At last, writing slowly is back in fashion!

    Cal Newport, author of the forthcoming book, 📚Slow Productivity, has finally latched on to the premise of this website: you can get a lot done by writing slowly. Speeding up in pursuit of fleeting moments of hyper-visibility is not necessarily the path to impact. It’s in slowing down that the real magic happens. Study Hacks I didn’t even know they could drive. See also: Why I’m writing slowly

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    Thinking nothing of walking long distances

    How far is too far to walk? Author Charlie Stross observed that British people in the early nineteenth century, prior to train travel, walked a lot further than people today think of as reasonable. I’ve noticed a couple of literary examples of this seemingly extreme walking behaviour, both of which took place in North Wales. Headlong Hall In chapter 7 of Thomas Love Peacock’s satirical novel, 📚Headlong Hall (1816), a group of the main characters takes a morning walk to admire the land drainage scheme around the newly industrial village of Tremadoc, and they walk halfway across Eryri to do so, traversing two valleys and two mountain passes.

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    Can we understand consciousness yet?

    Professor Mark Solms, Director of Neuropsychology at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, revives the Freudian view that consciousness is driven by basic physiological motivations such as hunger. Crucially, consciousness is not an evolutionary accident but is motivated. Motivated consciousnesses, he claims, provides evolutionary benefits. Mark Solms. 2021. The Hidden Spring. A Journey to the Source of Consciousness. London: Profile Books. ISBN: 9781788167628 He claims the physical seat of consciousness is in the brain stem, not the cortex.

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    Three worthwhile modes of note-making (and one not-so-worthwhile)

    I finished reading Alex Kerr’s Finding the Heart Sutra on New Year’s Eve, so it just scraped into my reading for 2023. And while reading I made notes by hand, as I’ve done before. Although there aren’t very many notes (just eleven, plus a literature note that acts as a mini-index), they’re high quality, since I found the book very interesting. I don’t mean I’ve written objectively ‘good’ notes. Rather, I mean the notes are high quality for my purposes.

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    The real story of Napoleon?

    If you’re thinking of viewing Ridley Scott’s movie version of Napoleon 🍿, or if you’ve already seen it, I’d recommend also reading The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss. 📚 This Pulitzer prizewinning biography puts Napoleon’s life and times in historical context and it’s an amazing story. The ‘black count’ of the title was Alexandre Dumas, father of the famous author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.

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    Publish first, write later

    Even a flightless bird may contemplate the constant flight forward “Literature is perhaps nothing more complicated and glorious than the act of writing and publishing, and publishing again and again." - Marcelo Ballvé, on the curious writing career of César Aira César Aira on the constant flight forward Argentinian author César Aira’s writing process is more about action than reflection. In a moment I’m going to share with you an extract from The Literary Alchemy of César Aira, an essay by Marcelo Ballvé, originally published in The Quarterly Conversation in 2008.

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    Finished reading: The Real Work by Adam Gopnik 📚A great section on the art of magic and the significance of S.W. Erdnase’s book, The Expert at the Card Table. Apparently, when magicians want to learn a new trick from the top expert, they ask, “Who has the real work?” It’s a useful question, and not just for magic tricks. Gopnik, long a masterly writer, tries his hand at a series of *new * skills, including driving, making bread, dancing, and alarmingly, urinating in public. That last one does make sense, but you have to read the book to find out why. I also found out that when a magician catches a bullet, it’s real. Sometimes, the trick is that you have to catch the bullet.

    I’ve written more about this book: What is the real work of serendipity?

    It strikes me that one significant feature of mastery is to be able to spot a lucky opportunity and then make something of it. The expert can’t help but see it. Everyone else would miss this chance moment, or else be unable to execute the essential implementation.

    How many books are you reading?

    On Mastodon, Evan Prodromou asked “How many books are you reading?” and I was slightly shocked by the results. Only 5% of 569 people said they were reading six or more books. I thought I was quite normal, but it turns out I’m not. Currently I’m officially reading seven books, but that doesn’t include the four books I’ve finished recently that never made it onto the ‘currently reading’ list. Somehow, having a list of books I’m reading makes me want to read different books.

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    Finished reading: Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon. 📚
    Loving Austin Kleon’s blog, I ordered his trilogy from my local bookstore. Also finished Keep Going. Now just have Steal Like an Artist to read. Yes, I’m reading them in the wrong order LOL.


    What is the real work of Serendipity?

