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Books for Writers: To Show and To Tell by Phillip Lopate

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To Show and to TellIn his instructive book To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, Phillip Lopate, essayist and Nonfiction Director at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, explores the form through a series of essays. In his introduction, Lopate poses a number of questions: where is the line between fiction and nonfiction? What are the ethics of writing about others? What are the techniques in essay writing? And, as the title alludes to, when, if ever, is it okay to tell?

Throughout the book, Lopate emphasizes the need for essayists to “think critically—to think against themselves,” to contradict themselves if need be. This is the message at the core of To Show and To Tell—that an essay is an attempt to come to an answer, not an opportunity to prove a rigidly held belief. By “thinking against oneself,” by being contrary, the essayist creates tension and suspense.

“All good essays are dialogues, and all partake of both exploration and argumentation,” Lopate writes. “In the best nonfiction, it seems to me, you’re always made aware that you are engaged with a supple mind at work.”

In addition to exploring philosophical questions about the craft, To Show and To Tell offers practical advice, such as how to turn oneself into a character (“you cannot amuse the reader unless you are already self-amused”), why one should research (“Research inspires curiosity, helps you break out of claustrophobic self-absorption”), and what’s gained by keeping a journal (“No one can expect to write well who will not first take the risk of writing badly”).

Lopate gives permission to do away with convention. For those who have trouble with endings, Lopate writes:

A common mistake students make is to assume they need to tie up with a big bow the preceding matter via a grand statement of what it all means, or what the life lesson to be drawn from it is … Readers should be left with some things to work out on their own.

The final section is a study of key essayists; Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, and James Baldwin are just a few writers Lopate highlights. Lamb “had the quintessential personal essayist’s ability to see his own personality as problematic, and to dramatize the resulting tensions.” According to Lopate, he saw people as actors and the streets of London as a stage. Hazlitt showed that essays can change direction and Baldwin’s “Notes on a Native Son” is “A twenty-page miracle, a masterpiece of compression.”

To Show and To Tell is an inspiring book on the art of the essay. The reader will come away with a richer understanding of the form and motivated to put theory into practice.

::[Links]::
Buy To Show and To Tell from your local bookstore 
Read an interview with Phillip Lopate at Harper’s Magazine
Read an interview with Phillip Lopate on Beyond the Margins
Read an interview with Phillip Lopate at Poets & Writers
Listen to an interview with Phillip Lopate on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show

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Written by Gabrielle

May 21, 2013 at 6:49 am

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

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Expendable ManOn his way to his niece’s wedding in Arizona, Hugh Densmore, a medical intern at UCLA, picked up a young female hitchhiker, took her as far as the California side of the border, and continued on his way. The next day she’s found dead in a canal near his family’s home in Phoenix. She’d had an illegal abortion, which was botched, but the cause of death was a blow to the head.

Not until a few dozen pages into the story do we learn that Densmore is black. The girl, being white, and it being that time and place, he becomes the prime suspect. At first he tries to prove his innocence on his own but, after getting nowhere, a friend convinces him to accept the help of Skye Houston, one of the country’s top lawyers—and a white man.

Published in 1963, The Expendable Man, a crime novel written from the point of view of the accused, echos the race relations of its day.

Any rational reader will get chills not from the description of the murder, or the menacing, suspense-filled cloud that hangs over Densmore’s head, but from the state of the justice system in which this case operates. Christine Smallwood, writing in The New Yorker, says of the book’s author, Dorothy B. Hughes, “It is not whodunit, but who-ness itself, that she’s after.”

To Hughes it’s not the criminal procedure that’s interesting, it’s the relationships that guide the procedure. The Expendable Man is not so much hardboiled fiction as it is an exploration of social issues.

::[Links]::
Buy The Expendable Man from your local bookstore
Sarah Weinman reviews Dorothy B. Hughes
Christine Smallwood reviews The Expendable Man
The Expendable Man reviewed in Bookforum

::[Excerpt]::

He had wound through the small canyon outside of town, and was moving on to the long desert plain, when he noted ahead an extra shadow in the tree shadow marking a culvert. It looked as if there were someone resting under the tree. It couldn’t be possible, here, close to fifteen miles out of town. There wasn’t a car in sight in either direction, and there was no habitation of any sort in any direction. Yet it looked like a person’s shadow.

