Recommendations

© The wonderful work and worlds of Jule Julien.

© The wonderful work and worlds of Jule Julien.

Not unlike dreams, the sharing of books can be personal, intimate, even revelatory. Sometimes you want to share them with the world. Other times, you want to pretend they never left the dark, wondrous imagination of your nightstand. 

It’s hard to know exactly what to share. Or, with whom.

When someone you admire or trust, or want to learn from, recommends a book, or an author, or a subject, you instantly find yourself endeared to that new terrain. You try to track it down. Learn from it. Follow its curves. You’re enchanted by the labyrinth, and the promise of the surreptitious landscape. The unfamiliarity draws you near. 

Secrets keep well those who empower them with their desires.

In seemingly unexplainable, mysterious ways, the panorama summons you forth, rough-hewn and precipitous. You listen. You survey the craggy meadow from above, trying to apply your honeyed, honeymoon eyes. You take notes. You’re attentive to the nuances, as a new set of possibilities present themselves for you to navigate. 

Everything is as if for the first time.

Recommendations arrive like storks in the night. You’re not sure if they’re fairytales to be believed. You conceive of the risks involved with a new enterprise: the feasibility, the practicality, the chance occurrence. Then, as if unexpectedly, everything else slowly fades away. You follow the myth into the moonlight.  

It’s just you and the recommendation.

The joy of exploration, and everything that accompanies those loud, embolden sirens of happiness, surpasses everything. Desire, to be sure, trumps satisfaction, every, single time. You are contented in the recommendation, as you try to figure out if it suits you just so. The right recommendation can yield a life-long friend.

Recommendations can deliver us from the abyss.

Whether the recommendation was betrothed, or you discovered it on your own, the happenstance becomes your songline. There’s a sense of excitement. You’re passionate about the unexamined depths of expansion, incorporation and, maybe, if you’re lucky, maturation. 

Recommendations provide encounters.

Yet, what does this relationship entail? Not only what comprises a recommendation - the etiology, so to speak - but also, how they are delivered, how they affect us, and ultimately, how they are archived. What exactly is in the nature of a recommendation?Is it purely a selfless act of generosity, or a form of selfish identification with another? Or, perhaps more basically, a need to share with the world?

There’s a lot at play in a simple recommendation.

In a very deep-rooted, almost idiosyncratic, individualized way, learning itself is but a curation of recommendations. I say ‘but’, yet, it’s so much more than that. It’s the way your lover recites Sartre in a cafe, or how your favorite professor lends you his personal copy of Nietzsche, or a stranger on Twitter, in a moment of strength, confesses their secret love for The Story of the Eye.

Recommendations participate in the world.

 

One Thousand Tears or More

There’s an entire history of books consumed by flames. Our memories lay purchase to their cultures, and we become witness to those who endured the endless fires. For some, the flames can still be seen, even if they are but mere flickers, unsteady bursts of light suspended by time, trapped in the distance. 

Less is known about how many books actually met a watery fate, as opposed to an incendiary celebration. Water is somehow less symbolic than fire. Perhaps it’s more tepid or languid, or even calming. It has a wistful, unassuming smile, one that is always ready to seduce, to lure us into thinking its powers are only those of enchantment, when it’s really concerned with an immemorial embrace. 

We wince at the horror, as we read about the Library of Alexandria. Its constant destruction pains us still, especially in the context of what it means today. We cringe to learn that Emperor Qin ordered all philosophy books burned, and the authors who wrote them mercilessly buried alive. Or, when Sartre shares the maladies of the imprisoned Jean Genet, our soul itself is seared by the injustice and fervor of the flames. 

There’s something magical and powerful about books. What they set free, what they contain. 

What the prison guard took from Genet, as he burned what would later become his autobiography, Our Lady of the Flowers, was not just his hope for release, or the promise of recompense. No. He attempted to take his humanity. As Heinrich Heine famously said, “Where books are burned, in the end people will be burned.” Whether it happens all at once, or over the slow, methodical course of many years, it eventually happens. It takes time, patience and cleverness, to amass the tinders needed to sustain an everlasting fire. Yet, there’s an inevitability to it.  

Lest we forget, the community which built the Library of Alexandria into a center for worldly scholarship, that bolstered its very occasion, is the same that watched it burn. While Emperor Qin administered the orders, they were almost certainly carried out by someone like us. Wasn’t that Arendt’s exact point about Eichmann? We are all complicit in the story of our lives.

