03 Nov 2020
Some books are so refined to their very essence that I just can’t bear to tarnish their words by describing them with my own. Piranesi is one such book. So instead, I will simply say that this is the best book I have read this year.
I highly recommend you read it, and that you go in knowing as little about it as you possibly can. Don’t read the reviews; don’t even read the book jacket. Just start, and enjoy discovering its secrets first hand.
You will be in awe of what you find.
27 Sep 2020
I first read Frank Herbert’s Dune in early high school (on the temperate Orcas Island, quite the opposite of Arrakis!), and while I loved the story I was a bit too young to appreciate all of its nuances. So I’d always intended to reread it, and when I first heard that Denis Villeneuve was making it into a film, I resolved to do so prior to its December 2020 release. I finally dove in upon seeing the film’s excellent trailer, and finished in September with plenty of time to spare… only for the film’s release to get pushed out to October 2021 due to the pandemic. D’oh!
Well, at least I’ll have time to read the next five novels before the film finally comes out. Just kidding; I probably won’t do that. But I did really enjoy rereading this one.
Some thoughts (🐉 Spoiler Warning!! 🐉):
19 Aug 2020
In Amore Towle’s A Gentleman In Moscow, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov (“recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt”!), and self-proclaimed gentleman without an occupation, is placed under permanent house arrest in the Hotel Metropol for the crime of being a member of the Leisure Class in a post-Revolution Bolshevik Russia.
Confronted with a lifetime of confinement, Count Rostov might just be the perfect companion for the covid19, shelter-in-place circumstances we all suddenly find ourselves in. For when the Count’s new reality is abruptly thrust upon him, he adopts as his mantra that “if a man does not master his circumstances, he is bound to be mastered by them”. And so as we all settle into our own new normal, it is with satisfying release that we can look to the Count for guidance on how we might set about mastering it:
Like Robinson Crusoe stranded on the Isle of Despair, the Count would maintain his resolve by committing to the business of practicalities. Having dispensed with dreams of quick discovery, the world’s Crusoes seek shelter and a source of fresh water; they teach themselves to make fire from flint; they study their island’s topography, its climate, its flora and fauna, all the while keeping their eyes trained for sails on the horizon and footprints in the sand.
Initially, these practicalities manifest in the form of little luxuries, like procuring four bars of the Count’s favorite soap and arranging for the delivery of “a light blue box with a single mille-feuille” from Fillipov’s, the Count’s favorite bakery. The first half of the book or so is dedicated to the Count reestablishing the trappings of his Leisure life within the confines of the Metropol hotel, and I think the sheltered-in-place reader could certainly luxuriate in all these small delights and even have fun adopting them at home: finding the perfect wine to pair with some homemade Latvian Stew (a dish that features prominently in a pivotal scene at the hotel’s world-renowned restaurant, the Boyarsky); making the perfect cup of coffee (“The secret is in the grinding — not a minute before you brew.”); and arranging our home furnishings until they are “just so”, as the Count loves to exclaim.
For whatever reason, though, despite being so timely, this didn’t work for me. I slowly and idly read the first half of this book, often putting it down for many weeks. The Count ensures his days are full of delights, but his life is ultimately empty of any purpose, and so too was my reading. I just couldn’t find any point to all the idling. Your experience may differ, depending upon the headspace you are in.
If not for having promised my grandmother that I would read it, I might have abandoned. I am so glad I didn’t. I won’t spoil the plot, but about halfway through the book, something very unexpected and wonderful finds its way into the Count’s life, and imbues him with perhaps the purest purpose of all: caring for others. From this seminal turning point onwards, the Count steadily creates something much richer and more meaningful in his life than any of the conveniences he/we indulged in earlier: crafting lasting friendships and family relationships that are brimming with purpose.
After taking so long to get on a roll reading this book, I find I’m now a little sad that it’s over, because I’ll miss the Count’s cheery disposition and I feel a bit like I’m saying goodbye to an old friend. But even so, I will hold the Count’s lasting values close as we continue into our covid unknown: to give myself permission to be happy (in the large things and in the little things), and to remember that above all, even in these remote times, it is our friends and family that matter most.