It was just that. The shadow, raised up from its haunches, waited for his car to approach. He knew better than to pick up a hitchhiker on the road; he’d known it long before newspapers and script writers had implanted the danger in the public mind. But he reduced speed when he approached the shadow, the automatic anxiety reaction that a person might step in front of the oncoming car. He passed the hitchhiker before he was actually aware of the shape and form; only after he had passed did he realize that this was a young girl. From the glimpse, a teen-age girl. Even as he slowed his car, he was against doing it. But her possible peril if left here alone forced his hand. He simply could not in conscience go on, leaving her abandoned, with twilight fallen and night quick to come. He had sisters as young as this. It chilled him to think what might happen if one of them were abandoned on the lonesome highway, the type of man with whom, in desperation, she might accept a lift. The car was stopped. He shifted to reverse and began backing up.

Written by Gabrielle

May 15, 2013 at 6:50 am

Bluets by Maggie Nelson

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“Loneliness is solitude with a problem”—Maggie Nelson

BluetsAlthough written in numbered propositions, seemingly disconnected, Bluets is not the type of book you can open to any page and begin reading. I know this because it’s what I’d done a number of times in a number of bookstores only to leave empty handed despite trusted friends insisting on its brilliance.

Finally, I sat down to read Maggie Nelson’s book properly and discovered its flow, its rhythm, and was caught up in the attempt to understand the placement of these ruminations on—as one might infer from the title—the color blue.

“Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession; suppose I shredded my napkin as we spoke,” she begins. “And so, I fell in love with a color—in this case, the color blue—as if falling under a spell, a spell I fought to stay under and get out from under, in turns.”

Intense focus, or perhaps obsession, is what drives Bluets. At one point Nelson considers traveling the world in search of blue objects: “ancient indigo and woad production sites, the Chartres Cathedral, the Isle of Skye, the lapis mines of Afghanistan, the Scrovegni Chapel, Morocco, Crete.”

But Nelson does not need to travel to faraway places; she sees blue wherever she goes, and notices its absence when she doesn’t. Interspersed in Bluets are delightful facts about color: the presence of blue in nature (male satin bowerbirds build adorn their bowers with blue objects to lure females); religion (blue became a “holy” color after it was mistaken that ultramarine contained gold and was therefore valuable; and world cultures (the Tuareg, a “tribe of blue people” in the deserts of North Africa who take on the color of their deeply saturated dyed robes).

An ex-lover is remembered by the blue button-down shirt he wore on their final day together; the feet of a friend, now paraplegic, are mentioned because they’ve become “the blue of skim milk” from disuse. Quotes from Mallarmé, Goethe, and da Vinci woven into the fabric of Nelson’s thoughts fill the pages with a weight not conveyed by the book’s slim appearance.

Bluets will deceive aspiring writers. They will see short paragraphs made up of spare sentences and believe they can do it too. But the careful reader will feel the deliberation, they will know the state of the author’s cutting room floor.

In Bluets, Nelson has taken an exercise in single-minded attention and created a meditative masterpiece.

::[Links]::
Buy Bluets at your local bookstore
Maggie Nelson chooses six books on color 
An interview with Maggie Nelson at the Poetry Foundation
An interview with Maggie Nelson at BOMB magazine

Written by Gabrielle

April 16, 2013 at 6:55 am

Posted in books, reviews

Tagged with , ,

The Secret Lives of Unfinished Books

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LibraryWhat does it mean not to finish a book? To lose interest, steam, momentum? When distraction leads to forgotten plots, characters, and themes who suffers, the reader or the book left unread?

