Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The poet in the city

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In “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” which was first published in 1903, the German sociologist Georg Simmel described the profound effects that living in a city has on the inner lives of its inhabitants. He was particularly struck by the precision with which urban existence has to reckon time, a phenomenon that he linked to “the universal diffusion of pocket watches.” Simmel wrote:

The relationships and affairs of the typical metropolitan usually are so varied and complex that without the strictest punctuality in promises and services the whole structure would break down into an inextricable chaos. Above all, this necessity is brought about by the aggregation of so many people with such differentiated interests, who must integrate their relations and activities into a highly complex organism. If all clocks and watches in Berlin would suddenly go wrong in different ways, even if only by one hour, all economic life and communication of the city would be disrupted for a long time. In addition, an apparently mere external factor, long distances, would make all waiting and broken appointments result in an ill-afforded waste of time. Thus, the technique of metropolitan life is unimaginable without the most punctual integration of all activities and mutual relations into a stable and impersonal time schedule.

These days, the universal diffusion of smartphones has led to much the same result, except that our clocks are now all perfectly synced, and we take such precision for granted, not just in the present, but in the near future. Thanks to Google Maps and Uber, we expect to know the exact number of minutes between ourselves and our destination, or precisely how long we have to wait before our driver arrives, and we plan our lives accordingly. Like Nicolas Cage in Next—which is a reference I never thought I’d make—we can all see about two minutes into the future, and the effects are similar to the ones that Simmel described over a century ago:

Punctuality, calculability, exactness are forced upon life by the complexity and extension of metropolitan existence and are not only most intimately connected with its money economy and intellectualist character. These traits must also color the contents of life and favor the exclusion of those irrational, instinctive, sovereign traits and impulses which aim at determining the mode of life from within, instead of receiving the general and precisely schematized form of life from without. Even though sovereign types of personality, characterized by irrational impulses, are by no means impossible in the city, they are nevertheless, opposed to typical city life. The passionate hatred of men like Ruskin and Nietzsche for the metropolis is understandable in these terms. Their natures discovered the value of life alone in the unschematized existence which cannot be defined with precision for all alike.

Thanks to the profusion of smartphones, these qualities have spread outward from the city to all walks of life, but they’re most evident in places like Manhattan. For all their apparent confusion, cities have a low tolerance for true irrationality, which is a social vice comparable to poverty, both of which offend the core values of capitalism. To put it another way, the city isn’t conducive to poetic thought, which is based to a certain extent on intuition, a nonlinear conception of time, and, usually, a lack of money. Poetry written in the city may even have a subtly different flavor than the kind produced in calmer surroundings. Two decades after Simmel, the poets Robert Graves and Laura Riding wrote:

A new type of poem has been evolved and popularized by the demands of the anthology-reading public. It is called “the perfect modern lyric.” Like the bestseller novel, it is usually achieved in the dark; but certain critical regulations can be made for it. It must be fairly regular in form and easily memorized, it must be a new combination of absolutely worn-out material, it must have a certain unhealthy vigor or languor, and it must start off engagingly with a simple sentimental statement. Somewhere a daring pseudo-poetical image must be included.

Graves and Riding don’t explicitly mention the city, but the incentives they describe are particularly evident there. Just as even literary novelists in New York feel pressured to produce a bestseller, simply as a matter of survival, poems written under such conditions tend to be mindful of their potential markets. Writers in the city are constantly fixated on the near future, because they’re surrounded by rivals who are outshining them in the present, and they end up living slightly ahead of themselves, as if they were tracking their careers on the Lyft app.

The punchline, of course, is that writers and poets flock to the city. They’re drawn to its cultural opportunities, to its promise of careers in media or publishing, and to the fact that a sufficient population density generates the necessary critical mass of outcasts and oddballs that a writer needs to feel like part of a community. It also provides exposure to the serendipity that Nassim Nicholas Taleb advises us to maximize in The Black Swan:

Collect as many free nonlottery tickets…as you can, and, once they start paying off, do not discard them. Work hard, not in grunt work, but in chasing such opportunities and maximizing exposure to them. This makes living in big cities invaluable because you increase the odds of serendipitous encounters—you gain exposure to the envelope of serendipity.