16 Jun 2020
I discovered this (apparently cult-classic, published in 1978) short novel when Simon Mottram, the founder of Rapha, kept citing it in an interview as the kernel of inspiration for Rapha’s brand and ethos. He spoke of The Rider so matter of factly, like it was just a part of the air that we cyclists breathe. So I looked it up on the spot, thinking I’d just add it to my queue to read later. But after reading the opening passage, I was hooked and read the entire thing straight through:
Meyruies, Lozere, June 26, 1977. Hot and overcast. I take my gear out of the
car and put my bike together. Tourists and locals are watching from sidewalk cafes. Non-racers. The emptiness of those lives shocks me.
What a way to open! This dry, blunt humor is both deadly serious and yet somehow self-abasing all at once, and it immediately sucked me in. I was compelled by how unapologetically author Tim Krabbe (also our main character) distills his devotion to the sport of cycling.
In The Rider, we don’t get chapters, we get kilometer markers, as our author and titular rider Tim Krabbe marks his progress through the road race he is recounting: the Tour de Mont Aigoual, his 309th race, this one being 134 kilometers, four cols, and four and a half hours long, working its way up and over Mont Aigoual in the South of France, the “sweetest, toughest race of the season”.
The Tour de Mont Aigoual is the sweetest, toughest race of the season.
What follows, then, is the interior monologue of the rider: what is happening in the race, right when it happens, from Krabbe’s perspective. This of course includes the events of the race: the “continuously shifting braid of the peloton”; breakaways forming and then getting caught; a break finally sticking; tactics on the climbs and crashes on the descents; the changing weather; rivals puncturing at the worst possible moment; the sprint into the finish… the ebb and flow is absolutely engrossing, at least to this avid cyclist, and I was compulsively turning the pages and staying up past my bedtime to see what happens next. Krabbe in the lead; Krabbe gets caught… oh no, the Cycles Goff rider has gained a many-minute advantage! Who is that rider anyways?
It’s possible this would all be excruciatingly boring to the non-cyclist, but I don’t think so, because ultimately it is something much more universal, the struggle against self, that forms the bedrock of The Rider. As Krabbe himself put it, “You don’t have to like whaling to like Moby Dick. And you don’t have to like cycling to like my book. Of course, it helps[footnote — there’s that cheeky humor shining through again].”
Cyclist or not, we get to traverse the raw and ever-changing interior mental and emotional landscape of the rider, as mercurial as the parcours of the race, darting from supreme confidence to crippling fear; from enjoying the pleasure of fellow riders’ company to despising their presence; from soaring hopefulness to utter despair… through all this, Krabbe captures the essence of cycling. People ask me why I ride, and I will probably always be chasing the evolving answer, but at the very least I can now simply point them to The Rider It’s all here.
In that same interview, Krabbe asserts that “Once you start explaining things you degrade them. They’re only what they are in themselves.” And so to that end, I’ll simply say that I cycle because I can, and I’ll conclude by selecting some passages that really resonated with my own experiences in cycling:
‘Good legs?’ the guy beside me asks. ‘We’ll see. And you?’
This nervous energy is so familiar; it can be found on every start line of every race everywhere. It’s so pointless, this back and forth, but we can’t help ourselves! By the time we’re lining up at the start, everyone is what they are. You’ve either trained or you haven’t; you either feel good or you don’t. I hate this banter, because it just adds to the edge and anticipation I’m already feeling. Leave me be! Don’t impose your insecurities on me! Don’t invoke mine!
The first climb won’t be for another thirty kilometers, at Les Vignes. I’m longing for it, just like when I’m doing it I’ll long for it to be over.
So true. This might be the central paradox of climbing. It can be so excruciating — your heart rate and breathing on the limit; your legs screaming; stinging sweat rolling into your eyes; the tendons in your forearms aching as you desperately tug on the bars; the tarmac seemingly touching your nose as you round a really steep ramp and head into the next switchback… I daydream about this peak experience, yearn for it, and then at some point will become desperate for it to be over. It’s the arc that matters; you need the anticipation to prepare for the suffering, and you need the suffering to enjoy the triumph of completion.
The riders had little opportunity to admire the breathtaking landscape.
This is always a source of guilt for me, especially on my “adventure” rides where I’m intentionally seeking out new routes and scenery instead of just trying to hammer out a solid training ride. Shouldn’t I be absorbing the scenery more? Shouldn’t I stop to take more photos?