My apartment is teeming with unfinished books. They cover my desk, coffee table, and nightstand. They sit two rows deep on my bookshelves. There they remain, neglected, misunderstood, unappreciated, still with the last read page firmly marked with a piece of paper, a subscription card, or a proper bookmark: a reminder of my stagnation, my failure to engage.

With some I’d read only a few pages, others a few chapters, while others I’d nearly finished but inexplicably abandoned at the last moment. Not all books I set aside are bad; life gets in the way, my mind shifts, I am no longer the same person I was on the first page.

What if I had begun a few days earlier, a few days later? Would we have ridden it out until the bitter end?

is often much hand-wringing over the question of when to put a book down, of when to give up and walk away. For some people this is an agonizing decision. For me, I’ve never given it much thought. In my younger years I’ve either slogged through a story, not knowing I had an option, or, as in the case with assigned reading for school, never cared enough to feel obligated. Now that I’m older and at any given moment surrounded by more books than I’ll ever have time to read in a lifetime (or two or three), there’s no room for second-guessing or regrets.

My first impulse when I began this post was to anthropomorphize, to wonder what happened to the characters when tossed aside. Do they remain suspended—in a kitchen, at a wedding, in the throes of heartbreak—or do they continue on alone to an autonomous finish? That might be a silly thing to think about, like a 10-year-old with a developing consciousness or one who’s seen too many Disney films. But it puts things in perspective.

Books do not need you. They repeat their stories every night.

Here are a few books that have carried on without me, none of which were bad at all.

Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-MatasDublinesque
Dublinesque
is something of a tragicomedy. At the age of 60, Samuel Riba is forced into retirement after his literary publishing house fails. He’d like to blame the reading public but, really, it was his poor financial management skills that brought about his demise.

Now he spends his time on Google, searching for his name and publishing house, looking to see who still mentions him and reviews his list; the answer to both is not many.

After a dream, Riba plans a trip to Dublin and brings with him three authors he’s published. They are to stage a funeral for “The Gutenberg Age” in the same cemetery that appears in Joyce’s Ulysses.

The publisher, New Directions, calls Dublinesque “A fictional journey through the modern history of literary publishing,” an apt description if any. If you’re really into books and the publishing industry, this book is an entertaining read.

Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things by Gilbert Sorrentino
What a strange book Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things turned out to be. When I first saw it in the Dalkey Archive Press email newsletter I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I wouldn’t have guessed this.

Originally published in 1971, Imaginative Qualities is a satirical look at the New York art and literary scene of the 1950s and ‘60s. Told through an omniscient narrator (although he’ll tell you his characters are doing things when he’s not looking), the interweaving cast of failed artists and poets lead adulterous, destructive lives. The women are bored, the men are hopeless, and the narrator, who is actually the book’s author, openly refuses to implement certain literary devices.

The outcome is a story with an intentionally unruly feel, which, if truth be told, is part of its charm. At one point, as if the narrator is guarding against such an accusation, he interjects, “You’ll notice how carefully the threads are pulled together in this book. I don’t want to hear one more word about formlessness.”

Other amusing asides includes talk of killing off characters.

I’ve got a few more comments to make about Lou, a few more things to say about him before I get rid of him. Prose is endless. It strikes me that I could go on and on, into a thousand pages, about this poor man. (How poor, compared to the rest of us?) For a moment, I thought of having him step off the curb in front of a truck, or drown in the bathtub, something simple and accidental. Just write him off so that the long future of academe would not be his and Sheila would be free to be unhappy with somebody else. End him with a brief paragraph E.M. Forster-style. Would that be too literary? No such thing. People who make such remarks admire the prose of Jimmy Breslin.

The beauty of this multi-layered novel is that the meaning is left to interpretation. The reader takes away from it what they wish, which, in this case, suits the essence of the story nicely.

A Breath of Life

A Breath of Life by Clarice Lispector
For a while I joked that Clarice Lispector’s novels were the new “Go Ask Alice” for my age group. When New Directions first reissued four of her books it seemed like every 30-something I knew was reading one and recommending it to anyone within a 10-foot radius. There was an aura of mysticism around the whole thing. It was the way people spoke about her and her writing, as if one glimpse of her writing would change your life.