We can almost, each in our own way, see the papyrus as it incinerates, forever serving as a beacon for an eternal, creative struggle, and a calling card for more sinister sides. There will always be those who try to oppress that which needs to be heard. We envision an amber colored chorus of ruination, as scrolls hurriedly ascend, desperately trying to escape their impending annihilation, recklessly and courageously grasping for the life that birthed them.

If we listen, with just the right amount of intensity, with our ears pressed to the wind, we can hear their faint, smothered screams. Those of the books, and those of the steady hands who wrote them into existence. After all, it takes great strength to commit an idea to the world, and even greater strength to stand by the convictions of the ink-stained words, (especially as time passes, and they become harder to decipher, and easier to smear). There’s a reason that the Origin of Species remained in Darwin’s desk for all those years. It’s easy to turn a sorcerer into a hero as they’re doused and mounted to a stake. It’s harder, to be sure, to take solidarity in the struggle, when it’s your own flesh that starts to burn. 

Of course, there are stories of books that famously escaped such undying infernos. One only need remember Max Brod and his abiding betrayal. Oh, the treachery! Here’s Kafka: “My last request: Everything I leave behind…in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches and so on, to be burned unread.” As his words take hold and start to register, we are reminded that most of us would be honored, if we had anything worthy of such a breach of trust. I suppose there’s always hope. 

With hope comes a sense of responsibility. 

After a recent weekend excursion, more of an outstanding family-obligation, we returned home to find our unfinished lower level completely flooded. Standing atop the staircase, peering down into the watery basement below, we unexpectedly observed three inches of water, standing just so, glimmering, shyly, for our attention. 

In a way, it was as if the pool of water, as it slowly mounted the abyss, had solicited our tears - much to the chagrin of our affection for the adventures of Alice in Wonderland. We wondered how many tears had participated, knowingly or not, in libricide. 

Quickly, as we took inventory of the contents, we were brought down to size, discovering our collection of books, completely immersed in the seemingly innocuous, rising water. The cardboard boxes, neatly, alphabetically stacked against the concrete wall, twenty x three, or maybe more, steadily started to succumb to the weight of the water. Hurriedly, we waded through the increasingly untenable basement, rushing to save the unaffected books, those carefully positioned atop the sturdy boxes below.

After scaling the stairs with the rescues in hand, we anxiously made our way to the bottom layer, to those boxes most heavily affected, having absorbed the burden of the water. As we  opened the shrinking boxes, pealing off the top few layers of salvageable books, we apprehensively made our way to the list of authors, whose titles were now soiled beyond respite. 

We recited aloud the names of those who never deserved their books to meet such lack of providence, perhaps despite their intentions to the contrary. 

“Nabakov, Miller, Perec…”

“All of Nabakov? Even Lolita?”

“Yes, even Lolita.”

Muttering to the cadence of the work:

“The…light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

I distinctly remember an adjunct philosophy professor at Lehigh University, where I completed my undergraduate, who had returned home from a day of lectures to find his second-floor apartment ablaze. His only real concern, as he later relayed, was the state of his books. Had they all been burned? Could any of them be saved? Understandably, he was beside himself, watching his life’s work catch fire. 

In an act of resistance, he showed up the very next day with a seared copy of Illuminations in his hands. He hadn’t slept, let alone showered or changed his clothes. Soot was everywhere. In his hair, on his briefcase. As he carefully turned the page, trying to stay focused on the task at hand, which if I remember correctly was teaching the "Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", ash literally drifted off into the air. 

What does it mean to lose a book? Or a library? It’s not just the physical nature of the book, the parchment and the ink. It’s not just the efforts of the author, and the import of their worlds. It’s the margins too. The underlines and circles, the points of emphasis. The notes and the conversations with the author. Even the disagreements. Those are important too. 

We covet libraries, just as well as books, not just for their contents, but also for their promises. Books are memories - of places purchased, of journeys discovered, of romances consummated. They’re grand adventures that we can constantly relive. They also help us to make sense of things. Books order memories - of lived dreams, of forgotten ideas, of times yet to come.

They were in my care, these books. They were entrusted to me, as much as to history. It was my responsibility. My fidelity. There’s a sense in which I feel like I betrayed them. That I disturbed a certain order of the world-memory. 

