Diamond Jubilee


In today’s newsletter, I write about the new Cindy Lee triple album, Diamond Jubilee:

[It] isn’t streaming — you can only listen to it, officially, via a YouTube video or by downloading the WAV files on a Geocities website. As I was drawing KBB-style diamonds on my newly burned CD-Rs — yes, I still have a CD drive and yes, I still have a CD player — I suddenly wondered if the album release was engineered to be a big craft project for old nerds like me!

You can read the whole newsletter here.

Austin Kleon

19 Apr 2024 at 21:58

How to have fun thinking with a paper dictionary


People often ask questions like, “Why do you have that paper dictionary in your office when you can just look things up online?”

Reader, let me tell you!

Walt Goggins makes me think of the word “ornery” — so I looked that word up. (As John McPhee tells us, it’s important to look up words even when you think you already know the definition.)

Ornery: “Mean-spirited, disagreeable, and contrary in disposition; cantankerous.”

Well, yeah, but not quite.

“See Synonyms at CONTRARY.” 

Okay, let’s go.

The entry for “Contrary” is several paragraphs long. My eyes glaze, not over, but above — to the entry for “contrarian.”

That’s a word that usually has a negative connotation, right? “Oh, he’s just being contrarian.”

But let’s read the definition, anyways.

“con-trar-i-an n. an investor who makes decisions that contradict prevailing wisdom, as in buying securities that are unpopular at the time.”

Contrarian as investor?

Oh, I like this idea.

I don’t want to oppose the status quo just to oppose it — I was to invest in what I think is undervalued at the moment. (Like paper dictionaries.)

Now, I’m thinking about word that “prevailing.” That’s an interesting word. Let’s look that up.

Cool, cool, what I thought, but OOOH look a picture of a PRETZEL: 

I mean, I know what a pretzel is, I don’t need to read that definition, do I? Oh, yes I do, because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t know the connection between a pretzel and prayer:

So that’s how you go from thinking about Walt Goggins to thinking about monks, pretzel, and prayer in a just a few steps.

All thanks to the American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd edition, purchased for $5 at Goodwill.

Filed under: reference books

Austin Kleon

18 Apr 2024 at 16:48

A chat with Stephanie Zacharek and Dwight Garner

Watch the video of our conversation

Stephanie Zacharek is the film critic at Time, and Dwight Garner is a book critic for The New York Times. They’re two of my favorite writers to read, so when I found out they were friends, I thought it would be fun to interview them together for the newsletter. 

We had a good time talking about honesty in criticism, having a sense of humor, the writing process, our favorite books and movies, how to develop your personal taste, and much more.

You can watch the video or read the transcript in today’s newsletter. (You can also click the podcast options in the sidebar and listen to it.)

A few highlights, below…

Dwight on the importance of a sense of humor: 

I agree with the great Australian-British critic Clive James, who said that a sense of humor is, I think he put it, “common sense, dancing.” Which I just love. You don’t trust someone without a sense of humor. Donald Trump — no sense of humor! You meet someone without one and… 9 times out of 10 I don’t trust or like writers who have no sense of humor. Every once in a while you get a Dostoevsky, who, you know, has his moments. Sheer power can win out. But I increasingly like to be made to smile when I’m reading. To me, that’s a sign of a first rate intellect. Critics want to deliver pleasure, right? All writers do. And humor is just part of that pleasure. Pleasure is an elevated thing to deliver, if you’re doing it right.

Stephanie on her favorite movie, The Lady Eve

It’s funny, sometimes you go to a dinner party, and people are like, “Oh, you’re a movie critic, so what’s your favorite movie?” And other critics that I know, it’s like, “Oh, my God, I hate that question.” But I love that question! Because I always have a ready answer. And my answer is: The Lady Eve by Preston Sturges, which is a comedy. A lot of people might think, oh, no, I have to choose a really serious movie as my favorite movie. But The Lady Eve, not only is it funny and great in so many ways with fantastic performances by Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda, but it’s actually about something very serious. This idea of looking at someone and thinking that you’re in love with that person and not seeing exactly what’s in front of you.

And Dwight on his commonplace book (which he turned into Garner’s Quotations):

I’ve kept it for so long now, it’s been transferred from print to various laptops. I sort of keep it obsessively. Everything I read, I end up writing things down from. I know, generally, I don’t like a book, if I end up putting nothing from it into my commonplace book. Not to every writer has to be pithy and perfect, but if I read a book, and I don’t want to put a single thing from it? And I keep all kinds of categories, I can open up to flying, social class, violence, war, sex, drugs, conversation, theater, music. I’m just obsessive about it…

It’s [in] Microsoft Word. And the files are so large that they get hung up and the beachball spins… They’re broken up. I’ve broken up Food, because Food is so big. I’ve broken up Drink, because Drink is so big. I’ve broken up Writing because writing breaks down into so many aspects of writing to talk about, right? But even the A-M and M-Z are just large and unwieldy. And I don’t know, it’s a boring topic, but… I take great pleasure in it!