Clarice Lispector, in her posthumous work, A Breath of Life, asks readers to examine both sides of the author-character relationship. The male writer explains that his creation, Angela, is “not a ‘character.’ She’s the evolution of a feeling. She’s an idea incarnated in the being.” Shortly after he enters a conversation with her where, at one point, she asks, “Am I pure?” The author answers, vaguely, philosophically, “Purity would be as violent as the color white. Angela is the color of hazelnut.”

Throughout the book there are scores of aphorism that make you pause: “Writing is difficult because it touches the boundaries of the impossible,” “[I’m] an open parenthesis. Please close me,” “Solitude is a luxury,” and “When I write, I mix one color with another, and a new color is born.”

What’s striking about A Breath of Life is that it leaves you wondering if you’re in the presence of brilliance or insanity—although one could argue the fine line between the two. As with much of Lispector’s writing, I imagine, A Breath of Life cannot be understood in one reading. Her books strike me as those that are meant to be read, wrestled with, digested, and then read again in order to find hidden layers and new meaning.

::[Links]::
Read an interview with Enrique Vila-Matas
Read an interview with Gilbert Sorrentino
Read an interview with Clarice Lispector’s translator

Written by Gabrielle

March 26, 2013 at 6:51 am

In the Land of Oz

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Wizard of OzThe Wizard of Oz is a classic. Full stop. Whether it’s known through L. Frank Baum’s original book for children or through the 1939 film adaptation starring Judy Garland as Dorothy, it lingers in the minds of many. Until recently, I had only been familiar with the film—and, to be honest, the first and last time I watched it was to see what may or may not have been a Munchkin hanging himself from a tree as the gang of four skipped down the Yellow Brick Road*.

Now, The Wizard of Oz has found its way back into the cultural conversation with a newly released prequel starring James Franco. Although the film isn’t getting the best reviews, there’s been an outpouring of interest in the book again and a number of thoughtful pieces have surfaced on the Internet.

At Litreactor, Kimberly Turner delves into the history of the Oz series. Included are a number of details about L. Frank Baum’s life, the book’s sales history, and the differences between the popular film adaptation and the original text:

As is typical with movie adaptations, the 1939 film differs from its source material in more ways than I can list here—at least without losing your attention. A few of the notable differences, besides the ruby slippers: In the book, Oz is a real place, not a dream world; thus the existence of forty-one sequels. The Wicked Witch Of The West is a blip on the radar rather than the primary obstacle. Dorothy is a stronger, more feminist protagonist and considerably less weepy. There are quite a few more subplots, including a visit to a city made of China and an encounter with an odd race of armless guards called Hammerhead, and much, much more beheading.

At The New Yorker, Erin Overbey, Deputy head of the magazine’s archive, dug through past issues and found a negative review of the film. Their critic at the time, Russell Maloney, said it had “no trace of imagination, good taste, or ingenuity.” Meanwhile an essay written by Salman Rushdie in 1992 links the story to a “longing for liberation from mundane routine.” In a Critic at Large piece by John Updike where he critiques The Annotated Wizard of Oz we learn some interesting background on Baum: he wrote The Wizard of Oz at age forty-four in 1900 and was married to a politically progressive woman, a suffragette who co-authored a book with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Dorothy’s strength, as noted above in the Litreactor piece, may have been her doing as she had a great influence on her husband. He’d even written a few subsequent books under female pseudonyms.

Wizard of Oz illustrationAs part of my experiment in reading children’s books as an adult, many of which I missed in my younger years, I’d decided to read The Wizard of Oz late last year. It was an iconic book that I had a cursory knowledge of and felt I was missing out on a piece of American cultural history.

In his introduction to The Wizard of Oz, Baum said he’d written the book “solely to please the children of today.” He hoped to do away with the “heartaches and nightmares” of previous fairy tales and legends. “Modern education includes morality … the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incidents,” he said. This last part leaves one to wonder how he explained the Winged Monkeys but point taken.

