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You Are What You Read

I’m no Art Garfunkel, but I have been keeping track of my reading over the last couple of years. Just for kicks, you understand.

At first I was a little disappointed: I read 24 books in 2020, 27 in 2021, and am currently on track to read 32 this year. It doesn’t sound like a lot. Yet apparently I’m some sort of superhuman super-reader, since the average American adult reads fewer than 13. One in six doesn’t even read a single book over the course of a year.

What are y’all doing in your spare time? No, really. Most of us read around 300 words per minute. The average novel runs somewhere in the neighborhood of 80,000 to 100,000 words. Which means all you’ve got to do to beat the average is read 12 minutes a day.

Hell, at that rate you could read through the entire Harry Potter corpus in a year—and still have time for The Chronicles of Narnia.

I’m not convinced that more people reading more books is going to solve all our problems or anything like that; I’m just surprised that such a low-barrier pastime—one with fairly well-documented benefits (not to mention, you know…pleasure)—doesn’t get more love these days.

@#$%! social media, probably.

Quote of the Day

From the eminently quotable Cornel West, on the subject of American pragmatism:

We can go all the way back to Plato’s Republic, one of the founding texts of Western philosophy. There we see the battles going on between Thrasymachus and Socrates. Thrasymachus represents power, the idea that “might makes right.” And the younger generation looks to Socrates and says, is this true? Is it true that history is nothing but a slaughterhouse, as Hegel said, is it true that it’s just about might and power and domination? And Socrates says, no. Justice has to do with intellectual integrity. It has to do with philosophical inquiry. It has to do with some moral and even spiritual dimensions that are not reducible to might and power.

And that is the raw stuff for democracy, right? Because democracy says, Of course there is always economic and political and military power, but there’s got to be moral and spiritual dimensions rooted in the consent of everyday people. That’s what self-government is all about.

Travel Report

Had a picnic lunch with the missus last Monday in Lonerock, Oregon. We were on our way home from Redmond, having spent the weekend visiting family, catching the Saturday afternoon performance at the Sisters Rodeo, and taking in the High Desert Museum.

That’s it. That’s the post. Just figured y’all should know. (Is this what social media is for? Asking for a friend.)

Music for Hump Day

Leo Nocentelli turns 76 today. The lead guitarist and co-founder of The Meters was born in New Orleans in 1946.

To celebrate, open up your streaming service of choice—like, I dunno, Bandcamp—and listen to Another Side, Nocentelli’s long-lost solo “roots rock” album and “a remnant of a vital culture constantly in danger of slipping into the past.”

Then marvel at what one of the greatest funk guitarists of all time can do when he’s channeling his inner James Taylor.

Oh, and maybe buy the record, would you? Septuagenarian musicians gotta eat, too.

It’s Come to This

Six years ago, when we first brought to your attention the emergence of curate as a synonym for select, I never would have imagined that we as a society could reach the point at which a chief of police would—without irony, mind you—utter the following: “I think some of us were a bit surprised by not only the level of preparation that we saw, but the equipment that was curated and worn by those individuals, along with a large amount of equipment that was left in the [truck] when the stop happened.”

It beggars belief.

This, dear reader, is why you should care about the words you use. Curate has become so embedded in our vernacular that it no longer means what it used to. And that transition—from a field of study to a pretentious way of saying “here’s a list of things”—was wholly unnecessary.

Think about it: If we remove the phrase “curated and” from the above quote, do we lose anything?

I think some of us were a bit surprised by not only the level of preparation that we saw, but the equipment that was worn by those individuals, along with a large amount of equipment that was left in the [truck] when the stop happened.

No. We lose nothing.

But if you feel so strongly that including the selection process is somehow vital to understanding the menace these knuckleheads presented, then sure, say something like this:

I think some of us were a bit surprised by not only the level of preparation that we saw, but the equipment those individuals chose to wear, along with a large amount of equipment that was left in the [truck] when the stop happened.

Is it stronger? Maybe. I’m not sure most listeners to the chief’s news conference would notice the distinction, but I could be wrong.

So why do people insist on using curate incorrectly? Either ignorance or the desire to sound smarter than they actually are. The former isn’t anyone’s fault; the latter is a choice. Here’s hoping Chief Wright just doesn’t know any better.

