A Year Of Living Thoughtfully


The French have a nice term for what has been lacking in journalism this year: grand reportage, which I mentally subdivide into two categories, blockbusters and yarns. Blockbusters are news stories writ large, the kind that win Pulitzers. Yarns are offbeat stories pursed to the point at which they become fascinating. The greatest yarn ever told is either Frank Sinatra Has A Cold, by Gay Talese (the making of which has since been recounted by Talese himself); or Orchid Fever (which became a book called The Orchid Thief), by Susan Orlean.

This was a thin year for grand reportage partly because it was so difficult for reporters (and everybody else) to get out and about, and partly because so much of the media was a monoculture of Covid updates. But every cloud has a silver lining: Stuck at home, we did a lot of thinking. The quantity and quality of ideas-driven journalism went up.  

When I say this I have in mind the ideas captured in writing recommended on The Browser, which may not map precisely to the world at large, but I rather suspect that it does. Certainly, it should have done, given the constraints which Covid has placed on activities other than thinking, and the ways in which Covid has prompted us to look afresh at the content of our lives.

Substack and Ghost have helped raise the general intelligence of the internet by making it easier and more attractive for individuals to think aloud in newsletters. I now subscribe to at least a dozen newsletters by writers whom I knew previously only as contributors to newspapers and magazines, and at least two dozen more by writers entirely new to me. It may be that the newsletter channel is "full", as Benedict Evans has claimed. But, if so, it is full of fantastically interesting people and things, and who knows where the overflow will carry them?

From my year of reading, here are the ideas that impressed me most, favourably or unfavourably and sometimes (as with the first) both at the same time:

Children of six should be allowed to vote, because if most adults don't understand politics, ignorance should be no bar to children.
— Secret ballots should be abolished, so that voters can be held to account for the consequences of their choices.
— There is no such thing as "supply" in real-world economics, there is only "demand" for everything from varying people at varying price-levels.
— The deadweight loss of Christmas is a misconception, because the cash value of a gift is rarely relevant.
— If you have a chance to save a child drowning in shallow water near at hand, the optimal first response might just be, "Let me think about it".
— What if causality worked backwards in time?
— We shouldn't all just calm down. Society needs people who get very angry when very bad things happen.

I also find that I am reading many more non-fiction books than I used to do, partly because of lockdowns and partly because I am acquiring a greater respect for books than I had in my youth — which has led me to start keeping my own commonplace book of clippings and quotations (which I post online at The Browser, in case you are interested). I wish I had started doing this decades ago; I weep to think of the great books I have read in years gone by and forgotten in their entirety.

Some of my favourite finds on Kindle this year have been:

In Writing, by Adam Phillips
Four Thousand Weeks, by Oliver Burkeman
Diaries And Notebooks, by Patricia Highsmith
In Praise Of Shadows, by Junichiro Tanizaki
Being You, by Anil Seth
Say Nothing, by Patrick Radden Keefe

Oddly enough, I think books may be more vital now, in the age of Google, than ever they were before, to anybody who wants to "get on" in life. Roughly speaking, the information you can Google freely is available to everybody and of generally low quality. What you can get from buying and reading a book is information than very few other people will possess, and which thus gives you a huge competitive advantage.  


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