The truth, though, is that flying past that breathtaking scenery enhances it in its own way. The oxygen debt and endorphins amplify the landscape’s beauty; whipping down Page Mill Road such that I can only safely cast a quick, sideways glance out over Silicon Valley only serves to make the view that much rarer and more exquisite; the sound and feeling of the wind rushing over me pairs with the visual input in a way that makes it more striking… there have been times when I have stopped to take a picture only to find the view somehow diminished… there is magic in the motion, turning a meadow of tall, dead, yellow grass into a beautiful tapestry whirring by.
Keep the steer steady, going slow here. The way I see it, your handlebars move forward and you just have to make sure you don’t let go. You need strong arms for that. I view my wrists, stretched out in front of me to the bars, straight as ramrods. They’ve become so tanned, almost black in the wrinkles. The little hairs lie next to each other in wet rows, pointing away from me. I find my wrists incredibly beautiful. I climb.
I find this to be so funny. Cyclists can be such vain creatures. And while I can’t say I’ve ever admired my own wrists, I must admit to similar thoughts: looking down as I pedal an even cadence and marveling at how strong my legs look. Or maybe cursing how weak they look. It just depends upon how I’m feeling on the climb. I’ve even had both thoughts on the very same climb…
Cycling is in many ways the pursuit of perfection, and since such a huge component of this perfection stems from the rider’s own physique, it’s natural and almost impossible not to reflect on our own body. It’s weird to acknowledge it out loud, but doing so is a way of constantly measuring and marking our tangible progress.
A hard stretch of hill. I’m not going to shift down, though, I come up off the
saddle, I’m pushing it. One more kilometer to climb. It’s so incredibly
pitiful that I ever wanted to do this, but now I’m stuck with it.
The essence of climbing. It’s so true — that eager excitement for a big climb, and then I settle into it, and the agony starts, but I bear it, and carry on, and then it’s too much, and my power drops, but now I’m committed. I’m closer to the top than the bottom. Turning around would be defeat. The self-loathing, to want to do this, but to then have to suffer so when I do. To have to slowly wind my way up. Ah, to climb.
When I withdrew to Anduze in 1973 for my first period of cyclo-literary
hermitry, I believed that, while cycling, I would come up with thoughts and
ideas for the stories I’d be writing the rest of the time. Fat chance. The
rest of my time I spent jotting in my cycling logbook and keeping statistics
on my distances and times, and while cycling I thought of nothing at all.
I wrestle with the exact same dilemma. You’d think that all the time on the bike is “down time” when you can constructively and actively think about your brain work, but you can’t, really. A hard ride is too demanding and a recreational ride too liberating to productively “work the problem” while on your bike. And once you become committed to cycling, it somehow manages to start filling up more and more of your life while you’re off your bike too: for Krabbe, jotting in his logbook; for the modern-day rider (me!), scrutinizing Strava. And reading about cycling. And planning my next ride. And, and, and…
On a bike your consciousness is small. The harder you work, the smaller it gets.
This underscores the therapeutic aspect of cycling and how it can be a form of meditation. I experience this shrinking of consciousness when riding. The riding demands being present, and especially as it gets harder, it can invoke the coveted and elusive state of flow. My world becomes the immediate sphere around my bike, and my purpose becomes the road before me. There is something very pure and gratifying in this.
I think this ties into why cycling has become so essential to my personal wellbeing. It’s a conduit for processing who I am right now. If I’m feeling happy, I can celebrate and amplify that on a care-free ride. If I’m feeling sad, I can reflect in quiet solitude. If I’m confused about why I’m feeling a certain way, I can do a long, slow endurance ride and just keep turning things over and over until the answer falls out. If I’m nervous about something coming up in the rest of my life, or if I’m mad, or if I’m frustrated, I can just go wring myself out on the climbs. Climbing can solve just about anything for me.
When I get cut off from cycling for whatever reason (normally because life gets busy), I get cut off from this open dialogue with myself. My wellbeing suffers.