I highly recommend reading or watching the whole thing here.

Austin Kleon

16 Apr 2024 at 18:01

Two kinds of attention: narrow and wide


In Friday’s newsletter, I shared these images from my camera roll, which capture the dread and awe of last week, between the eclipse and the hailstorm and all the cosmic static and shenanigans in between.

I was somewhat cheered by reading other people’s accounts of the total eclipse, because my experience, on the whole, was a big letdown. I just didn’t feel like I was there. I was frantically trying to capture it instead of experiencing it. (I wish I’d seen this advice from Bill Nye beforehand.) 

This was such a contrast to my experience with the annual eclipse last October, which was delightful. 

Last October’s annular eclipse

I think part of my experience had to do with something Marion Milner wrote about in her great 1934 book, A Life of One’s Own. Milner, after keeping a diary and trying to pinpoint what experiences truly make her feel alive, realizes that she seems to pay two kinds of attention: “narrow attention” and “wide attention.” She describes them in a chapter called “Two Ways of Looking”:

(1) Narrow attention. – This first way of perceiving seemed to be the automatic one, the kind of attention which my mind gave to everyday affairs when it was left to itself. The psychology books seemed to agree in this. They said that you attend automatically to whatever interests you, whatever seems likely to serve your personal desires; but I could not find anywhere mentioned what seemed to me the most important fact about it, that this kind of attention has a narrow focus, by this means it selects what serves its immediate interests and ignores the rest. As far as I could see it was a ‘questing beast’, keeping its nose close down to the trail, running this way and that upon the scent, but blind to the wider surroundings. It saw items according to whether they served its purposes, saw them as a means to its own ends, not interested in them at all for their own sake. This attitude was probably essential for practical life, so I supposed that from the biological point of view it had to be one which came naturally to the mind. But since it saw everything in relation to something else, as a means to some end, contentment was always in the future.

(2) Wide attention. – The second way of perceiving seemed to occur when the questing purposes were held in leash. Then, since one wanted nothing, there was no need to select one item to look at rather than another, so it became possible to look at the whole at once. To attend to something and yet want nothing from it, these seemed to be the essentials of the second way of perceiving. I thought that in the ordinary way when we want nothing from any object or situation we ignore it. Or if we are forced to attend to something which does not offer us any means of furthering our desires, then sheer habit makes us attend in the narrow focus way, looking at separate details and being bored. But if by chance we should have discovered the knack of holding wide our attention, then the magic thing happens.

Quite simply: I was paying a narrow attention to the eclipse, when it would’ve been more beneficial to pay a wide attention. I needed to keep my “questing beast” at bay!

A cloudy totality

I should mention that this is the way Iain McGilchrist writes about attention in his books The Master and His Emissary and The Matter With Things. McGilchrist’s big idea is that not that there are “left-brained” and “right-brained” people, but that the divided hemispheres of the brain pay different kinds of attention to the world. The left hemisphere pays a kind of laser-beamed, focused attention that is concerned with apprehending and manipulating the world. The right hemisphere pays a more holistic attention — it is concerned with understanding the whole, the “big picture.” 

He often points out the way a bird has to eat and not be eaten. Here is how he describes it in his paper,“Can the divided brain tell us anything about the ultimate nature of reality?

In order to stay alive, birds have to solve a conundrum. They have to be able to feed and watch out for predators at the same time. How are you to focus closely on what you are doing when you are trying to pick out that grain of seed from the grit on which it lies, while at the same time keeping the broadest possible, open attention to whatever may be, in order to avoid being eaten? It’s a bit like trying to pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time, only worse, because it’s impossible. What we know is that the division of the hemispheres makes the apparently impossible possible. Birds pay narrowly focussed attention on what they are eating with their right eye (left hemisphere), while keeping their left eye (right hemisphere) open for predators. At the same time birds and animals use their left eye (right hemisphere) in forming bonds with others of their kind. And this difference is preserved as we evolve. In fact it seems that the left hemisphere specialises in a sort of piecemeal attention that helps us make use of the world, but in doing so it alters our relationship with it. Equally the right hemisphere subserves a broad open attention which enables us to see ourselves connected to – and in the human case, to empathise with – whatever is other than ourselves.

Like Milner, McGilchrist says we have to have both kinds of attention in our lives — the problem is when one kind of attention starts to dominate the other. His theory is that we’ve become a culture that is predominately skewered towards the left hemisphere’s way of paying attention and this way of paying attention is changing the world, mostly for the worse. 

A still from a video I took

Ironically, the most beautiful images I got of the eclipse — the cloudy totality and the bird above — weren’t really the result of this questing, narrow attention at all: they were just stills from a video I captured by simply letting an old extra iPhone run while pointed at the sun! All that nattering and fussing and distraction, and I could’ve gotten the same images while just enjoying the eclipse and letting video run.

The poets and philosophers are correct: we create our world with the kind of attention we pay to it.

Austin Kleon

16 Apr 2024 at 17:05

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