of late in my writing, a jump prompted it seems by a re-upping of interest in journalism because of a freelance gig and a waning interest in the second draft of my novel.

This isn’t the first time for me to lose interest in my novel project. As I mentioned yesterday, it was about this time last year my interest in the first draft waned. So, it’s possible I’m at the moment in a sophomore-draft slump.

Last year at this time, writer friends online encouraged me to press on. For awhile this year, in the midst of job and apparently major career changes, I felt the first slump coming on sometime around the Christmas holidays. It seemed to coincide with a major case of holiday blues — these blues hit during that time of year, largely because I find the whole season intolerable; I want it to go away, get sent in a bright red package with a bright red bow to some holiday Gilligan’s Island and get lost and stay lost.

To stay with the fearless-crew-of-the-Minnow theme, perhaps I was lost, overwhelmed by multiple stressors, including the black-dog depression brought on by so many stressors. As you well know from your diet of of pop psychology, major life changes can upset your creative traveler like Gilligan’s storm.

However I got there, I was pulled out by a writer infinitely greater than myself: Joe Lansdale.

Writing tip. Don’t let those who can’t, or won’t do it keep you from doing it. Spend less time explaining the reasons you can’t and more time showing that you can. That sounds like a slogan, but it’s the solid truth. There’s always someone who has an excuse, and sure, there are some that have valid reasons. But most people don’t have valid reasons. They just have reasons they don’t write. I don’t have time is the main one. And hey, that’s a toughie.

But I didn’t start out as a full time writer. I did other jobs, and sometimes two, meaning one was part time on top of whatever else I was doing for a living at the time.

I eventually realized I had a lot of time. Time that I was spending sitting around worrying  about not having the time, or planning a block of time. I decided, what if I wrote from ten thirty at night until midnight. My original goal was one page, and I learned very quickly I could do that.

So, I decided to expand on the idea. I would do three pages of prose. I had to get up at six a.m. to go to work, so I gave myself a carrot, so to speak. I thought, what if  gave myself an out and wrote three pages of good prose, even if I wrote it in thirty minutes. I did that, I could go to bed before midnight. So it was ten thirty to midnight, or three pages. It was usually midnight back then, and sometimes I didn’t get the three, but over time I managed to the majority of the time.

It wasn’t any good, by they way, but I was learning. In time I turned to working mornings, as I had an afternoon to tent-thirty job as a janitor, and weekend jobs as I could grab them. Practicing and teaching martial arts part time. And writing.

On the weekends I would write when I could, even if it was but for thirty minutes. I still made time to be a husband and a father, and my wife and I have managed a great life out of it all. I spent time at my kid’s events, and with them, and still do, even though they are grown.

There is time, if you make it. It’s still hard work, but of a different nature now. I say this merely to say you can do it too, not that I did anything amazing. That’s the point. It wasn’t that amazing. I learned to balance my time without turning it into a chart I had to check off or frustrate over. I relaxed and did it.

This piece of advice spurred me along, and I made time to write and work on the second draft of the novel.

Now, my problem isn’t time. It’s focus. But, I realize, as I’ve just reread and retyped this quote, the shift of focus may be exactly what need to do. Maybe I need to hold off on the novel and use the writing time I’ve set aside for myself for nonfiction writing?

So, does this happen to you? Do your interests flip-flop or jump from project to project? How do you handle it?

— Todd

Current News: Cats, Freelance and Staying Focused/Interested in Writing

I’ve inherited a cat. I’ve never owned a cat and hadn’t really planned on getting one, but Callie the Calico became part of my  life just a little more than a month ago after a friend’s death.20180430_201537

Now, I wonder why I haven’t had a cat before, though I know next to nothing about them, other than they apparently evolved some 6-7 million years ago in the Middle East and were worshiped as gods.

Callie seems to be a good companion so far, and I’m glad I was able to adopt her. It’s probably good for writers to have cats and clearly there are some famous literary cats, like Hemingway’s six-toed feral cats that  roam his Key West estate.

***

Since February I’ve had a regular freelance gig writing advertorials for local newspapers. These have been fun and a nice source of side/supplemental income. At the same time they’ve juiced  my journalism jones again.

I guess I’m like James Bond, never say never, again. I was convinced I was done with journalism last September, at least daily newspaper journalism, and maybe that part of my writing life — at least full time — is done. It’s hard to tell.