Sometimes I can steer conscious thought on a ride, but mostly I have really dumb and small thoughts. Or hyper-focused, micro-thoughts, thoughts like: I should shift. I should shift back. I’m thirsty. This climb is going great. Sometimes I strive to empty my mind and experience no thought: if something is bothering me and I can’t even escape it out on my ride, then I’m really in trouble. Mind control. Perfect quiescence. Protect my personal sovereignty.
I rarely have intricate thoughts while riding, but stuff does seem to sift out over the course of a ride and by the time I finish I’ve at least prepared the canvas, even if I haven’t painted anything.
I try to return from a ride a better person than when I set out.
Four more kilometers uphill. I put my hand in my back pocket, pull out a fig. A drop of sweat on the inside of Barthélemy’s glasses magnifies this action. The firm ripple of sinew with which that Krabbé lifts a fig, like it was nothing!
This is hilarious, but gets at something deeper. How cycling on our limit can amplify our self-confidence and self-pleasure. It’s the little things.
Bicycle racing is a hard sport. A rider’s body has to ripen; it’s also a mature sport. The average winner of the Tour de France is twenty-nine years old. You do have the occasional prodigy, but those who mean him well keep him from exhibiting it. In 1977, the nineteen-year-old Italian Saronni was one of those. He skipped over all kinds of phases and was right away one of the so-many best riders in the world. Publicity! His managers wanted him to ride the Giro d’Italia. Saronni himself thought that was a wonderful idea. But, shortly before the race, he broke his collarbone. ‘The best thing that happened to Saronni in 1977,’ Merckx said later, ‘was that he broke his collarbone.’
The Rider seamlessly weaves fiction, semi-fiction, non-fiction and history all throughout. And one more bit of history, exquisitely rendered, that I can’t leave out:
Maertens and De Vlaeminck were bitter rivals. ‘De Vlaeminck is the one who let them go,’ Maertens figured quite rightly. ‘So it’s up to him to bridge the gap.’ He waited. The gap grew and grew. ‘He wants to win, so let him bridge the gap,’ thought Maertens. ‘He wants to win, so let him bridge the gap,’ thought De Vlaeminck. Both of them knew that the one who finally bridged the gap would use up energy to his rival’s benefit. What mattered now was: staying patient. Both riders stayed patient: bravo. The winner of the 1976 Tour of Flanders was Walter Planckaert.
A disturbing thought: I’m being followed by people who are gliding along warm and motionless, and who may actually be bored to tears.
Krabbe is referring to the coaches and support staff in the “team” cars here, who follow along behind the racers. This contrast underscores the heightened and amplified experience that the physical strain of cycling affords us. People often ask: “How do you ride for so long; isn’t it boring?”
Well, not when it feels so agonizingly great and you are doing everything you can just to sustain it! I think this is why watching road cycling is so much more interesting to cyclists: we can imagine what the rider might be feeling, thinking… I admire non-cyclists who enjoy watching cycling because I think it speaks to a certain amount of empathy. They identify with the rider even though they are not one, and they imagine what the rider is going through even though they have not gone through it themself.
A cow. It’s not watching.
Krabbe’s remark as he passes the only potential spectator in sight. This is so funny to me (having passed by many a disinterested cow up in Petaluma, California) and highlights how pointless it all is. It’s simultaneously the most and least important thing in the world, racing bikes….
I’m not having any trouble with these curves, I’m much too tired now to worry about matters of life and death. This is about something completely different: about me winning this race.
I descend so much better when I’m able to just let go. Ironically, I find it’s safest when I’m not worrying about safety. When I stop worrying, I start flowing smoothly through the bends, in control, and get down in no time.
In interviews with riders that I’ve read and in conversations I’ve had with them, the same thing always comes up: the best part was the suffering.
The suffering provides the meaning. The suffering empowers me to finish the ride with a bit more than I started with. The suffering is what brings the personal fulfillment; the agency. The suffering is the necessary contrast, the counterbalance that makes the subsequent relaxing that much sweeter.
And then you’re at the summit. You look out over the land; you drink a bit; a ruddy sense of well-being courses through your whole body, and a great desire wells up in you to climb this mountain again some day.
18 Jun 2019
I’ve loved reading ever since I was a kid. But as I discovered computer programming in college and startups right after graduating, I started reading less and less. After selling my first startup and seemingly exhaling for the first time in years, the realization that I basically didn’t read any more hit me hard. So I resolved to start reading again, with the initial goal of one book per month.
