Texts and thoughts

This blog will be about books I have read and daily insights into phenomena I have experienced.

Quite a few times in the past, someone has asked me about a book I have recently read, or come back to a small insight I have made to something that we have experienced together. Often these discussions develop to become both lengthy and inspiring. I love these discussions, I think they have made me understand even better what it really was that I read or experienced. People from different viewpoints and knowledge backgrounds see things differently, and understanding several viewpoints paints a fuller picture of reality than what just one view would be able to achieve. These discussions have also been very fruitful from a practical standpoint, together we have often developed the ideas to something further, something that wasn’t really there in the original text or idea.

At the same time, I have often tried to recall what I thought about a book or something I have experienced when some time has passed. Quite often I have miserably failed to remember my initial thoughts, and at most remember a more recent public discussion on the topic. Today there are so many things happening at the same time that our brains (or at least mine) just forgets older, less pressing issues. 

I have started to make notes in this blog to answer to these two approaches. Firstly, as I really like it when people share their thoughts on something they have read, I wanted a space were this could be done. Before this blog my only opportunity to indulge in these discussions was on a coffee break with colleagues, in a bus to a conference, on a dinner with friends, and similar. 

Historically, this same wish to discuss what we have read has been met by phenomena like literary study circles or salons. In a literary study circle everyone agrees on reading the same book, and then come together to discuss it. This has, at least in the Nordics, been a very vivid culture for more than a hundred years, and it still exists in many forms. Some groups are self-organized and come together as friends or with a special interest, others are pulled together by local organizations; a folk high school, a club or a library. Many publishing houses also host these clubs on a business basis, where it becomes a convenient way of sending the customer a book a month. 

The Salons of the 18thcentury had a broader ambition. A group of people from different parts of society met up at someone’s home and shared ideas. New ideas were thrown forward, joint viewpoints on hot political topics were debated, shocking forms of art were presented, new businesses were started, and people had the opportunity to intrigue, appal and seduce each other. Often the host (who at least in all the stories I have read tended to be quite some character) opened up the Salon and the discussion by inviting someone to introduce a topic, and the discussions took on from there. The Salons aimed to both entertain and to educate.

I am aware that there are modern versions of these two concepts available. There are sites like Goodreads, were you can review a book and also see what your friends have reviewed. This is of course a great start. For me the challenge with these is that I cannot promise that all my insights will be on books alone, I want to make notes about other phenomena I see in the world around me, too.  There are also many versions of the historic Salons out there available for anyone to attend. Today we just call them something more trendy – a meetup, a jam, a pechakucha or a pitching session. 

Today’s Salons: A tech meetup in Hongkong, a poster for a “pizza-and-debate” discussion at the Art Department of Aalto University, a fishbowl session on the future of sustainability during an Index-Design to Improve Life award ceremony in Denmark, and Helsinki University’s Stage discussion series on the extinction of species and hope for the globe.

The challenge with both the literary study circles and the Salons is that you have to commit to them well in advance. And time is something that we all have very scarcely of. At least I struggle with getting in spare time to commit to reading a certain book every month and having to report on it. Even if I would be able to find the time I would probably feel stressed that I have promised to deliver something within a defined timeframe. It would become one more thing in my calendar I have to perform. The idea with this blog is the opposite, to write something down every now and then but without a promise of exactly when it would happen, and what it would be about. Hopefully, it also allows for comments and insights about the texts, whenever it is convenient for the reader. So if you are reading this, please, just comment with a quick line if you can, it’s great to know that someone has read it. And if you do have the time and opportunity to send a longer response – even better! (the ´leave a comment´-tag is on the top of this page)

The second reason for this blog also has to do with time and the lack of it. I am worried that in the midst of all of it (I think they call it life) I will forget stuff that I have read or small daily insights I have had. I simply just want somewhere where I can make notes on these things, so that I can find them later on. Maybe stopping for a moment to actually write down some insights will also make me remember them better, who knows? Or avoid quick-reading a book in an aeroplane or listening to an audiobook while being at the gym without really remembering anything of what I’ve read…. In that sense, if no-one reads or comments the texts they have still served a purpose; I have been forced to read and reflect, and have created a living archive of things which where “in the air” or in my mind.

Academics of reading are able to express this same thought way better. Maryanne Wolf talks about this in her book Reader, Come Home. The Reading Brain in a Digital World(Harper Collins Publishers 2018). 

Wolf puts forward the notion of deep reading. Deep reading significantly changes what we perceive, what we feel, and what we know and in so doing alters, informs and elaborates our thinking capacity. Deep reading needs attention, in longer spans than the typical micro-brake everyday around us allows. Wolf quotes current studies where some age groups now check their phone between 150 and 190 times a day. I must admit, this was part of the reason I started this project. Although I have practically stopped using Facebook altogether and seriously cut down on my usage time on Twitter and Instagram my phone still tells me that I spend more than two hours a day using it. Most of that is brakes in what I am currently doing; checking my calendar, reading mail and messages, checking social media etc. And this is far from all of my screen time; I do most of my work-related stuff on my computer and read books or papers on my pad….  Wolf claims that over the past ten years we have changed how muchwe read, howwe read, whatwe read and whywe read, as part of this constant attention grabbing in the digital world. We read what comes in front of us, and often in tiny bits. We simplify, we process information as rapidly as possible, and we read in briefer bursts. “Skimming” is the new normal in our reading.