With Baum’s intention in mind I embarked on my reading. Instead of looking for social and political undertones, which many have read into the silver shoes and Yellow Brick Road, I enjoyed it as a simple story about a girl suddenly finding herself in a strange land and longing to return home. Mostly, I was surprised by and taken with the vivid descriptions undoubtedly lost in summary.

By now everyone knows that Dorothy lived on a farm in Kansas with her aunt and uncle. One day a cyclone hits, the house is lifted into the air, and she is flown to a faraway land. What those who haven’t read the book don’t know is the sad state her relatives were in prior to the storm. The opening scene is nearly comic in its darkness:

Once the house had been painted, but the sun blistered the paint and the rains washed it away, and now the house was as dull and gray as everything else.

When Aunt Em came there to live she was a young, pretty wife. The sun and wind had changed her, too. They had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were gray also. She was thin and gaunt, and never smiled now. …

Uncle Henry never laughed. He worked hard from morning till night and did not know what joy was. He was gray also, from his long beard to his rough boots, and he looked stern and solemn, and rarely spoke.

Much is made of the use of technicolor of the 1939 film and after reading Baum’s book one has to wonder if it could have been made otherwise. After Dorothy wakes to find herself “in the midst of a country of marvelous beauty,” color is prevalent in his descriptions

Shortly after being set down, Dorothy meets a lion who has no courage, a tin woodman who has no heart, and a scarecrow who has no brains. Together, the four of them set off—often through hostile territory—in search of what they each desire.

They walked along listening to the singing of the brightly colored birds and looking at the lovely flowers which now became so thick that the ground was carpeted with them. There were big yellow and white and blue and purple blossoms, besides great clusters of scarlet poppies, which were so brilliant in color they almost dazzled Dorothy’s eyes.

There’s lots of “brilliance” and “dazzle” in this book and after they’re instructed to visit the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz they encounter both again at the gates of his Emerald City.

The next morning, as soon as the sun was up, they started on their way, and soon saw a beautiful green glow in the sky just before them. … As they walked on, the green glow became brighter, and it seemed that at last they were nearing the end of their travels. … In front of them, and at the end of the road of yellow brick, was a big gate, all studded with emeralds that glittered so in the sun that even the painted eyes of the Scarecrow were dazzled by their brilliancy.

Although Baum said he wasn’t in the business of dispensing morals, there are plenty to be found in this story. When asked by the Scarecrow for brains, Oz replies, “You don’t need them. You learn something new every day. A baby has brains, but it doesn’t know much. Experience is the only thing that brings knowledge, and the longer you are on earth the more experience you are sure to get.”

When the Lion asks for courage Oz says, “You have plenty of courage, I am sure. All you need is confidence in yourself. There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger.” The Tin Woodman, when he asks for a heart, is told he is wrong to want a heart, that hearts “make most people unhappy.”

In the end The Wizard of Oz does offer lessons; it wouldn’t have lasted this long in our collective psyche otherwise.

::[Links]::
Buy The Wizard of Oz from your local bookstore
Listen to Studio 360’s American Icons show on The Wizard of Oz

*While writing this piece I did some research (a.k.a a quick Google search) and learned that the Munchkin thing is a myth and that it was really a bird. Here’s a list of 7 others from BuzzFeed.

Written by Gabrielle

March 19, 2013 at 6:53 am

New to Noir: He Died with His Eyes Open

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He Died with His Eyes OpenDerek Raymond’s Factory Series is a special blend of noir. As James Sallis in his introduction to the first book, He Died with His Eyes Open, says, the five novels are “In between books—not quite what you’d call literary perhaps, but then, not quite crime novels either.” Or, as author A.L. Kennedy puts in a recent review for NPR, “Raymond’s narratives press against somewhere unusual in your brain; they penetrate and interfere, putting you in touch with levels of intensity and disintegration that seem to combine literary achievement with medical intervention.”