In pursuit of this goal, I switched to eBooks in July 2013. I love paper books and independent bookstores, but the practical advantages offered by eBooks became too great to ignore. Being intentional about this decision and the role that my Kindle, iPad, iPhone, and even paper books play in my reading life has helped me to maximize the amount I read overall.
eBooks are portable.
I used to deliberate over lugging a single novel with me each time I headed out the door, but now I can just slip my Kindle in my jeans’ backpocket and bring my entire library with me. This means I always have something appealing to read: if I’m not in the mood for whatever I’m currently reading, I can easily switch to something else. And, because eBooks don’t take up physical space at home, purchasing a book is a lower stakes decision. eBooks enable me to own more books and to keep them with me at all times, both of which facilitate reading more.
Reading ergonomics are better than paper books.
Kindle provides better reading ergonomics than a paper book offers. This starts with the weight. A Kindle weighs the same amount no matter how long the book I’m reading is, so it’s overall more comfortable in my hands.
And because it’s rigid and always perfectly lit, it’s well-suited to more reading positions. I find that in long reading sessions I often want to change positions. I might simply want to shift my weight in the chair; I might want to lie down and hold the book over my head; I might want to pace around. All of this is easy to do with my Kindle, whereas paper books always burdened me with the minor but constant concern that my thumb would slip, the pages would fly by, and I’d lose my spot.
Being able to comfortably read in any scenario enables me to read more.
I can acquire eBooks instantaneously.
This often isn’t important to me, but it sure is nice in a pinch. Whether I’ve just finished the first book in a trilogy and am so sucked in I just want to immediately start the sequel and stay up all night reading it, or take off on vacation only to discover that I hate the book I brought with me, I can easily acquire another book under any circumstances. This creates more reading opportunities, which again helps me read more.
Highlighting and note taking is better on an eReader.
I always felt guilty annotating a physical book because it felt like I was defacing it. But even if I overcame the feeling, there was always the downside that I might run out of room in the margins. My eBook notes are still inline, but they can be as long as I like. They’re also preserved forever. I have physical books that I rigorously annotated in high school and college, but no idea where they are. And for those that I haven’t lost, at some point the pages will rot and the ink will fade. Tapping notes on a Kindle can sometimes feel more painful than writing in the margins of a physical book, but I think posterity and the leverage of being able to search my notes and easily review my highlights outweighs this.
eBook software provides leverage.
I can search an eBook for any term I like; I can view a list of my notes and get linked right to the page I took them on; I never need to dog-ear a page or use a bookmark to keep my spot. I can also easily look up the definition of a word. I often glossed over words I didn’t know when reading paper books because there was no way I was going to lug a dictionary around with me in addition to the book I was already reading. Now I can just look up the word inline, get the formal definition, and move on. And, Kindle’s software remembers the words I’ve looked up so that I can easily review them for retention.
eBooks offer practical advantages.
Portability, accessibility, reading ergonomics, and the leverage of software sold me on eBooks. But given I was switching, which device was the best for reading them? Though I started out reading exclusively on a Kindle Paperwhite, I now think that my iPad and iPhone also have their merits. I read across all three, picking the right tool for the job.
The biggest advantage to Kindle (I recommend the PaperWhite for the sweet spot of functionality and price, but the hardware is so mature at this point that there really isn’t a bad option) is that it’s the closest you can get to the experience of reading a physical book. An eInk display is unlike an LCD: it isn’t backlit and it has a physicality that makes the experience extremely close to that of looking at a piece of paper, especially under direct sunlight. This allows for a natural reading experience authentic to that of a physical book. It also means it’s easy on the eyes. Because the screen is front-lit, you don’t have to worry about blue light beaming into your eyes before bed.
Another advantage is that Kindle is a dedicated reading device. There are no other distractions at my fingertips. I won’t hit a difficult sentence in my book and recoil to the guilty comfort of Twitter. I won’t be interrupted by an inbound notification sliding down from the top of my screen and be oh so tempted to tap it, just for a second. The only activity available is reading.
The form factor is also optimal for reading: the screen is big enough that it can fit a full page of content, but the entire device is small, thin, and light enough that it’s comfortable to hold for extended periods.