Nightmare Fuel

If hell exists—and I’m inclined to believe it must, otherwise the Kardashians would have no place to go when they die—then this is probably what it’s going to look (and sound) like:

Television exists to make money. Which means someone, somewhere, thought that this is what Middle America was craving on Tuesday nights in 1968. (Given that the Red Skelton Hour was the seventh-most-popular show in the country at the time, well…I guess that person wasn’t exactly wrong.)

Art and Devotion

Over at Hazlitt, Matthew Bremner writes beautifully about Justo Gallego Martínez and the cathedral he worked on—largely by himself—for 60 years: “an architectural Frankenstein propped up on mismatched bricks, tires, wheels, food cans, plastic, and excessive quantities of cement” where “rooms erupted with thousands of broken tiles, dismantled cement mixers, motorbikes, rotten wood, oxidized saws, festering ropes, chicken carcasses, and plastic bags fossilized in pigeon shit.”

Locals thought he was crazy. But Justo, writes Bremner, was simply “unwilling to submit to what most people considered normal.”

Reminds me a little of Salvation Mountain, just outside of Slab City, California. Here’s how it looked when I visited in 2018, four years after creator Leonard Knight’s death at 82 (not sure he would have approved of the constant stream of wannabe Instagram starlets posing coquettishly beneath the giant cross):

It’s funny how religious devotion, when associated with works like Salvation Mountain, Sagrada Família, and Justo’s homemade cathedral, is generally understood to be a product of mental illness—whereas Bach, who is known to have lived “a life of conservative Lutheran observance” (some three-quarters of his 1,000 works were composed for worship), is rightly considered a genius.

Is it because Bach didn’t approach the uncomfortable degree of fervor that’s so apparent with the others’ work? Or is it because covering straw bales and adobe with half a million gallons of latex paint isn’t actually art?

Despite the varying results, what drove these men—and countless others—was the same thing. And that makes their work all the more meaningful.

Et tu, New Yorker?

I was reading a this story about MSG when I came across the following:

Despite MSG’s image makeover, I’ve found that plenty of people remain resistant to incorporating it into their cooking. They are willing to bring MSG into their homes as a component in other foods—more than happy to accept it as a flavoring powerhouse in Doritos, instant ramen, canned soup, and bouillon cubes, or at least happy to accept its euphemisms, like “hydrolized soy protein” and “autolyzed yeast.” But the notion of buying and using the raw ingredient is often a bridge too far.

The phrase “a bridge too far” comes from the Cornelius Ryan novel (and subsequent film) of the same name.

Published in 1974, Ryan’s book is an account of Operation Market Garden, which Wikipedia helpfully summarizes as the “failed Allied attempt to break through German lines at Arnhem by taking a series of bridges in the occupied Netherlands during World War II.”

“A bridge too far” is a metaphor for overreach; a situation in which ambition trumps capability, often leading to disastrous results. It’s unclear to me how that applies to using MSG in your cooking.

Like “begs the question,” which I’ve addressed previously, “a bridge too far” has taken on an entirely different meaning from what it was originally meant to convey. Whether that’s a natural evolution of the language or millennial ignorance—the latter nearly always a safe bet—is a discussion for another day. But when elite publications like the New Yorker don’t put the kibosh on it, that’s how these things stick.


Researchers estimate that 90 percent of medieval manuscripts have been lost completely.

Florence Hazrat asks the important questions:

Are prescribed grammar rules necessary…or a relic of some fussy conservatism and elitist era? Do we really need apostrophes (or any other mark of punctuation for that matter) or could we get rid of them for the sake of brevity? Is Princes Street rather than Prince’s or even the formidable Princes’ Street really a sign of our careless inattention to detail today? If punctuation can fall away and the words still make sense, why did we need it in the first place?

Ten ways to think about story endings, from George Saunders.

“I am a dilettante,” said Brian Eno. “It’s only in England that dilettantism is considered a bad thing. In other countries it’s called interdisciplinary research.”

Two-for-one bonus! The cigarette as “cinema’s most seductive prop” and Matt Labash comes to the defense of smokers.

Old Man Yells at Cloud

This xkcd comic—from 2010, mind you—remains true today:

I mean, see for yourself: exhibit A, exhibit B, exhibit C, exhibit D.

