It is impossible to visit my parents’ house and leave without a book, or many books, that my father has read and recommended. “I’ve read more than 500 books since high school,” the near 60-year-old has told me. That doesn’t seem like an overwhelming number of books for a 42-year span — about 12 per year. But then he further qualifies it.
“But at least 350 have come in the last 10 years.”
Thirty-five books a year is more impressive indeed. Growing up, from when I was five or six until my mid-teens, we faced many hard times. But lately Dad’s been doing the best work of his life and has received commensurate compensation. I once asked him if he felt that the increase in his reading habits played a role in his late-life success.
“Without a doubt,” he told me.
I asked him, because I felt the same was true for me. Throughout high school I achieved mediocre grades and read nearly nothing. That included books assigned in class. The same went for community college. When I first transferred to a four-year school I read the newspaper daily, often large swaths of The New York Times, and I turned in a 3.5 GPA that first year. But after transferring to Rutgers I was far more interested in drinking and impressing people. Reading ceased and grades plummeted.
(In fact, my best exam ever — and I wish I still had the GA comments on it — resulted from furious reading in the days leading up to the exam.)
In the seven years since graduating I’ve read more books than in the 23 years preceding. Maybe 10 or 11 times as many, maybe even more. It surprises me little, then, that I travel a relatively successful path. The knowledge I’ve built on the foundation of these books has helped power a career. Yet something struck me recently.
I can’t seem to remember any single book having a profound impact on how I think.
There have been a few, of course, but if I’ve read 250 books in the last seven years I would hope that more than a small handful have made clear impressions. Perhaps the Law of Averages was at play recently. This week I finished two books that have altered my worldview. My thoughts and actions changed immediately upon completing them, and I imagine they will continue to change as I further digest their meanings.
Trust Me, I’m Lying
I first started reading Ryan Holiday in 2007, when he was a 20-year-old working for Tucker Max. On his blog he expressed untraditional views, and I thought those were valuable coming from someone so young. But what really struck me about Holiday was his reading habit. I might have had five years on him, but he had hundreds of books on me. I aspired to read the two to three books he completed in a given week.
Ryan’s reading list helped spur my ambition. I digested Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, and indeed it remains one of the few books I can remember profoundly affecting my worldview. I read the Robert Greene series, loving the historical anecdotes in The 48 Laws of Power and The 33 Strategies of War. Later he started publishing a reading list newsletter, and I’ve taken quite a books from there — including Daniel Boorstin’s The Image, another with that impact.
Last month Holiday published his first book, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of A Media Manipulator. The book interested me not only because I admire Holiday, but also because I, too, must manipulate certain forms of media. Might I enjoy reading his thoughts while at the same time learning something about my own work?
We cover different bases, though, and so the first half of the book moved slowly for me. Some of the stories about viral content resonated, but I just wasn’t interested in creating sensational stories and trading them up the chain. Ryan surely had a point in spending the first half of his book providing rules for manipulating bloggers; it would be foolish to place all the filler content in the first half. Yet that’s what it felt like to me. Had I not known of Holiday I might not have read the second half. And I would have missed out on a life-changing missive.
While the first half read more like a how-to instruction manual, the second half was all about perspective. Ryan examined in detail the incentives of mainstream bloggers. The truth of a story doesn’t matter. What matters is how many people click on that headline and make ad impressions for the publisher. If that means running with a potentially sensational story without knowing all the facts, so be it. There are more page views in the follow-up stories, so there’s all the incentive in the world to click publish without verification.
That necessarily inserts a level of bullshit into the news. And, because these stories often move up the chain (and there’s the necessity of the book’s first half), we see this bullshit spread wide and deep. When the facts come to light, they’re often ignored or glazed over. Bloggers employ two methods to correcting or adding facts to a baseless story:
1. They add an update to the original post. Unfortunately, this often comes when the post already has multiple hundred thousand page views, so most of the people who are interested in the story have already seen it and won’t bother to check back. (After all, blogs post both in reverse-chronological order and constantly; the content is already buried under newer posts.) Those that do see the updated story still see the original story and the original headline, hammering home the idea that this continues to be a real story. Even if they read as far as the update, and many will not, the impression has already been made. Updating the post does nothing to change the narrative, because the narrative has already spread.
