An Anthology of Obsessions (S2E7)
Wait, it’s newsletter day again? That can’t be correct — let me check the calendar.
Ah, I see it is in fact newsletter day again. I’m sad to report that, for the first time in this newsletter’s (short) history, I don’t have any topics lined up to talk about. It turns out writing a rough draft of a novel in a month while also working >40 hours per week1 is not conducive to dilettantery.
“God Ganesha, Remover of Obstacles”, Central Java, Indonesia, 9th/10th century
Speaking of the novel, the bad news is that I will not be successfully completing 50,000 words by the end of the month — what with the >40 hours per week mentioned above, I’m just burnt out and had to take the weekend off — which, to be clear, is not a bad thing! Rest is important. The good news is that I’m now past 37,000 words of the expected 52,000, or just a bit less than three-quarters of the way there, with the first half looking pretty complete. I’ll probably pull a few more heavy writing days in the coming week or two and get the rough — or, as I like to call, it, “pre-alpha” — draft done. Then I will likely rewrite most of the novel and then, finally, you, dear reader, will be able to beta read if you should so desire 🙂
“Ganesha”, South India, Medieval period, Chola dynasty, c. 1070
So, by way of compensation for the lack of essays on my part, I offer this dilettante’s personal reading/listening list — or, as the title says, an “anthology of obsessions”. Some of these are in my “personal canon,”2 while others I simply find interesting or useful. I’ve mentioned many of them before, but I urge you once again to give them a try. Each is followed by a sentence or two of why I find it interesting and recommendations for particular articles/episodes to check out first. I’ve tended towards
I’m breaking my rules for this one special case. The Secret of Our Success is possibly the book with the single greatest influence in my thought, and I’m saying that less than a year after reading it! The notion of “cultural evolution” that it exposits is, I think, what I was reaching for all this time. It’s an instructive exercise to apply it to the other entries in this list.
Although his blog can, at times, devolve into the pedantry the title implies, Bret Devereaux’s blog is full of lovely essays, primarily focused on medieval history and the history of warfare — both of which are not exactly the staid, battle-by-numbers affairs you might expect, seeing as how, as the author explains, most professional military historians these days care a lot more about culture. So, as mentioned above, it can be very instructive to keep cultural evolution in mind while reading these essays.
I sincerely believe we will look back in 50 years and realize Jacob Geller was the most important literary critic of the early 21st century. He so perfectly encapsulates the value of literary criticism — the ability to find unexpected connections between disparate works, genres, or even media and, in so doing, add even more artistic value to the works under discussion — that I don’t think you even need to watch his pitch-perfect video essay on that very topic to understand. (You should still watch it, though, because it’s brilliant.)
Literature and History may well be the most ambitious project in podcasting today — or perhaps even the most ambitious educational project. Cast as the “history of Anglophone literature,” it starts at the very beginning — literally, the invention of writing — and, after almost 150 hours of content, the host has just wrapped up ancient Roman literature and began with the New Testament of the Bible. Although it is definitely more educationally-minded than most of the recommendations here, focusing primarily on simply narrating the stories and giving their historical background, it often has a surprisingly emotional punch and occasionally delves into critical interpretation.
Apocrypals is, at least in theory, a show about two non-believers making jokes about the Bible and related writings, which probably sounds insufferable if not offensive. But the show is, in actuality, no less than educational than Literature and History, albeit focused on “the Bible as popular culture”, both from a Jewish and a Christian standpoint — after all, some of the most influential “Bible” stories are not in the Bible at all. Along the way, they explore connections to other parts of culture; if you listen to the first 50 episodes or so, you’ll end up with an encyclopedic knowledge of both Christian and Jewish holidays and the major Catholic saints. Plus, well, they do make pretty good jokes sometimes.
Imaginary Worlds is, according to its tagline, “a show about how we create them and why we suspend our disbelief” — that is, it is technically a show about science fiction and fantasy as genres. However, the podcast has a much more expansive remit than that implies and frequently delves into topics only tangentially related, as skillfully narrated by the host, a 10-year public radio veteran.
Tyler Cowen is a right-leaning economist famous for running the Marginal Revolution blog. However, he is also a very strong interviewer, and his “Conversations with Tyler” series is consistently interesting, even if you aren’t particularly familiar with the interviewee.3 Cowen studies his interviewees’ work deeply and comes up with extremely off-the-wall questions that always provoke interesting responses.
I certainly don’t agree with Scott Alexander on everything4, but his essays are always so interesting I find it hard not to read every single one. I especially love his book reviews, which simultaneously summarize, critique, and build arguments off the book in question — the way only the very criticism does.
Hillel Wayne is a programmer-turned-formal-methods advocate whose newsletter and blog are chockfull of random programming ideas and history lessons that I commend to any working programmer. His talk “What We Can Learn From Software History” is a pocket introduction to good historical investigation while also answering a long-standing question about technical interviews, while “Are we really engineers?” is a well-researched answer to that very question.
The origin of the Industrial Revolution and the (seeming?) prosperity of the modern world seems like one of the great scientific mysteries to me, just as much as the origin of life or the identity of dark matter. Both the Roots of Progress blog and Age of Invention newsletter explore the centuries leading up to the Industrial Revolution and why it occurred.
Robin Sloan’s development diary for his text-driven adventure game is a surprising goldmine of insight into the intersection of narrative and game design. The linked issue is a favorite, because it explores one of my own pet peeves: slow-scrolling text in video games. WHY.
The Great Courses, despite their potato production quality, are surprisingly high-quality when it comes to content. This series in particular (which you may be able to find for free on Kanopy through your local library) was a wonderful introduction to world religions. The professor is crystal clear throughout and sensitive to the strangeness of studying sacred texts instead of religious practices; the series is even surprisingly touching at some points.
Twitter favorite Zeynep Tufekci explains her theory of “sociological” storytelling and how it applies to A Song of Ice and Fire. In retrospect, this has been deeply influential, as I’ve also tried to reach for a more sociological, or perhaps anthropological, style in the novel I’m writing.
This is both extremely silly and extremely serious.
Hopefully, at least something of the above caught your interest. I’ll be back in two weeks with a real newsletter issue and, hopefully, something to show for all my writing efforts 😉
Lil’ baby Ganesha, what a cutie!