More screens than conversations. Children playing together and adults in a café in Southern Manhattan.

Wolf also gives two really compelling reasons for why we should deep read more. The first is that reading expands our understanding of the other, and grows our capabilities of empathy. The need for increased empathy is obvious in today’s world – I suppose the alternative is confrontation, rupture and hate…

In order to avoid this, we come to the second important reason given to us by Wolf; we need to be able to see and evaluate facts. For this, our internal background knowledge is essential. Through deep reading we connect what we know to what we read, what we read to what we feel, what we feel to what we think, and how we think to how we live out our lives in a connected world. The lack of this internalised knowledge is increasing with the attitude of “I can always check it on the net when I need it”. According to Wolf, this deeper knowledge is not always appreciated before we realise it has disappeared. Then we become more and more easily (mis)led, mistaken by false information or, what’s even worse, we end up just not caring about it. The ability to deploy the time-consuming, critical processes to evaluate new information will significantly impact our future. Wolf quotes a speech by Barak Obama in his worries about information becoming “a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation”. 

If we want to deep read, we need to take the time for it. Wolf is worried that the time-consuming, cognitively demanding deep-reading process will gradually be lost in a culture which emphasizes speed, immediacy, high levels of stimulation, multitasking and large amounts of information. She quotes the youths’ typical comment on texts today, TL; DR (too long, did not read). 

Some people are better than others on taking this time. Wolf quotes a recent interview with Bill Gates and Waren Buffet where Gates thanked Buffet for teaching him to “fill his calendar with spaces”, to take the time to think. Buffet answers him by saying that “time is the one thing no one can buy”. I remember hearing the same wisdom from Matti Alahuhta more than a decade ago, his point was that a good leader cannot have a full calendar. 

These are great thoughts but not always so easy to live by. As I now move from two jobs to one I’ll try to cherish this thought – to take the time, to read more (more about what I do can be found under the ´about us´-tab). Including texts that are not put in front of me by an algorithm, or that I just “have” to read, for one reason or another. And if you are compelled to put a tl;dron my texts – take it as an opportunity, to just stop for a moment and have your own reflections. 

With these targets in mind I also have to write down a few disclaimers. I won’t aim at any academic texts, or showing the truth of anything, these will all just be my very subjective reflections. Anything described here are just thoughts of my own, and mostly stuff I do on my own time, and not anything that represent the organisations I work for. I also don’t think my notes will make the mark of classical book reviews, rather I’ll look at them from the viewpoint of what the book gave me, what it made me associate to etc. I think there are plenty of good book reviews out there, so hopefully if anything I wrote made you interested about a book you’ll easily find a more proper review or even the book itself to form your own opinion.  

Many of the texts I write have some angle to them that relates to my own background in design. This is unavoidable, we are all an amalgamation of our previous experiences and knowledge. That said, as I in my daily life meet people from so many different backgrounds I realise writing these texts is a way for me to think what I would tell others about a book. This often means people who do not have a design background. So if your background is in design, my texts might not be so interesting to you, as you probably know half the stuff (and much more) already.

All in all, my only target for writing these texts is to learn. I am curious about things, and want to learn more. If you have a comment to something I have written, I would be very thankful. Or if you have read something or experienced something you think I should look into – please let me know! The same goes if you think I have misunderstood something, or my viewpoint is skewed. Please help me forward. I hope that some of the texts will be inspiring to you, and that we together can make sure we all stay curious and want to learn more. And maybe, just maybe, like in the Salons, think of new ideas and be entertained, too.

What do you think, worth a try?

  1. Very good piece, it is important to read in this way, which I try to do as much as I can. Luckily, being retired, gives me extra time to read, a real luxury. The most recent book I have read deeply is called Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, it will change your view of humans and your sense of our place on the planet. It is a very rational and what I would call “cool” reading of humans, not especially critical but pointing out the distinctive and often problematic way humans behave for no good reason. For me the most compelling aspect of this book happens early when he notes that sapiens have a problem in that they can create and believe in fiction. This has lead to all kinds of dilemmas
    as you can well imagine. Our intelligence is also our weakness as animals, and make no doubt about it we are animals. There is much in this book and it needs to be deeply read. I look forward to more of your writing and dialog on this subject.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, Sapiens is a very thought provoking book. I read it (and it’s sequel Homo Deus) with great fascination when they first came out… Thanks for being supportive, I’ll try to get the next post out asap!


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