Hi <<First Name>>,
I’ve missed writing to you! 2019 was a good year for reading, and 2020 is looking even better. As always, I'm happy to bring you the best of what I've read. Let’s dive straight into the books and the quotes:
The Craftsman by Richard Sennett
Despite its density, this was one of my favorite books of 2019. Sennett looks at the history of arts, the practices of artisans, and the psychology of people who dedicate themselves to a craft and improving their skills. This mindset can be applied to any field of work, whether it’s as a writer, designer, marketer, accountant, stonecutter — you name it — and will make anyone better at (and I suspect happier with) what they do. This book covers topics such as the implications of how technology influences creativity, which might seem timely, but has actually been a challenge for centuries. Lastly it distinguishes between creativity and craftsmanship, a difference that we often mix up today.
On immersion: “As skill expands, the capacity to sustain repetition increases. In music this is the so-called Isaac Stern rule, the great violinist declaring that the better your technique, the longer you can rehearse without becoming bored. There are ‘Eureka!’ moments that turn the lock in a practice that has jammed, but they are embedded in routine.”
On disconnection: “The blueprint signaled, moreover, one decisive disconnection between head and hand in design: the idea of a thing made complete in conception before it is constructed.”
On learning: “The problem, as Victor Weisskopf says, is that people may let the machines do this learning, the person serving as a passive witness to and consumer of expanding competence, not participating in it... Abuses of CAD illustrate how, when the head and the hand are separate, it is the head that suffers.”
On quality: “What do we mean by good-quality work? One answer is how something should be done, the other is getting it to work. This is a difference between correctness and functionality.”
On application: “The painter Edgar Degas is once supposed to have remarked to Stéphane Mallarmé, ‘I have a wonderful idea for a poem but I can't seem to work it out,’ whereupon Mallarmé replied, ‘My dear Edgar, poems are not made with ideas, they are made with words.’”
Against Creativity by Oli Mould
The premise of this book is that the system of capitalism rallies truly creative movements to serve its own needs (see skateboarding and hip-hop), and in doing so narrows the definition of creativity and limits its strength. Now, creativity typically means doing more of the same thing, often with less resources. It's a really interesting opinion on the future of work. Now that creativity is the hottest word in business — it’s been called the new “productivity” — and prestigious, it’s also a wake up call. We can’t let creativity be defined. If you appreciate creativity, and either do something creative for work or are considering it, I highly recommend you read this book.
On capitalism: “Being creative in today's society has only one meaning: to carry on producing the status quo. The continual growth of capitalism has become the prevailing order of life.”
On deception: “Rather than freeing us from the shackles of monotonous, non-creative labour it has become clear that the rhetoric of 'creative work' is merely a ruse that allows 'work-like' practices to invade our leisure, social and non-economic lives.”
On redefinition: “Florida was right about one thing — we are all creative, but not in the way he thinks. We are all creative because that is what all labour is now recast as.”
On practice: “As the architectural theorist Douglas Spencer has argued: 'The old question of whether one lives to work, or works to live, is rendered seemingly redundant in the merging of the one into the other. This is accomplished through the practice of skills, habits and techniques required of both work and non-work within an overall schema of productivity.'”
On loosening up: “For Koestler there are 'codes of disciplined reasoning’ that inhibit the chance bisociation, and hence stifle creativity. Very human traits such as habit and common sense, but also broader 'dogmatic’ narratives of social norms, can act as frames that constrict particular ways of thinking.”
On myopia: “In other words, our contemporary societies, which champion competitiveness over compassion, market forces over cultural variation, labour over leisure and self-interest over sociality, reward the normal able body and marginalize and discriminate against the diffabled body, or anyone who cannot function efficiently as a capitalist worker.”
Places of the Heart by Colin Ellard
This book is about how our physical environments affect our minds. It's something that my friends and I have talked about for years, and what I learned actually inspired me to write this article. It explains why spending time in nature feels so relaxing, as well as how being in big open spaces can affect our minds.
On productivity: “Just as Edison understood the value of a nimble and plentiful power grid to large-scale industry, he could not have failed to notice that the proper application of scientific principles to the worker himself would yield productive advantages.”
On brainwashing: “Long before Marshall McLuhan revolutionized our understanding of the power of media to shape thought, Edison’s invention of the ‘kinetoscope,’ a forerunner of modern motion-picture technology, along with his contributions to other kinds of communication technology such as the stock ticker, revealed the early development of an understanding of how the presentation of text and image could be used to shape our willful acts of attention.”
On technology: “Our natural habits of attention, and the ones that we still seek out for small moments of refreshment in our harried lives, have been replaced with a perpetual state of sharply focused, selective attention that both helps to create desires and equips us to satisfy them, but ultimately leaves us mentally depleted. The technologies of attention have pulled us irresistibly away from the kind of lifestyle enjoyed by pretechnological societies like the Kalahari Bush People, integrated with the natural order. Instead, we have set of neurological machines honed by our environments to mal producers and consumers.”
On society: “Indeed, Peter Ward, a sociologist of space and author of A History of Domestic Spaces, has gone so far as to suggest that the arrangement of more complex Western home spaces with their affordances for privacy, territory, and a room of ones own contributed to the Western trend to value the individual over the group.”
On society 2: “Hermann Muthesius, a German diplomat who worked in London early in the twentieth century and author of the magnificent two-volume history of English domestic architecture titled Dos Englisch Haus went so far as to suppose that one of the reasons for the economic success of the British in comparison with Germany at that time had something to do with the arrangements of their houses.”
On crowds: “...in the worlds major cities, I discovered a curious anomaly. When I took people into sparsely populated public places like museum parking lots or churchyards, they showed strong evidence of the kind of relaxation response that one might normally see in a quiet and private environment like the home or a beautiful green park.”
On childhood: “Our early experiences, and the places in which those experiences took place shape our adult preferences by either attracting or repelling us to certain kinds of arrangements of spaces, depending on the valence of those early life experiences. Finally, our love of our home is dependent on our feelings of control of the space—the extent to which we have been able to shape it to our own individual psychology using anything from our prized family heirlooms to simple elements of decor like posters, paint, and wallpaper.”
I hope that some of these passages unlock the hidden doors of your mind. Maybe some will serve as catalysts for change. And remember, they’re signposts. It’s up to you whether you want to apply them or not. Reply to this and let me know which quotes or books resonate with you, what you think of the newsletter, and if there’s anything I can support you with.
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