Learn to look; compare what is before you with your familiar or secret ideas. Do not see in a town merely houses, but human life and history. Let a gallery or a museum show you something more than a collection of objects, let it show you schools of art and of life, conceptions of destiny and of nature, successive or varied tendencies of technique, of inspiration, of feeling. Let a workshop speak to you not only of iron and wood, but of man’s estate, of work, of ancient and modern social economy, of class relationships. Let travel tell you of mankind; let scenery remind you of the great laws of the world; let the stars speak to you of measureless duration; let the pebbles on your path be to you the residue of the formation of the earth; let the sight of a family make you think of past generations; and let the least contact with your fellows throw light on the highest conception of man. If you cannot look thus, you will become, or be, a man of only commonplace mind. A thinker is like a filter, in which truths as they pass through leave their best substance behind. [emphasis mine]
—A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life
Several years ago, an acquaintance enthusiastically introduced me to the work of author Robin Sloan through Sloan’s iPhone app, Fish. The app is essentially a digital essay/PowerPoint presentation. You tap your way through it. It summarizes this original account of the profound teaching method of Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz, a 19th-century Harvard zoologist. Agassiz’s approach was very much in line with that of good old Father Sertillanges, above.
To learn, look. Pay attention, to all of it. Be patient. And, as Sertillanges and Agassiz would both have added today: put down the damn phone. (Unless you’re using it to read innovative interactive essays like Fish. I’d like to see more of those.)
Sloan emailed his mailing list a few weeks back. Apparently, Fish needs to be re-compiled for the new iOS App Store and Sloan no longer has the source code. Digital entropy strikes again! Thankfully, you can buy paper editions of Sloan’s other books. I’ve enjoyed several of his short stories as well as his debut novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. I’ll read Sourdough one of these days.
Speaking of books, my own experiment with “lean publishing” continues apace. Thanks to those of you who’ve already purchased a copy of Book Into Battle, my guide to writing books that need to be written. (As opposed to the other kind.) Having an actual paying readership from the start helps my brain tremendously. I hope you enjoy what you find in its burgeoning pages whenever you choose to dip in. I won’t ask for feedback because, let’s be honest, feedback is hard work. I’m just glad you’re reading it! That said, if you have thoughts about the direction I’m taking, it would be very valuable to hear them. Using this tool, I’m supposed to “pivot” a lot. You know, like a startup. Depending on the customer response, it might end up being a religious tract, or an autobiography of James Polk. Lean publishing!
This week, I added a new introduction as well as a cover designed by my lovely wife, Samantha Hahn, who should really be spending her valuable time on actual book covers like these.
How does it look?
Book Into Battle will continue to be updated weekly. I’m using Pacemaker to stay on track. It lets you set goals and track progress on large writing or editing projects. I’m targeting 40,000 words by October 1. In 2018, 40K feels like a good number. That’s just enough book.
Leanpub takes an interesting—and underappreciated—approach to publishing, one worthy of investigation and experimentation. Even if readers in general aren’t interested in keeping up with an iterative book, the “live” method really does change the way you write. And I needed a change. It took me a few days to get the hang of the site itself, but I’ve got a solid workflow now: I write using Atom—avoid Ulysses for this purpose—with some Markdown-friendly modifications. The text files sync via Dropbox; when I’m done writing, I click Publish and updated PDF, MOBI, and EPUB are automatically generated. Neat, right?
When I’m done, I’ll do a small print run of a hardcover edition. All on my own, including typesetting and proofreading. That cover deserves a nice glossy jacket, don’t you think? Plus, I wouldn’t want to fall prey to digital entropy like Robin Sloan did. In fact, I’ve been preparing for a GoldenEye-style EMP attack since 1995. That’s why I print all my tweets. (Come to think of it, GoldenEye was probably the last big spy movie to feature Russians as the bad guys. That streak is ready to be broken, sadly.)
Where was I? Books! Books, guys. Read them, closely. Write one, with an end in mind. This struck me the other day: Of the many things on my phone, all of them (!) leave me feeling worse. News, email, social media, Reddit, Hulu, all of it. My phone is a depression machine. I come out of using it in a degraded mental state. Except for the Kindle app. When I read books, I feel better. Even sad books. Even bad books. How easy it is to forget this simple and obvious truth and open a browser instead.