At the Library of Alexandria, it is reported that there were “books of the ships” which were sorted, cataloged, and then shelved. These books had arrived through the ports, having made the voyage across the Mediterranean sea, presumably from Greece. They had found themselves inscribed amongst a new collective. When the Library of Alexandria was destroyed, those books weren’t separated, or set out to sea. They burned with the rest of them. 

Of course, we would much prefer to share our notes on how to organize a collection of books, or engage with Walter Benjamin’s excellent essay on unpacking a library. Instead, we find ourselves, reluctantly, preparing to write a eulogy to our library. Or, rather, a confession to our heroes and the books they shared with the world, despite the fires they may have incited. 

It’s the one letter we never expected to have to write. 


Nicely Said

I’ve always been a better reader than writer. I’m not exactly sure why. It may be a matter of practice, or confidence, but I think it’s likely something else entirely. 

Different writers teach us different things. 

Nietzsche taught us to slow down; Whitman how to speed up; and, we’re still trying to learn how to breath from the bewilderingly insouciant and unsurprisingly fresh Gertrude Stein. Yet, each in their own way, they taught us the same thing: how to read, how to quickly navigate their work, on their own terrain.

As readers, we can wholeheartedly identify with their ambition. They’ve showed us the world anew, through a breadth of mismatched, varying perspectives. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we’ve always followed their advice, or felt the need to incorporate their philosophy, but they’ve set us on a different course than the one we were on before. They are united in that, and perhaps that alone. 

There’s so much in the world to absorb. 

As writers, when we start to write, we somehow have the tendency to feel anxious. We’re disturbed by the idea that what we have to say won’t measure up to our own expectations, or the world won’t receive it the way we intended it to be heard. In a way, our fear is that our contribution will take away from the power and pleasure of the reader - namely, the collective ‘us’. The world, to be blunt, will absorb us and our heroes will feel betrayed.

What we often forget is that our heroes had teachers too. 

Maybe the humor of Tristram Shandy inspired Nietzsche to pursue the limits of the aphorism. Maybe his extensive travels through the frontiers of Emerson brought Whitman to have the courage to find his own cadence. Further still, maybe William James set Gertrude Stein out on a course to find her own stream of invention.

Not to be unkind to our heroes, because they’ve taught us so much, but they haven’t really taught us how to write. They may have provided us with a framework by which to start our exploration, and that’s important too, but they haven’t outlined specific ways in which we can teach ourselves to become better writers. Maybe our lion hearts intentionally left that task to someone else. Someone more patient, with a different set of skills and compassions. 

For the first time, I feel like I’ve finally found a teacher who can help me become a better writer. Well, actually, two. Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee. They’ve just written a book, aptly entitled Nicely Said, which aims to make writing more accessible, meaningful and important. While the audience is clearly defined, like all great books, I think it’s for everyone. It brings great attention to the details we so often overlook by helping us organize our appreciation of the world. 

The standard line on how to become a better writer often goes something like this: you simply need to read more carefully, widely and intently. Look for cracks, nuances and tips. That’s how to ensure you learn something new and become a better writer. This technique, to be sure, is not the same as trying to "get unstuck" while you are writing.

Certainly, reading is linked to writing in inextricably beautiful ways. One of the ways in which it is severed, however, is that it is never complete. We never write, in advance, for an audience that we know exists. Writing, the true power of the written word, happens before the event itself unfolds. Before, as Deleuze writes, ‘the people exist’. 

While reading may help us articulate our thoughts, it can’t discern how our contributions to the world will turn out. Writing allows the reader to coalesce around that which is yet to come. Perhaps that’s the irony of why so many of us prefer reading, over writing, and why we find writing so arduous, and so unorganized. 

I believe, Nicely Said has opened the pathways for a new type of writer. One that is inspired and committed to contribute to the world in yet to be determined ways. Above all else, the book inspires us, in an appropriately timely fashion, to develop the confidence we need to structure our thoughts in a world full of heroes. 

P.S. I hope I don’t disappoint my new teachers with too many mistakes. 

Creating Barriers

If hard pressed to describe a way I learn best, I would say it's with my nose down. I don’t really have a method, and I’m often unable to pinpoint the source of my passion. There’s no rhythm, at least that I can discern. It’s entirely accidental. It’s the labyrinth that tells me where I will find my Ariadne.  The thread, if it comes at all, comes afterwards. 

Mainly, I just follow my intensity. When I lose the harmony, and I can’t hear the beat, that’s usually when I know I’m on to something special. I’m off the path, and awkwardly stumbling towards I know not what. It’s about the exploration, not the outcome, about coming to terms with the lack of equilibrium. Ironically, balance is always trickier when you’re searching for the center. 