2. They issue a new post. This might seem noble, but it’s anything but. A blogger doesn’t want to admit he’s wrong, and so he twists the facts once he has them in hand. “Still, we don’t know” is a common phrase in this kind of post. Never will they say, “shit, we fucked up by printing that story and we’re sorry.” If anything they’ll add more speculative fuel to the fire. But even that won’t matter much. These follow-up posts do provide more page views for the publisher, but not many. Holiday provides many examples where the follow-up post containing the actual facts of the matter do far fewer page views than the original.
The ineffectiveness of these corrections is why Holiday excoriates the idea of process journalism, which new media gasbags such as Jeff Jarvis advocate. People just don’t pay attention as a story builds. They’re interested in the original and are not likely to check back to see further facts. Process journalism is often referred to as beta journalism. The problem is that the user tends to accumulate many of these beta stories, meaning he’s got a foundation of buggy information. (And Holiday posits that the situation is much graver than that.)
After finishing the book I grabbed my iPad and opened up my feed reader. It made me sick to open Techmeme and see the dozens of outlets reporting on the top story. I opened Mediagazer and closed it immediately after seeing nothing but self-serving bullshit. Even my RSS reader got a significant trimming. What’s the use of subscribing to a blog that publishes 20 to 30 times a day if I read only one of those posts? Why skim all those headlines if many of those headlines contain false information?
Then it struck me: I’d been reading so many blogs lately that I’d fallen behind on books. Clearly my priorities were aligned incorrectly. That’s not to say that blogs are valueless. It’s just to say that it’s difficult to wade through that bullshit. Our filters allow the bullshit to rise to the top. I’ll continue to read articles online, but I’m certainly changing the lens and filters through which I read and find them.
Once of the books Holiday recommends is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. In that small tome Pressfield discusses the idea of resistance, the force that works against us. It is the demon inside that turns us away from our true ambitions and has us participating in the mundane world. Resistance, Pressfield stresses, controls the amateur. The pro sees Resistance for what it is, and does his life’s work anyway.
Turning Pro is the sequel to The War of Art. It discusses in further detail the mindset of the amateur and why she will not become a professional. The amateur and the addict, Pressfield notes, are one in the same. They both construct scaffolds that prevent them from doing their life’s work. While the addict has his substance of choice, the amateur has distractions and shadow careers. Both destroy the soul.
The first two-thirds of the book are dedicated to examining the amateur’s tendencies. For those who have abandoned their passions and callings, it’s a short but effective shaming. That makes the book’s final third, on being a pro, that much tougher to read. How can I read about the life and work I dream of when I’m so ashamed of abandoning that path?
This week a good friend emailed me with something of a revelation. He’s been unhappy in his job for most of this year; his company laid off some employees and he was left doing the work of two people without a pay raise. A few weeks ago his wife, noticing his daily agony, asked him the question: If money weren’t an object, what would you do with your life? He said he’d open a craft beer store and bottle shop. And so he and his wife have worked on a business plan, and it sounds as though they’re going to make the leap sometime soon. The story inspired me.
I shared the story with my fiancee, and told her how it made me think. “If money weren’t an object I’d write books,” I said — before adding, “but that’s not practical.” If I had my way I’d open a fitness business, I said. Don’t get me wrong: I think I’d do well with a fitness business. But it’s clear that my ambition to write novels has never left. I’ve made all sorts of excuses to abandon it, and was pretty successful until I read Turning Pro. But now it is clear that I’m not going to be happy unless I devote energy to pursuing my own calling.
There we have it. Two books, two profound revelations. They intertwine, too. By cutting out the internet media bullshit, I have more time to read books that will make me a better writer. I also have more time to focus on my job, which is something I’ll need if I want to raise a family and still have time to pursue my writing dreams. By focusing on this dream, I feel as though a lot of my stresses will go away. I’ll sleep better at night. I’ll focus more during the day. That tends to happen when you feel your soul has been liberated.
And now it’s time to find more books that will have a similar impact on my worldview and life.