If you’re a poet, then, you have plenty of good reasons to go to the city—but also you have to guard your citadel of integrity against all the temptations that whisper to you to abandon it. And perhaps it’s only in the reaction against such forces that your true self comes into being, as Simmel himself recognized. Life in the city, he notes, is both full of stimulation and fundamentally impersonal, which means that the individual has to reach deeper inside to find his or her “genuine personal colorations and incomparabilities.” As Simmel concludes: “This results in the individual’s summoning the utmost in uniqueness and particularization, in order to preserve his most personal core. He has to exaggerate this personal element in order to remain audible even to himself.”

Written by nevalalee

April 11, 2017 at 8:53 am

An unread life

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The author's library

A few months ago, I was proudly showing off my home library to a friend when he asked a version of a question I’ve often heard before: “When I see most people with libraries like this, I assume they haven’t read the books. But you’ve read most of these—right?” In response, I may have stammered a little. No, I said, I haven’t read them all, but they’re all here for a reason. Each book fits into its own particular niche, I’ve grazed in each one, and they’re all important to me. If I’d been in a different mood, I might have quoted Umberto Eco’s testy reply to similar queries:

The visitor enters and says, “What a lot of books! Have you read them all?” At first I thought that the question characterized only people who had scant familiarity with books, people accustomed to seeing a couple of shelves with five paperback mysteries and a children’s encyclopedia, bought in installments. But experience has taught me that the same words can be uttered also by people above suspicion. It could be said that they are still people who consider a bookshelf as a mere storage place for already-read books and do not think of the library as a working tool.

In other words, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb notes, while also citing Eco: “Read books are far less valuable than unread ones.” Which isn’t to say that I’ll simply buy a book and stick it on the shelf to admire. Whenever I acquire a new book, I give it a good browse, just enough to give me an idea of what I really have, and then I file it away, content in the knowledge that when I need to dig deeper, it’ll be there. Or at least that’s the rule I try to follow. In practice, I’ve found myself accumulating books by certain authors—Lewis Mumford, for instance—on a vague suspicion that they’re going to come in handy one day, and others that force themselves on my attention simply because of an alluring look and a reasonable price. In other cases, I’m drawn to books primarily by what they represent: a commitment to a single overwhelming idea, which is something I value without being able to replicate. A book like The Plan of St. Gall or Marcello Malpighi and the Evolution of Embryology is the product of decades of singleminded work, and as a writer who is happiest when switching frequently between projects, I keep them around as a reminder of a different, and maybe better, way of art and thought.

The author's library, temporarily unshelved

But there’s no question that I browse more than I read these days. Part of this has to do with the shape my life has taken: between an active toddler and my own unwritten pages, it’s hard to find time to sit down with a book for more than half an hour at a stretch. My criteria, in fact, for buying new books has shifted slightly ever since my daughter was born. At the moment, I tend to buy books that I’ll be glad to own even if I don’t read them from cover to cover, which favors titles that are either inherently browsable—where I can turn to a random page in the middle and find something enlightening or diverting—or that have strong aesthetic interest in themselves. The latter encompasses lovely little paperbacks as much as their big leatherbound brothers, but it’s especially why I’m so taken by the idea of the tome. When a book is large enough, the pressure to get through all of it is correspondingly reduced: The Plan of St. Gall seems content to hang around forever as a permanent presence, to be dipped into as often or rarely as I want, rather than plowed through from first volume to last. There comes a point when a book’s sheer size ceases to be formidable and becomes almost comforting in its insistence on pages unread and byways unexplored.

This may be why I’ve been increasingly drawn to rare books like this as my free time has grown ever more contracted. If I blow $200 on St. Gall or $80 on Marcello Malpighi, you shouldn’t be misled into thinking I have oodles of disposable cash; really, they’re just about all I treat myself to these days, aside from the occasional album. When I’m tempted to buy a video game or Blu-ray, there’s a reasonable voice in my head that asks when, exactly, I think I’ll get around to playing or watching it. With a book, I’ve got my answer ready: I’ll leaf through it a little now, then save the rest for the same undefined retirement home in which I’ll finally read all of Gibbon. In the meantime, my unread books give me a satisfaction—as well as occasional injections of pleasure, whenever I remember to take one down from the shelf for a few minutes—that I don’t feel from an unwatched movie or unplayed game. It isn’t clear to me if the result is a working tool, as Eco would say, or a stealth form of vanity, but it probably lies somewhere in the middle. The most generous interpretation is that it’s a monument to possibility, a collection of paths I can take whenever I like. It may not be today, or even in this lifetime. But they’re still a part of the life I have now.