Above all, I find that I can get in the zone the best on my Kindle – even better than a physical book, due to the aforementioned reading ergonomics.
Kindle’s eInk does come with some downsides though. It can only display black, white, and shades of grey, so it’s not great for visual books or textbooks with lots of diagrams. eInk also has a pretty slow refresh rate, so turning the page, highlighting text, and taking notes can be painfully slow. When reading fiction, I don’t perform these tasks as often and so I find the downsides to be tolerable and outweighed by the above benefits. But I do them all the time when reading nonfiction and technical reference material, and so for that I turn to my iPad.
My iPad Pro’s screen offers its own unique reading experience. The super retina display is fabulous and there is something luxuriously gratifying about rendering a book edge-to-edge on that magical piece of glass. Though I do feel less like I’m looking at a piece of paper and more like I’m looking at a screen, Apple’s True Tone technology (which adjusts the color temperature of the display to the ambient lighting conditions) ameliorates this quite a bit. And the screen can fit a lot of content, so I can enjoy a full page of text book all at once.
Most importantly, though, the screen is fast. Highlighting, page turning, taking notes, and looking up definitions of words is the instantaneous experience we’ve come to expect from our devices. I tend to perform these tasks a lot when reading nonfiction and textbooks (especially seeking back and forth, as I’ll often want to refer to something on an earlier page), and so my iPad is the weapon of choice for that kind of material.
Because the iPad Pro is larger, though, it can be tiresome to hold for longer reading periods. And, of course, it’s easy to get distracted from reading by all the other things iPad can do.
Lastly, there’s the iPhone. The biggest advantage to reading on my iPhone is just that it’s always with me. Even if I only have a few minutes of downtime, I can use them to read a book instead of mindlessly triaging email. I also find it to be very comfortable. Since the entire device fits in the palm of my hand, it’s very easy to grip, and since the screen is small, I don’t have to move my eyeballs very much, especially if I turn on infinite scroll and just lightly scroll as I read.
The Right Tool for the Job
Leveraging all three of these devices provides the most versatility for different reading situations, which, again, increases the overall amount of time I can spend reading.
Whither physical books? There’s still a solid place for paper books in my life. Literally, my bookshelf. I think the biggest thing I gave up by switching to eBooks is having a warm, inviting collection of books at home. After the kitchen, the bookshelf is the heart of the house: when friends come over, it’s a conversation starter. If I want or need some inspiration, my bookshelf is the place I look. If I’m going to settle into some creative work, I want my bookshelf to be in sight. You know that feeling when you walk into a brightly lit, lovingly curated bookstore? That’s what I give up with my massive eBook library. But it occurred to me I don’t have to. For my favorite books, I can just buy a physical copy too! And since only my favorite books make the cut, I can indulge in always buying the nice, high quality print version. Less clutter and more enjoyment!
A Reading Recipe
Thinking intentionally about how I read has removed barriers to entry and reading friction. It’s hard enough deciding what to read; after deciding that I don’t want to stall out because I can’t decide how to read it. So, distilled, the recipe is this:
24 May 2019
“And all because in January 2001 I asked my doctor this: “How come my foot hurts?” With that one question, Chris McDougall launches his obsessive journey to find a better way to run, and really, a better way to live. Born to Run readers get to run along side him and discover the extreme world of ultra-distance running, the essence of going barefoot, the culture of a remote tribe of super runners, and a cast of characters that is just absolutely obsessed with running in one way or another. Whether you are a die hard distance runner or have never laced up a pair of trainers in your life, the commitment to self-improvement, curiosity, and the personal sovereignty that comes from never settling for the status quo is invigorating. Read it for the infectious enthusiasm of those doing what they love, and a clarifying reminder of what is possible if we follow our nose and just keep keep asking why.
24 Mar 2019
I rarely abandon books, and even more rarely after already reading over halfway through, but I abandoned Blood Meridian with about 100 pages to go. The story is bleak and each reading session issued blunt trauma. Were I discovering some deeper meaning or following an interesting character arc or holding out for some narrative conclusion, I could push through the unpleasant atrocities described within and read to the end. But reading this book is to be an outsider denied entry: denied entry into any of the characters’ thoughts or interior. What motivates The Kid? Who is The Reverend, really? What is the point of all this?
