Other than food and motorcycles, I think the most money I’ve spent on any single category of purchases is books. Even with a pretty good library and friends to borrow from, I still prefer to own the books I read.
I’m not even that precious with them. I only have two or three books I wouldn’t lend out, and even those aren’t exactly in the best shape. I write in the margins, dog ear pages, use them as coasters, and leave them open with the pages down all over my loft. I am about as hard on book as I am on most of my possessions. Which is borderline abusive.
One of the nice things about Amazon is, unlike snooty Bay Area bookstores, you can purchase slightly marred books for extremely cheap prices, even with shipping included. For some reason I always get a huge kick out of receiving ex-library books. I like to imagine who might have read this book, what kind of people they were. I wonder if it influenced their lives in any way.
I also love when a book has an inscription from when it was given as a gift. I recently finished reading The Millionaire Next Door and someone wrote: “to help with your financial dreams” on the inside title page. I wish I could know if it helped. I know I learned a few useful things from it.
I don’t really like getting a highlighted or heavily underlined book. Marginalia can be interesting, but more often than not, highlighting breaks up the reading experience for me. Every once in a while a sparse underlining can be interesting. In the Truman Capote book I’m reading right now there are just three sentences underlined including these: “Never complain. Never explain.” What kind of person was this? Did they find the inspiration they were looking for?
I read a few books on the Kindle app for my iPhone throughout the year. I took all the games off my phone with the idea that if I was just burning up time looking for a distraction, I may as well do it productively. This isn’t much fun for novels because I like to be immersed for at least 15-20 minutes at a time (preferably hours) with those. The Kindle app seems tolerable for non-fiction political rants and such. You should only absorb a few moments of that at a time, sort of like dental radiation.
I do like the ability to quickly highlight something and look up words with just a touch. I think if I was more of a research oriented writer, I’d be more into a Kindle. However, I still prefer paper. It’s not out of any sort of nostalgic bibliophilia or luddism. I just like the way a book feels in my hands and I like that a book doesn’t do anything else. When I’m reading on my phone, the temptation to check email or look something up and go down an internet rabbit hole is intense. I suspect I have become a sad addict of digitally administered dopamine. The black mirror has a strong grip.
This month I’ve purchased about a dozen books I’m very excited to read. They’re mostly about war and food. Many are biographies. I’m making an effort to read more fiction as well. The focus is on Pulitzer winners and classics. My goal is to read 100 books this year.
The only way to really get not-just-good-but-great at writing is to read excellent writers. I noticed a sharp decline in my own creativity while I was reading a lot of shit by business gurus and self help charlatans. The only two book in that genre that are worth the time are Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover and Deep Work by Cal Newport. Neither are written particularly well, but the information within is unbelievably valuable, particularly Ramsey’s book. If you’re not much of a reader, just listen to his podcast.
The danger with most of these trite best-seller list lifehacker hacks is that they do a pretty decent job at sounding smart, but all they’re doing is creating junk info. It’s easily digestible pablum and once you’ve read a few, you’ll begin to notice how many stories these goons steal from each other. The first of this genre was probably Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. In my opinion, no one has improved on the form.
If you have writerly aspirations, throw all of the books about writing and time management and all that other productivity trash out the window and get Stephen King’s On Writing. It contains the only pieces of writing advice you need:
- If you want to be a great writer you have to read and write every single day. King recommends four hours of each. I think he’s write.
- If you’re wondering if you’re a real writer he has this test: if you wrote something and someone paid you for it, then you paid a bill with that money, you’re officially a writer.
If you’re a real sad sack and you have writer’s block, grab The Artist’s Way and actually do the program. Just owning it isn’t going to do a god damned thing for you. I suspect this book will do more for you than any MFA program will.
Even The Artist’s Way should take a backseat to reading, though. Get more books and make time for them.