While I typically lose myself in tracking down an obscure footnote, or find myself inspired by a spontaneous connection, I discover just as much pleasure from carefully listening to the insights of a friend, especially as they describe an almost autocatalytic moment. Maybe it’s just their filter that I’ve come to trust.

The curious thing about sparks, however, is that you don’t know if or when they’ll turn into fires. Nor, how easily you will be able to control them. If they happen at all, sometimes we’re unprepared, or maybe even lack the courage, to see where they’ll lead. It’s the paradox of education: you don’t know in advance what will set your heart ablaze. 

evwilliams.jpg

Rarely do I attend conferences. Normally, I find the value of learning in an entirely different set of circumstances. Yet, I can’t help but return to a few lessons that Ev Williams shared in a recent presentation in Omaha. Not only was he like a hero who had returned from a conquered land, he was generously willing to share his crown. There’s a tremendous amount of insight still to be learned from these requited moments.

My three main takeaways, and they may solely be my interpretation, or quite possibly my invention, were:

1. Make it easier.
2. Start simply.
3. Create barriers. 

While the first two points need no real explanation, the “create barriers” bullet needs to be unpacked. As we open, and then shift the contents around, it’s always more difficult to make sense of things. Putting the pieces in place has a different sort of allure than sifting through that which remains un-distilled. That is, I believe, part of the power of his radical discernment. We’re unsure what should be discarded or saved, but we still hope we’ll find it just the same.

When the internet was raw and unfamiliar, it was the Wild West. The outlaws were as important as the sheriffs. Who really mattered, though, were the ones adventurous enough to become citizens - those brave enough to learn and weather the elements. These individuals were intoxicated by the uncharted land and empowered to stake their claim. 

After all the struggle and uncertainty, the heroics, chivalry and experimentations, they’d finally found a way to make sense of the chaos. For many, it was the first time that their attitude, or the lens by which they embraced the world, fundamentally changed. Suddenly, anything was possible. Anything.

Now, however, it feels as if the internet has reached a critical juncture, one that no longer adopts the same positive outlook. Anything, it could be said, has become too much. Of course, we all know the optimism is still there, latent since inception, but it feels more mature, having assumed a new set of responsibilities, and a different stance by which to present itself. Maybe the internet is just responding to itself, the way we respond to our desires. 

While it might be called the problem of discovery, we’re not sure that search will be able to solve this new riddle. Our problem feels more complicated, more perennial, more ephemeral than any answer an algorithm can detect. The internet might require a new type of filter by which to be embraced. Hence the need for the erection of a system of barriers by which to overcome obstacles. Lest we forget, those barriers serve as a sort of eddy, intended to direct, rather than stop, the flow of possibilities.

It’s the curious thing about possibility. It can exhaust itself by too much possibility. Which is to say, the lack of quality may have pushed our tolerance for consumption further than it’s ever been before. Yet, we often fail to incorporate the key lessons, or those unknown whirlpools of intensity, that could take us even further. 

Whereas the internet was once a storehouse for our distrust of the world, a place where we hoped our voice could be heard, it’s slowly becoming the place by which we place our trust, to free our voice from the singularity of our lives. The irony of the internet is that it has become too accustomed to identity, and yet, that’s what it sometimes needs.

I probably should have posted this on Medium.

Never Complete

A few people sent me a note inquiring about my dissertation. I thought it might be helpful if I shared the abstract of the work: 

"Arakawa and Gins, radical philosophers of the future, desire to construct life beyond the human condition. Their unique and original contribution to philosophy can be discerned most evidently in their concept of reversible destiny, an innovative response to our mortal condition. ‘We have decided not to die’, their ultimate declaration, is a testament not only to their architecture – an architecture predicated on the notion that death must be combated – but also, and perhaps most importantly, to its ability to teach us to think differently about the future. Even, and perhaps especially, the most fundamental and basic assumptions of our species are deliberately and evocatively called into question. It is this resistance to the present – in learning how not to die, in educating life differently – that will be addressed in this dissertation. The claim made here is that the highly instructive architectural philosophy of Arakawa and Gins produces a positive and useful philosophy of life, which orients us towards a new century of philosophy that operates beyond the human condition."

If you have any questions, or would like to read a chapter, or the entire work, please don't hesitate to reach out.