The renewed interest in journalism has also led me to reading some great nonfiction again, including Mary Roach’s Grunt, about which I’ll write more in another post.

Reading nonfiction and writing a form of it, though, has put me in the mood to write more of it and that’s why I’ve been blogging more lately. I hope you’ve enjoyed the output.

***

This freelance gig and a renewed interest in journalism and nonfiction, though, has also distracted me from working on the second draft of a novel, a second draft I had fully expected to have finished by now.

Getting distracted by different forms of writing seems a constant for me. At times all I want to write is fiction or a specific genre of fiction such as science fiction or mystery.
Then I get occupied with wanting to write more nonfiction.

Do you experience this as a writer? Does your interest in a form jump around?

But, besides my mind jumping around from fiction to nonfiction, I’ve lost interest in the second draft, lost interest in the novel itself. In one way, this is a bit discouraging. I really wanted to see this thing to the end. But will I? I’m feeling doubtful about this.

Then again, it was about this time last year I was growing tired of the first draft and was ready to chuck in all in the trash bin.

So, maybe, I’ll push through and complete it. Maybe, what I need is some distraction like blog posts to push through the block. To keep writing.

—Todd

X-ray Reading: See Yourself Through to Good Writing

When I read Roy Peter Clark’s The Art of X-ray Reading, I felt like a time-traveler whisked back to the 1990s and my graduate lit classes.

Heady days those were in which little cliques of long-haired twentysomethings gathered in musty classrooms, sat in hard-backed wood desks and talked about books, or texts, as some of the literary theorists we studied called them. We parsed out Faulkner to digest the South’s racism. We dug deep into Lawrence and Woolf to understand gender inequalities.

In X-Ray Reading Clark, too, digs deep into literary classics like The Great Gatsby and Lolita. His purpose isn’t to parse out racism or gender inequality or discover some theory hidden in the words, sentences and paragraphs of classic texts. His purpose is to show—not tell—us where writers “learn their best moves.”

Note the word “where.” Instead of “where,” most books on writing and rhetoric concentrate on the “how” of writing. Thousands of such books line bookstore shelves. Of the making of writing books, there seems no end. You can reach for Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, or Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language;” or you can reach way back to ancient Greece, to Aristotle’s Rhetoric, in part an answer to Plato’s disparaging of the art of public speaking — or writing for that matter — in works like Gorgias and Phaedrus.

Of course, you can open up Plato’s dialogues and see how his spokesman — old barefoot gadfly Socrates — ironically uses elements of rhetoric to dismember rhetoric. You can see, for instance, how Socrates does it: he gins-up plenty of examples (examples, as you well know, make for good evidence in supporting your arguments) he begs for absolute definitions. In turn, too, you can see Socrates placing great value on good writing when he tells his friend Callicles in Phaedrus, “Anyone may see there is no disgrace in the mere fact of writing. The disgrace comes when a man writes not well, but badly.”

Even Clark’s recent Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer is a how-to — one worth plucking from bookshelves to add to your writer’s toolkit. Clark’s no stranger to writing. A journalist and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, Clark’s written five books on writing and reading, including The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English and How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times.

Whichever writing book you reach for, undoubtedly you’ll gather gems of great value like “Show, don’t tell,” or “Use the active voice.” But, where did the writers who dug up such shiny treasures learn them?

Reading, of course.

Not just any sort of reading, as Clark says.

They learn them from a technique I call X-ray reading. They read for information or vicarious experience or pleasure, as we all do. But in their reading, they see something more. It’s as if they had a third eye or a pair of X-ray glasses like the ones advertised years ago in comic books.

This special vision allows them to see beneath the surface of the text. There they observe the machinery of making meaning, invisible to the rest of us. Through a form of reverse engineering, a good phrase used by scholar Steven Pinker, they see the moving parts, the strategies that create the effects we experience from the page — effects such as clarity, suspense, humor, epiphany, and pain. These working parts are then stored in the writer’s toolshed in boxes with names such as grammar, syntax, punctuation, spelling, semantics, etymology, poetics, and that big box — rhetoric.

This kind of textual analysis is not new. In academia, it’s known as the New Criticism, its foundation close reading. Proponents of this critical style, like Cleanth Brooks, argued that only the text mattered. You understood a poem or work of prose only by peeling back every layer of the text, analyzing every word, letter, phrase, with no outside influence like historical context or god forbid the writer’s claimed intention (the intentional fallacy) to corrupt your analysis.