Written by nevalalee

October 14, 2014 at 9:48 am

The right kind of randomness

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Yesterday, while talking about my search for serendipity in the New York Times, I wrote: “What the [Times‘s] recommendation engine thought I might like to see was far less interesting than what other people unlike me were reading at the same time.” The second I typed that sentence, I knew it wasn’t entirely true, and the more I thought about it, the more questions it seemed to raise. Because, really, most readers of the Times aren’t that much unlike me. The site attracts a wide range of visitors, but its ideal audience, the one it targets and the one that embodies how most of its readers probably like to think of themselves, is fairly consistent: educated, interested in the politics and the arts, more likely to watch Mad Men than Two and a Half Men, and rather more liberal than otherwise. The “Most Emailed” list isn’t exactly a random sampling of interesting stories, then, but a sort of idealized picture of what the perfect Times subscriber, with equal access to all parts of the paper, is reading at that particular moment.

As a result, the “serendipity” we find there tends to be skewed in predictable ways. For instance, you’re much more likely to see a column by Paul Krugman than by my conservative college classmate Ross Douthat, who may be a good writer who makes useful points, but you’d never know it based on how often his columns are shared. (I don’t have any hard numbers to back this up, but I’d guess that Douthat’s columns make the “Most Emailed” list only a fraction of the time.) If I were really in search of true serendipity—that is, to quote George Steiner, if I was trying to find what I wasn’t looking for—I’d read the most viewed or commented articles on, say, the National Review, or, better yet, the National Enquirer, the favorite paper of both Victor Niederhoffer and Nassim Nicholas Taleb. But I don’t. What I really want as a reader, it seems, isn’t pure randomness, but the right kind of randomness. It’s serendipity as curated by the writers and readers of the New York Times, which, while interesting, is only a single slice of the universe of randomness at my disposal.

Is this wrong? Not necessarily. In fact, I’d say there are at least two good reasons to stick to a certain subset of randomness, at least on a daily basis. The first reason has something in common with Brian Uzzi’s fascinating research on the collaborative process behind hit Broadway shows, as described in Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine. What Uzzi discovered is that the most successful shows tended to be the work of teams of artists who weren’t frequent collaborators, but weren’t strangers, either. An intermediate level of social intimacy—not too close, but not too far away—seemed to generate the best results, since strangers struggled to find ways of working together, while those who worked together all the time tended to fall into stale, repetitive patterns. And this strikes me as being generally true of the world of ideas as well. Ideas that are too similar don’t combine in interesting ways, but those that are too far apart tend to uselessly collide. What you want, ideally, is to live in a world of good ideas that want to cohere and set off chains of associations, and for this, an intermediate level of unfamiliarity seems to work the best.

And the second reason is even more important: it’s that randomness alone isn’t enough. It’s good, of course, to seek out new sources of inspiration and ideas, but if done indiscriminately, the result is likely to be nothing but static. Twitter, for instance, is as pure a slice of randomness as you could possibly want, but we very properly try to manage our feeds to include those people we like and find interesting, rather than exposing ourselves to the full noise of the Twitterverse. (That way lies madness.) Even the most enthusiastic proponent of intentional randomness, like me, has to admit that not all sources of information are created equal, and that it’s sometimes necessary to use a trusted home base for our excursions into the unknown. When people engage in bibliomancy—that is, in telling the future by opening a book to a random page—there’s a reason why they’ve historically used books like Virgil or the Bible, rather than Harlequin romance: any book would generate the necessary level of randomness, but you need a basic level of richness and meaning as well. What I’m saying, I guess, is that if you’re going to be random, you may as well be systematic about it. And the New York Times isn’t a bad place to start.