I read and deeply appreciated McCarthy’s The Road, and while that book is also very dark, the key difference is it provides something (very significant!) to hope for. There’s a reason to keep reading. There are nuanced characters to cherish and savor and weigh. I didn’t find any of this in Blood Meridian, so I decided to abandon it and the nihilism it smothered me with.
21 Oct 2016
I captured some of my favorite quotes from the book and include quick thoughts on each.
Steve, during an interview he gave in the Next days:
As we talked, he drank steaming hot water from a pint beer glass. He explained that when he ran out of tea one day, it dawned on him that he liked plain old hot water, too. “It’s soothing in the very same way,” he said.
On Steve’s instinct:
Steve was innately comfortable trusting his gut; it’s a characteristic of the best entrepreneurs, a necessity for anyone who wants to make a living developing things no one has ever quite imagined before.
On his decisiveness:
Steve had a kind of hyperawareness of his surroundings that allowed him to leap at opportunities that presented themselves.
This is particularly interesting, since it proves true of acquired companies, incubators, over-funded startups, etc:
Despite what he said about wanting to repeat the experience of the Apple II and the Mac, what Steve really wanted at NeXT was the garage spirit of a startup meshed with the safety, status, and perks of the Fortune 500. It wasn’t a combination he could pull off.
On hiring the best people:
That’s because Steve was always hell-bent on hiring the very best people in the world, especially engineers. “In most businesses, the difference between average and good is at best 2 to 1,” Steve once told me. “Like, if you go to New York and you get the best cabdriver in the city, you might get there thirty percent faster than with an average taxicab driver. A 2 to 1 gain would be pretty big. In software, it’s at least 25 to 1. The difference between the average programmer and a great one is at least that. We have gone to exceptional lengths to hire the best people in the world. And when you’re in a field where the dynamic range is 25 to 1, boy, does it pay off.
On switching to management vs. remaining an individual contributor:
More important for Steve Jobs, overseeing this motley crew had turned Catmull into an expert, imaginative manager of creative people. For years Catmull found himself occasionally regretting his decision to abandon his dream of being an animator. But as he steered this odd and talented group past one crisis after another, he started treating management itself as a kind of art, and accepted that this was how he could best contribute. Later in his life, he would come to be recognized as one of the most extraordinary managers in the world; in 2014, he published a brilliant business bestseller, Creativity, Inc., about what it takes to lead a company of creative people.
Here’s to the crazy ones…
Steve, you’re not wearing shoes! Don’t you want to wear some shoes for the cover of Fortune?” Steve shrugged and said, “Sure, fine.” He ran upstairs, grabbed a pair of sneakers, and came back wearing them—with the laces left untied.
On becoming a billionaire after Pixar IPO’d:
Catmull saw Steve pick up the phone in an office to the side. “Hello, Larry?” Steve said into the handset, once his pal Ellison was on the line. “I made it.” Steve, who owned 80 percent of the company, was a billionaire.
All of the raw technology paid off when it became the foundation for OSX and iOS when Next was acquired and Steve returned to Apple:
The original dream—that NeXT would create the world’s next great computer—was over. “We got lost in the technology,” Steve would later tell me.
Even Steve wrestled with existential questions and uncertainty:
But that didn’t mean he himself was ready to take on the job of running Apple. According to his wife, Laurene, he was still torn about whether to go back. The two of them debated the matter endlessly. […] But did he really want to try to ride to the rescue of Apple when it hardly resembled the company he had tried to build? Was he even convinced it had the people and resources to become competitive? Did he want to work that hard, now that he had a young family? Did he want to risk what was left of his reputation by tilting at windmills? These questions were all on his mind. He had to become convinced that enough of the “true” Apple remained before he would ever consider taking ultimate responsibility for it. Steve didn’t know it at the time, but his indecisiveness was actually a kind of breakthrough. Steve was developing a more nuanced, measured approach to decision making. Steve had grown more comfortable with waiting—not always patiently—to see what developed, rather than jumping impulsively into some new venture where he thought he could once again astound the world. When he needed to—as when the opportunity arose to sell NeXT to Apple—he could strike quickly. But from now on he would act with a piquant combination of quick, committed actions and careful deliberation.