He Died with His Eyes Open is noir for today’s reader: void of over-the-top female sensuality and duplicity and the brassy language that begs mockery. Instead, Raymond’s prose is dark, elegant, and suited to the sensibilities of the times in which he wrote, the 1980s. If he had followed his predecessors and adopted the 1950s model it would have felt like a caricature of a genre already prone to exaggeration. Instead, Raymond creates something subtle, unique—something that still feels fresh in 2013.

He Died with His Eyes Open begins—as do most noir novels—with a gruesome murder. A man is found dead in a shrub outside of the Word of God House. When it becomes clear that the victim is just one of the many dregs of society currently polluting the city, the detective from the Serious Crime Unit is quick to call it an open-and-shut case. Who cares about the downtrodden, especially in Thatcherite England? However, our protagonist, Detective Sergeant from the Department of Unexplained Deaths, “by far the most unpopular and shunned branch of the service,” is not as quick to dismiss the crime.

Derek RaymondThis is what makes the unnamed detective of Raymond’s books different from other noir detectives. While a familiar characteristic of his sleuthing counterparts is cool detachment, this detective cares about those whom others would throw into a 6-foot hole without a second thought. He’s a champion of the poor, of Democracy, of a better society. He takes on “obscure, unimportant, apparently irrelevant deaths of people who don’t matter and who never did” and comes out more sympathetic for it.

To find out who might have murdered the man, Charles Staniland, a fifty-one year-old alcoholic, the detective spends hours listening to tapes the victim left behind and investigates the grimiest of dive bars 80s London has to offer—always a cut above the patrons but never out of place. It’s not long before he learns of an ex-wife, a junkie son, and a tough girlfriend named Babsie—all whom need to be handled with care. Soon one starts to wonder if the detective has gotten too close to the case; lines and judgment blur—but what noir novel would be complete without moral ambiguity?

To get to the end of this review without mentioning the brilliant designs for all five of Derek Raymond’s novels would be a gross oversight. The bright orange covers with a single image—an everyday object made suggestively gruesome—make the US editions from Melville House dare you to ignore them. Even if the novels weren’t so damn good, you’d want them around as art pieces. Luckily, they’re quality from cover to cover. If you’ve never read a crime novel in your life, The Factory Series is the place to start.

::[Links]::
Find He Died with His Eyes Open at your local bookstore
The Life of Derek Raymond [Slideshow]
A.L. Kennedy’s review on NPR

::[Excerpt]::

He was found in the shrubbery in front of of the Word of God House in Albatross Road, West Five. It was the thirtieth of March, during the evening rush-hour. It was bloody cold; and an office worker had tripped over the body when he was caught short going home. I don’t know if you know Albatross Road where it runs into Hanger Lane, but if you do you’ll appreciate what a ghastly lonely area it is, with the surface-level tube-station on one side of the street, and dank, blind buildings, weeping with damp, on the other. That evening there was yet another go-slow on, and when I arrived at seven there were people still massing to get down the tube stairs to the trains, which were running very rare.

It was pelting with rain on an east wind when I got there. I found Bowman from Serious Crimes standing over the corpse with a torch, talking to the two coppers off the beat who had been called by the man who had stumbled on him. Water ran off the brim of Bowman’s trilby and dribbled down the helmets of the wooden-tops to end up in their collars.

Bowman handed me the torch without a word and I bent over the dead man. His eyes were open—one only just—the surfaces peppered with the grit that an east wind hurls at you off London streets. He was wearing a cheap grey suit with cigarette burns down the front and a tatty raincoat. He was medium height, with thin hair turning grey and a boozer’s nose, aged between fifty and sixty. Both his arms were broken, and one leg; the bone poked out blue through the trouser cloth. His head had been battered in below the hairline and brains had slopped down his left cheek into the mud. I got the impression, though, despite his injuries he hadn’t died at once. In the dull eyes there was still a flicker of some memory that he meant to take with him wherever he was going.