Written by nevalalee

May 23, 2012 at 10:42 am

One page at a time

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If there were world enough, and time, I’d read all the books that I buy, but as we’ve already demonstrated, that isn’t going to happen. At this point in my life, when I’ve been accumulating books for years, whenever I hesitate over buying another one, it isn’t so much about the money—although it sometimes is—as it is about time and space. I seem condemned, or blessed, to spend my life with overflowing bookshelves and books on the floor, and I’m fine with that (although my wife seems less than thrilled by the prospect). That said, when I decide not to buy a book these days, I’m often thinking about the cubic inches it will occupy, not its effect on my wallet. And same is true, even more so, of time. As has been pointed out more than once, if you’re thirty years old and can get through, say, two books a week, that’s just five thousand books until you die, not nearly enough time for everything worth reading. So whenever I’m weighing a new purchase, part of me has to ask of the book in my hand: “Are you one of the five thousand?”

Yet that’s manifestly unfair to most books, which aren’t necessarily meant to be read from cover to cover, but to be owned, consulted, browsed through, and contemplated. Nassim Nicholas Taleb has spoken approvingly of Umberto Eco’s idea of the anti-library, which states that unread books are far more valuable than the ones you’ve read—in which case my own library is priceless. “The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there,” Taleb writes, in his slightly smug style. And I agree. But the real problem isn’t reading the books: it’s about knowing, in general, what I’m missing. With the books I tend to buy, which are old, miscellaneous, and rarely searchable online, it isn’t enough just to glance at the back cover, or even the index. A quick look won’t tell you what you’ll find in, say, The Road to Xanadu or The White Goddess or any of the other great lucky bags of literature, in which a random page might contain a fact that can change a life. So what do you do?

If you’re me, you engage in a slightly more leisurely version of what Calvin does here: you sit down and flip through the entire book, not really reading, but at least physically looking at every page. I’m far from joking. This is browsing taken to its most literal, left-brained extreme, but it works so well that I try to do it with every book I buy these days, often at night, when my wife and I are reading together on the living room sofa. To take examples from the books I bought this month: it was while going page by page through Notes on a Cowardly Lion, slowing down to read the sections on Bert Lahr’s performances in The Wizard of Oz and Waiting for Godot—which deserve blog posts of their own—that I discovered the wonderful passage on the vaudevillian Billy K. Wells that appeared here on Sunday. And while doing the same for The Ants, I learned about the curious phenomenon of the ant mill, which I promptly appropriated for use in a section of my current novel.

And sometimes you’ll find something even more significant. If there’s any book that was made for a good left-brained browse, it’s Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama, a big, glossy, gorgeous volume, too large to really read comfortably, dense with images and text, that I picked up for a song at last year’s Newberry Library Book Fair. While browsing through it page by page, alighting on a sentence here and there, I found Schama’s memorable account of the bizarre incident when, on June 15, 1985, a man attacked Rembrandt’s Danaë at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, throwing sulfuric acid at the painting and slashing it with a knife. I made a note of it and moved on. Even at the time, though, I sensed it would be useful, and in the end, a highly modified version of this incident ended up serving as the prologue of The Scythian. If it weren’t for that random discovery, the prologue—and the whole novel—would have been utterly different. It was serendipity, yes, but approached in the nerdiest, most methodical way imaginable. Which basically is what my life is all about.

Written by nevalalee

April 6, 2012 at 9:48 am

Nassim Nicholas Taleb on maximizing serendipity

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[M]aximize the serendipity around you….Many people do not realize that they are getting a lucky break in life when they get it. If a big publisher (or a big art dealer or a movie executive or a hotshot banker or a big thinker) suggests an appointment, cancel anything you have planned: you may never see such a window open up again. I am sometimes shocked at how little people realize that these opportunities do not grow on trees. Collect as many free nonlottery tickets (those with open-ended payoffs) as you can, and, once they start paying off, do not discard them. Work hard, not in grunt work, but in chasing such opportunities and maximizing exposure to them. This makes living in big cities invaluable because you increase the odds of serendipitous encounters—you gain exposure to the envelope of serendipity.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan

Written by nevalalee

October 16, 2011 at 2:03 am

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