    Currently reading: The Real Work by Adam Gopnik 📚 The Real Work is what magicians call ‘the accumulated craft that makes for a great trick’, and the enigmatic S.W.Erdnase was a master. Adam Gopnik’s book on the nature of mastery devotes a whole chapter to him, so I was amused to find him also mentioned on the new series of Good Omens. This is a great example of the chance happening that people often confuse with serendipity.

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    Currently reading: Milkman by Anna Burns. 📚 By turns hilarious and harrowing. It’s not at all how I imagined it, which was mainly harrowing. Sure, the eponymous ‘Milkman’ is deeply sinister (and the narrative has only just got going), but the narrator’s voice is fantastically funny and engaging.

    I have elephants

    A chapter of Sarah Bakewell’s book Humanly Possible considers the life and times of Renaissance scholar Petrarch. Petrarch, she says, wrote a book called Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul (1360), which is a dialogue between three embodied figures: Reason, Sorrow and Joy. Reason’s job here is both to cheer up Sorrow and to settle down Joy. At one point, Joy says, “I have elephants.” Reason replies, “May I ask for what purpose?

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    Was Dracula foiled by a gang of obsessive note-takers?

    May 3 is the date Bram Stoker’s famous novel, Dracula begins. It’s a classic tale of evil, lust and violence and you can follow along from the safety of your in-box with Dracula Daily.1 I was not able to light on any map or work giving the exact locality of the Castle Dracula, as there are no maps of this country as yet to compare with our own Ordnance Survey maps; but I found that Bistritz, the post town named by Count Dracula, is a fairly well-known place.

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    You don't build art, you grow it

    Finished reading: Dancing with the Gods by Kent Nerburn 📚 This book is advice on the artistic life from an experienced sculptor and writer. I found one section particularly striking. It contrasted two approaches to making art: that of the architect and that of the gardener. “The architect designs and builds; he [sic] knows the desired outcome before he begins. The gardener plants and cultivates, trusting the sun and weather and the vagaries of change to bring forth a bloom.

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    Free books! 📚

    TIL: A search on Amazon Kindle produces loads of free academic book titles, many of which are high quality and really interesting. Just search for publisher (e.g. Routledge), or “University Press”, or “open access”, then order the results by price: low to high. The lowest ones are $0.
    Hat tip:

    Finished reading Cold Enough for Snow

    Finished reading: Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au 📚 This was a quite mezmerising read. It reminded me of the writing of Yasunari Kawabata, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. He wrote a novel called Snow Country. Both these snowy books are set in an unnamed Japanese onsen resort in the winter, a train journey away from Tokyo. The Wikipedia entry for Kawabata’s work says: Through many of Kawabata’s works the sense of distance in his life is represented.

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    The thing about advice is that people do what they want with it

    Currently reading: Dancing with the Gods by Kent Nerburn 📚 I know nothing at all about Kent Nerburn, so it’s interesting to read this book of reflections on creative work. I did notice, though, that the US version of this book has been re-named to: The Artist’s Journey: On Making Art and Being an Artist. This alternative title reminds me of the format of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, in the sense that both authors offer reflections on their creative experience, having been prompted by a letter from a younger person, wondering about setting out on a career as an artist.

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    Can sentimental writing ever be as exact as reality?

    Finished reading: The Forest of Wool and Steel by Natsu Miyashita 📚 There’s a section of the book where the narrator, an apprentice piano tuner, quotes a Japanese writer’s vision of what they’re trying to achieve: “Bright, quiet, crystal-clear writing that evokes fond memories, that seems a touch sentimental yet is unsparing and deep, writing as lovely as a dream, yet as exact as reality.” The piano tuner syas that this is what he wants for his own work.

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    The past is as urgent as ever

    Finished reading: The War of the Poor by Eric Vuillard 📚 This incendiary novella - only 66 pages long - burns so fiercely it felt like a bomb was about to go off in my hand. With amazing economy the author, Eric Vuillard, brings to life the brief, violent career of Thomas Müntzer. He makes the past as vivid as an execution, and renders the urgency of the past fully present.

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    Visions of a utopian Middle Ages

    Finished reading: Matrix by Lauren Groff 📚 I found this an intriguing, highly fictional reconstruction of the life of a medieval convent. The version of Marie de France presented here - visionary, heretical, fiercely compassionate - is certainly doing far more than just filling in the gaps in the historical record. The author makes her a really intriguing, though surely anachronistic, character. And in Lauren Groff’s Marie, there’s more than an echo of another medieval mystic, Hildegard of Bingen.

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