Written by Gabrielle

March 12, 2013 at 6:51 am

Posted in books, reviews

Tagged with , , , ,

Life Hacking 101: Just Don’t Call it Self-Help

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Art of DoingThe other day I sat in a room full of colleagues and said something along the lines of “I don’t read self-help books.” Note, I did not say this disparagingly; it was simply just a matter of fact, or so I thought. No more than an hour or two later I realized I was wrong. Leaving aside that one summer between my junior and senior year of college when a bad breakup brought me to If the Buddha Dated, I found I could come up with a number of recent examples: Dale Carnegie, John C. Maxwell, and David Allen, to name a few authors. The thing was, I hadn’t associated them with the self-help genre.

While Carnegie is shelved in self-help, often taking up full rows, I was surprised that he had not been placed in business instead. As with Maxwell and Allen’s wildly popular books, I saw Carnegie’s classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People, as a treatise on work relationships rather than something for one’s personal life—although it helps with that as well. I had thought of all three, along with Seth Godin and Guy Kawasaki, as part of the life hack family.

Life hack is a relatively new phenomenon—at least in name. According to Wikipedia, “life hack refers to any productivity trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method to increase productivity and efficiency … [it’s] anything that solves an everyday problem in a clever or non-obvious way.” The origin of the term is credited to computer programmers in the 1980s who devised “tricks to cut through information overload and organize their data.” Today, it’s associated with almost anything that increases personal productivity and helps navigate workplace situations, as illustrated by the popular website Lifehacker where you can learn about the best apps to help you through your workday as well as interpersonal skills that will help advance your career—even in the trickiest of situations.

So, as it turns out, I do read self-help, sometimes voraciously.

Recently, I learned of the book The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well after coming across an excerpt of Mark Frauenfelder’s tips for creating a successful blog. As the founder and coeditor of Boing Boing, a popular website for techy-types and genre fans, Frauenfelder exudes authority on the subject; it would be wise to listen to what he has to say.

What might come as a surprise to some, given the computer-geek culture associated with the site, Frauenfelder’s last piece of advice is to “keep it real,” that “the best material for the blog is usually found in the real world from real-life experiences.”

The Art of Doing is full of these surprising anecdotes and aphorisms, often from unlikely sources. How the editors came to collect them is seemingly simple, they asked “successful people how they do what they do.” They asked for “work habits, turning points, experiences, insights and goals” and wound up with a handy reference book that can be opened to any page and read in any order to obtain words of wisdom—and inspiration—for life in all its many forms.

While gathering stories and expert practices from contributors, the editors, Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield, “began to see patterns” and noticed that “people shared core principles and practices.” Among them were dedication, intelligent persistence, community building, listening, testing, managing emotions, evolving, and cultivating patience and happiness.

For 30 Rock writer Robert Carlock, “It’s important to create the environment where everyone wants to contribute so that moment of inspiration can happen, because sometimes, you’re just one step away.” The band OK Go urges readers to ignore the false line between promotion and art, believing that the elevation of “one type of creativity over another is crazy,” saying that “You can call making videos, posters and other visuals crass commercial promotion, but all of our creative ideas are connected and promote each other.” They “see no line between the music and the work that supports it.”

The advice is as varied as the participants: from neurologist and neuropsychiatrist Richard Restak on optimizing your brain; to Simon Doonan, creative ambassador at large for Barneys New York, on being “the most fabulous you;” to Philippe Petit, high-wire artist, on letting life be your teacher.

Whether you call it life hacking or plain old self-help, the goal is the same: to become the best at what you do. In this day and age—as we move further away from the Industrial Revolution and deeper into the Digital and Social Age—that often means becoming the most creative, innovative person you can be, to think far outside the box and to help those around you do the same. The Art of Doing is an excellent look inside the minds and practices of people who have strived and succeeded, and who continue, every day, to be better. Pick it up, read it, hack life.

::[Links]::
Buy The Art of Doing at your local bookstore
Read Mark Frauenfelder’s excerpt at Fast Company
Read Lifehacker
Find useful articles at 99u
Listen to Seth Godin’s interview with Krista Tippett

Written by Gabrielle

February 26, 2013 at 6:51 am

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