It’s not just university websites, either. It’s pretty much every website for any government entity and any organization larger than a dozen people.

Case in point: I recently had to update my credit card information for some bills I pay automatically (utilities, electricity, Internet, et al.), and MY GOD is it unnecessarily hard to do. You can’t find what you’re looking for, the naming conventions aren’t even close to intuitive, and once you get there, the Byzantine twists and turns you have to navigate in order to simply update your information and delete the old card are painful.

I’ve got a question for all you website designers and developers out there. Are you sadists? No, really. That’s the only explanation I can come up with.

Here’s some free advice: It doesn’t cost more to make information clear and easily accessible. It does cost more, however, every time someone has to call your customer service line because of bad design and abstruse language.

Quote of the Millennium

I’ve been reading through The Ladder of Divine Ascent by Saint John Climacus, and this paragraph, from the chapter “Step 4: On Obedience,” strikes me as being profoundly true—perhaps even more so today than it was when the book was written 1,400 years ago:

He whose will and desire in conversation is to establish his own opinion, even though what he says is true, should recognize that he is sick with the devil’s disease. And if he behaves like this only in conversation with his equals, then perhaps the rebuke of his superiors may heal him. But if he acts in this way even with those who are greater and wiser than he, then his malady is humanly incurable.

There’s an awful lot of wisdom in these pages. If you’re looking to score a copy, this particular edition is beautifully bound and printed, and is a steal at $35.

Happy Birthday, Prince of Darkness

Miles Davis—arguably the most innovative jazz musician of all time—would have been 96 today.

The very first jazz record I ever listened to, Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else, featured Davis as a sideman. The way he played the first four notes of the head to “Autumn Leaves” had a more profound impact on my nascent music career than almost anything else.

Here’s a 60 Minutes segment from 1989, which, despite the fact that poor Harry Reasoner is quite clearly out of his depth, is pretty good:

(That’s the year I came this close to seeing Miles play live. My flight out of Amsterdam was Sunday, July 16; he was performing at the Statenhal in The Hague the next day.)

And here’s a 1985 interview from NME‘s archives, published 10 years ago in the Guardian.

If you’re new to Davis’s music, I recommend beginning with Kind of Blue, then pretty much anything from his “Second Great Quintet” period. As for Bitches Brew, well…it’s great, but I actually prefer In a Silent Way—definitely one of my Desert Island Discs. And while his 80s stuff isn’t really my bag, his cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time after Time,” from You’re Under Arrest, is surprising.

Wherever you choose to start, though, Miles will change your life. Of that I’m certain.

Stop! Grammar Time!

Those who spend any amount of time around me know that I don’t suffer pretentious writers gladly. Like people who use curate indiscriminately; those who write “comprised of”; corporate types who think utilize makes them sound smarter than everybody else.

One I’ve been seeing a lot of lately is the use of reticent as a synonym for reluctant. It’s not.

reticence (noun) maintenance of silence; avoidance of saying too much or of speaking freely, reserve in speech; disposition to say little, taciturnity

reluctance (noun) the action of struggling against something; resistance, opposition

That’s what my copy of the OED says, anyway. But let’s not take their word for it. Let’s look at the Latin roots of each:

reticence reticentia, from reticere, keep silent, from RE- + tacere be silent

reluctance reluctari struggle against, from RE- + luctari to struggle

So. Not synonyms.

You can be reluctant to speak your mind (Hey! That’s what reticence means!), you can be reluctant to get married, you can be reluctant to get that colonoscopy your doctor recommended. But if you’re reticent, it can only mean one thing: keeping your mouth shut.

Sounds like good advice for all of us.

The Dangers of Geek Chic

Shot: “Man is probably not a machine, but he behaves as such in a situation where the machines impose his operating rules. Indeed, the progress of technology should not be understood as necessarily being the progress of mankind: far from it, they are not accompanied by a progress of thought, reflection and responsibility, since they eliminate their intervention and even often make them impossible.”

Chaser: “It is possible to handle the difficult truths of being alive in the twenty-first century, to sublimate existential pain in the service of something higher. But first, one must be fully in the real world and not be distracted by the escapist spectacle of…geeky elites.”

Quote of the Day

“I believe that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of [man’s] puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.”

William Faulkner

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