And, as always, an attempt to answer some fundamental questions of metaphysics through song.
I finally figured out a name for this thing I’ve done for years.
The thing is this: simultaneously, or in very quick succession, reading a group of books about one topic or theme.
I call this weird little habit of mine “reading in swarms.”
I suppose you could also call it “research,” but that would be too clinical and would give me too much credit.
Is it “curiosity”?
Sure it is. Of course. I’m curious about something or someone and then read not one, but five or seven or ten or more books about the topic. But there is something about reading five or ten books (and not, say, two) that tips this — at least in my mind — from curiosity towards some other kind of activity.
Is it mania?
Maybe. But a benign mania.
I don’t know what it is. It’s just what I do when I read.
I don’t do it exclusively. O, god no.
I also read one-off books, so to speak: a single book by an author.
For example, while I am reading a swarm of books about the Arctic, say, I might also be reading the novel Mating by Norman Rush. In fact, I am never not reading Mating, but that is a different mania of mine. I’ve never read another book by Rush except a book of his short stories.
Maybe this impulse to read in swarms is an impulse towards mastery.
Perhaps. That’s more like it.
In reality, it’s probably all of those states along some sort of continuum. The impulse to read a book about death, for example, starts off as curiosity or a straight-up need. As in, I needed help in figuring how to deal with the impending death of my mother, so I looked toward literature for that help. Then, having read one book on death, I got curious as to how other minds thought about it, so I started searching for and reading more books on the topic. And then it became a bit of fixation and a what… hobby? obsession? race? hunger? (See my blog posts: Death, A Reading List part 1 and Death, A Reading List part 2.)
That’s more like it: hunger.
What I know is that for a while I was insatiable about the topic of death in book form. I was desperate to find some aspect of my experience described by another person. I wanted words for the unutterable grief I was enduring at my mom’s side during those years of her dying. That’s why Christopher Hitchens’s perfect phrase “living dyingly” spoke to me when I first read it. It physically rearranged something in my brain and body. I read that phrase and something that slid into place inside me. That’s why I picked up his slim, piercing book Mortality in the first place. A writer like him would surely be able to help me articulate what I couldn’t.
While my mom was dying, I picked up book after book about daeth. (Well, there was that period of time when neither she nor I could read anything, but that’s for another blog post.)
And each book added another window to the metaphorical dark house I was living in.
Now, I don’t read as much about death anymore. My mom’s been dead for more than three years. Things aren’t so urgent. I’ve metabolized the writings of the authors in my death swarm. I’ve written my own book about death. It’s a songbook.
I occasionally add books to the swarm, of course. People send me things to read. I’d never swat these words away.
New swarms have appeared or old, forgotten swarms have reappeared: the Arctic swarm, the Shakespeare swarm (the Ur-swarm for me), the Jamaica Kincaid swarm, the William Faulkner swarm (I took a whole semester on Faulkner at Harvard, so this is another old one), the Rachel Cusk swarm, the Elena Ferrante swarm (this one is fraught and frenzied), etc. There are also nonfiction swarms (the income inequality swarm) and self-help-y swarms (time management).
Beekeepers, I’ve heard, consider themselves lucky when they come upon a swarm. Catching a swarm is exciting and unpredictable and somewhat (or a lot) chaotic.
I think I understand.
"My job as a performer is to make sure that whatever happens in a performance lives in somebody else, that it's memorable... If you forget tomorrow what you heard yesterday, there's really not much point in you having been there - or me, for that matter." -- Yo-Yo Ma
Back to showing you some of my journal/notes aka) my commonplace book. This came from an evening spent listening to Anne Carson lecture “on corners” at the NYPL.
If you are struggling with something, say coming up with a title for a book or a blog post or a song, don’t do the minimum amount.
Don’t come up with one title and think you’re done. You’re not. You’ve not even started.
Come up with 20 titles.
And if 20 is hard, do 30.
To come up with 30 ideas you won’t self-edit. You won’t have time to. You need to get to 30 so that the ideas flow.
And that’s the point: find the killer word or phrase that would’ve never been found if you’d stopped at 1 or 5 or 20 or 25.
Write a quick and dirty list of everything you’ve said yes to doing.
The list’ll include things you’re already doing, things you’ve said you’d do but you haven’t started yet, things you started long ago but haven’t finished yet (unclosed loops), etc.
Try to get it all down. Even if the categories are broad and overwhelming. Like category “Dad.”
He’s an entry on my list. I do need to show up for him. I’ve said yes to being a loving daughter so that means I show up more than I don’t show up.
What happens when you see your list?
Does it tell you something about why your life looks and feels the way it does?
Yeah. I know.
Now — what can you cross off, punt, say no to, get rid of, decide you’re not going to do now or ever?
It is hard, I know. But buried in all of that is the one or two things you really want to focus on, the one or two things that would really make a difference for you.
What would be possible if you created more space for that one thing to flourish?
Are you willing to find out?
“It is much easier to put a laundry list together of all the possible things you need to get done each day than it is to actually choose your one most important task” and then work on mastering it. — Organize Tomorrow Today by Dr. Jason Selk and Tom Bartow
“It was a delightful visit;—perfect in being much too short.” —Jane Austen
“My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is, Why day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day and time.
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief.” ― William Shakespeare, Hamlet
“The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.” —Thomas Jefferson
“I have made this [letter] longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.” —Blaise Pascal, Lettres Provinciales, 1657, (translated from the French)
“It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.” ―Friedrich Nietzsche
“The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending; and to have the two as close together as possible.” ―George Burns
“This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don't understand very much about what they do —not why it works when it's good, not why it doesn't when it's bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less bullshit." —Stephen King, On Writing
“Be sincere, Be brief, Be seated.” —Franklin Delano Roosevelt