07 Nov 2015
Shadow and Claw made for a very rich and unique reading experience — one that was simultaneously challenging and enthralling. Set in an antiquated future, where the sun is dying and mankind has peaked, Severian — exiled member of the Torturer’s Guild — begins his account of leaving the citadel he’s always known for the greater world beyond.
The world he explores and recounts to the reader is rich and fascinating, but reluctant to give up its secrets. Language plays a very strong part in this, as the book is positioned as author Gene Wolfe translating Severian’s recount. In so doing, Wolfe is translating a history from the future, so we get a mix of words that are either arcane or invented: fuligin. carnifex. hipparch. Words like these are presented in a way that I found satisfying: discovering their meaning from surrounding context is a mode of discovering the world that Severian (and therefore we) get to reside in.
A third of the way in, I realized that though the language and world is dense and intricate, the plot itself is quite simple. It unfolds as a series of anecdotes and memories which are cohesive but do not drive to any form of climax. This made for a strange feeling as I completed The Claw of the Conciliator: that I had travelled so far, but also gone nowhere. But perhaps that is the mark of just how good this book is, for Severian was likely feeling exactly the same way.
Regardless, it’s a rewarding read and would probably make for an even more rewarding reread. At the finish of Claw, half way through the tetralogy, I have a number of remaining questions (spoilers follow):
Even with my curiosity around these questions and more, I’m uncertain if I want to invest the time to read the remainder, The Sword and the Citadel, to find out. There’s a good chance my questions may simply go unaddressed, or be answered so matter of factly as to seem trivial. But that’s part of the magic of this book, and probably my key takeaway: I’d read it for the experience, the lasting imagery (the alzabo extract will be very hard to forget), and the journey — not the destination. Don’t turn the pages in a rush — you’ll only reach the end and realize the most interesting parts were along the way.
22 Jan 2014
Had I started reading A Feast for Crows immediately upon finishing the excellent A Storm of Swords, as I was so tempted to do, I would have been sorely disappointed in the stark contrast between these two books. Whereas A Storm of Swords is momentous and significant, Feast is meandering and chooses to focus on the insignificant. Any cursory glance at the reviews for this book will inform you that GRRM leaves his most significant characters out of this installment, choosing instead to focus on secondary characters and new ones. In and of itself, I don’t think this would be a terrible thing, but in the end they aren’t compelling enough to carry the novel.
For much of the book, it felt as though GRRM simply ran out of creative steam. The unfoldings in King’s Landing are much the same, just with different pieces in play and a focus on Cersei undoing herself. Arya’s sections are fairly monotonous and straightforward – unfortunate, because I found her sections in the previous three books to be exceptionally clever and fun. It feels like a missed opportunity too, because her time training with the assassin’s guild of The Faceless Men seems ripe for wonder; instead it bores. Samwell’s passages serve some required plot advancement as we follow him moving from the Wall to the Citadel, but that is about it.
I did enjoy following Jaime on his newfound quest for honor, and also to restore the combat skills he lost along with his swordhand in Storm. Brienne’s quest to find Lady Sansa was engaging, and I think she’s a deeper character for it, but unfortunately all those pages ultimately leave the reader with nothing to show for having read them. It was exciting to learn more about Dorne, but unfortunately those sections were plagued by too many minor characters to keep track of without great effort.
The writing was weaker too – from the prologue, I had my concerns, and though the rest of the book is not that bad, GRRM adopts certain strategies that grate by the end of the book. He punctuates almost every paragraph of dialogue with the character’s internal thoughts, like this. He also betrays the realism and attention to detail in the earlier offerings by allowing implausibly chance encounters of the story’s characters in distant lands.
Ultimately, though, the core problem is it seems that GRRM just doesn’t know where to take the story, and so he bought himself time with this book. Just as the characters wander all over a desolate Westeros without much point, so does the reader trapped in his sprawling plot. There were certainly times I enjoyed this book, but in the end, I’m left feeling a little cheated, like there wasn’t much redeeming value in return on my time investment.
The question, then, is should someone read this book? The completionist in me would advise any GoT fan to see it through, especially in the hopes that the rest of the books will be better. But standing on its own, I don’t think the tale warrants the pages and time required.