Francine Prose’s book from 2006 Reading Like a Writer is a fine example of this kind of reading, and like Clark, she shows how writers study writing peering closely at words and sentences, paragraphs and narration, character and dialogue, and details and gesture. Her book is primarily aimed at fiction writers.

Clark’s X-ray Reading delves into fiction, poetry and nonfiction, assessing the structure of Gatsby, the play of words on the tongue of Nabokov’s Lolita (“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” It’s hard not hear that except in James Mason’s exquisite voice.), the meaning of the stopped clock in John Hershey’s classic nonfiction book on the dropping of the atomic bombs Hiroshima and breaking down the “cinematic slow-motion effect” of the opening passages of Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit. It’s nice to see nonfiction included, if only to see that nonfiction’s prose doesn’t have to cross the pedestrian cross walk of AP style or go over the lip of the black holes (is that drill down into?)  of academ-ese or business-ese and vanish in banality.

Clark also analyzes works of writers such as Hemingway, Shakespeare, and Joyce.

But, don’t worry if this all sounds like a boring literature class. Clark’s approach, as Tampa Bay Times reviewer Gregory McNamee notes, is “much more nuts and bolts than all that, and it seems just right: A beginning medical student learns anatomy through dissection down to the capillary level, and a beginning writer learns to conjure phrases such as Fitzgerald’s ‘boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’ by understanding from the ground up how sound and meaning combine.”

It’s a refreshing approach for a book on writing and reading. And, if anything, reading this book proves a great guide to reading in a way that makes books even more alive than usual. Which seems is a secondary purpose of Clark’s:

“One purpose of this book is to nudge you into reading some of the best literature ever written…Read. Enjoy. X-Ray. Write.”

—Todd


Buy Now Button

Books bought, books checked-out, books read: End of Summer, beginning of Fall 2011

An update to my pollysyllabic spree:

Books bought

  • The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman
  • Year’s Best SF 14

Books checked out

  • In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan
  • Healthy Aging by Andrew Weil

Books read

  • The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
  • Embassytown by China Mieville
  • Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

Chronicling Texas’ Hill Country

Hill Country Chronicles
By Clay Coppedge
The History Press (2010, $19.99)

Texas’ Hill Country covers about 25 counties in the central part of the state, including Travis County, home to Austin. It’s a region as thick with legends and characters as it is with Ashe junipers, better known as cedars to those who live here.

The region, its legends and characters, and even the cedars get covered in Clay Coppedge’s Hill Country Chronicles. Coppedge, a journalist and freelance writer, has put together a collection of essays that tell the story of this rugged and sometimes forbidding land, an area pivotal to Texas’ history.

Coppedge is a storyteller at heart, and some of the best pieces in the collection are those in which he tells the stories of the region’s characters, such as outlaw Johnny Ringo. If the name rings a bell, that’s because Ringo is associated with the Clanton Gang and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Ariz. Although Ringo gained notoriety as an outlaw, some sources claim he never fired a shot in Tombstone.

Ringo did fire a shot or two, as Coppedge writes, while making a stay in Burnet, Texas, where he was arrested Christmas Day for firing a shot across the city square. Texas’ Hill Country was also where Ringo probably earned his reputation as an outlaw during the Hoodoo War, a bloody feud over cattle between recent German settlers and their American-born neighbors.

Ringo, Coppedge writes, shot and killed Jim Cheyney, a resident of the area, after Cheyney had invited Ringo and his partner Bill Williams in for breakfast.

Coppedge also delves into Texas heroes such as Jim Bowie, telling the story of how Bowie may have come into possession of his namesake knife. “A good bit of evidence suggests that the real Bowie knife of legend and lore was designed and made in Arkansas blacksmith named Thomas Black . . . . Black’s design was long and heavy and was distinguished by an evil little upturn at its tip and scooped top blade.”

Coppedge’s stories range far and wide through the region. He writes about its people, its places — Luckenbach,  for instance, the blink of a town made famous by Waylon, Willie and the boys — and its critters: from armadillos and unappreciated mules to the state dinosaur, the Pleurocoelus. And he does it often with dry humor and insight, which makes the book worth a read.