Reading: Joe Country by Mick Herron

Trying to keep up with my notes on books as I finish reading them. I’m alternating more literary fiction, generally with a SciFi, AI angle with the Slow Horses series by Mick Herron. Joe Country is the 6th book in the series. As of now, there are 8, the most recent published in 2022. The plan is to finish these and then try another series. The Gray Man series looks interesting and has been recommended by Warren Ellis, so I’ve got the first book in the queue.

The Slow Horses books can be a bit formulaic, where we’re all confused about what’s really going on until the action picks up in the second half of each book. With the Cold War over and terrorism an overused threat, Herron tends to make bad actors out of politicians, old spies and simple criminals, stirring them together in badly conceived plots. The Slow Horses, MI5 outcasts, always manage to solve the crime, but inelegantly in a way that never would permit their real redemption and return to the main game. Their boss, Jackson Lamb, is great literary creation- brought to life in the AppleTV series by Gary Oldman.

Reading: Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

One of the older posts here that continues to get some hits is a bit of a meditation on the photographer Eliot Porter, who was an influential early color landscape photographer who is now, I fear, largely forgotten, even though he was an important influence on landscape photographers and my own approach to the intimate view.

I had no answer at the time, but after finishing Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr, I felt like maybe I had a bit of insight into why some artists, while influential, are forgotten while others, influential or not, continue to be relevant. Cloud Cuckoo Land is very much a work of contemporary fiction. It is generally somewhat fantastic in its settings, plot and characters- shifting in time and space from ancient Greece to the fall of Constantinople to modern day and a future time, all tied together through the device of the Ancient Greek manuscript, Cloud Cuckoo Land. Most fiction today shifts scene and character point of view. Or makes narrative construction a central part of the experience in one way or another.

For some reason, it brought to mind James Joyce’s Ulysses, which I reread last year, and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which I reread a few years ago, both influential books of my youth. But it seems to me that while Joyce is still celebrated and read, Pynchon is becoming another forgotten artist who was influential, but now seeming less interesting to read.

Perhaps one reason why artists like Porter and Pynchon fade is that those they influence, surpass them in the very areas in which they innovated. It’s clear that most landscape images taken by YouTube photographer influencers and now much better images than those Porter took. We have better capture methods, better exposure control and better post-processing tools than Porter had. On the other hand, I don’t think anyone has created the kind of majestic monochrome images that Ansel Adams made, keeping his work relevant for us. Sometimes doing it first means doing it so well that those that follow seem to be imitating. Others are surpassed by those that come after and so are forgotten as they were innovative and influential, but ultimately not of a quality that lasts.

Cloud Cuckoo Land seemed to me to take the tools of modern fiction and use them in a fun, somewhat hopeful way. The basic text is an absurd Greek fantasy of no great merit and the stories told that are spun from it similarly are comedies of no particular great merit. Yet the whole is a nice meditation on literature, stories, comedy and, perhaps best of all, is a compelling fun read.

I won’t judge it for the ages. That will depend on those that follow us.

Wabi-Sabi Intention

This photo is one extreme of the casual approach, approaching the almost arbitrary selection of content. I’m showing this just to make a point about what I’m thinking about this year in creating photographs. My instinct is that this is just a bit too far, but with just some structure it would work. It lacks gesture which is enough of a subject for an image.

My contribution to working in public.

Reading: Stella Maris by Cormac McCarthy

I’ve tagged this as reading, but was actually an audiobook listen, my first in some time. I found myself looking around for podcasts and being a bit frustrated, I opened the Libby app and borrowed Stella Maris by Cormac McCarthy just because it was available and near the top of the list. I otherwise had no intention of reading the book.

It works great as an audio book, being written as a dialog between a psychiatrist and a patient. So to me it’s one of those trick books where the action takes place in a single setting, largely in the minds of the characters via speech. It’s subject is math, the nature of reality with a strong emotional charge. Mostly the math and physics seem to be pretty well represented. Some other subjects not so well, but par for the course really.

An interesting contrast with The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler which I recently read, as both are vehicles to discuss our response to scientific advances, whether math, artificial intelligence or neuroscience. Nayler’s book is a more conventional plot based exposition of the problem, McCarthy takes a more rarified intelectual approach. Yet both show how well fictional tales can be used to explore our world and our reaction to it.

Reading: Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers

I don’t remember where I saw Leonard Koren’s Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers mentioned recently, but I immediately ordered a copy and read it slowly over the last few weeks.

It’s a slim book of about 100 pages with many pages having photographs rather than text. It’s said that Koren’s book of 1994 was responsible for introducing the idea of Wabi-Sabi into the aesthetic conversation in the Western world. I have no idea as I don’t remember when this idea of the veneration of the simple, imperfect and natural entered my own intellectual environment.

I’m reading books about aesthetics and creation these days. This may have been the book that tipped me over into the subject. I’m about two thirds of the way through Rick Rubin’s The Creative Act: A Way of Being, a book I’m savoring on first read and trying to digest a bit, chunk by chunk. As has been my recent practice, I take no notes on the first read, leaving notes for a review session with the book.

My photography has been casual over the last few years, but in a way it’s been a further embrace of a Wabi-Sabi approach to images. My aim has been honest capture, leaving behind some of the cinematic excess of some of my work. Now, evaluating my images of the last year, I see where I’ve pushed forward in just allowing light and exposure settings to create a relatively finished image, an approach that I’ve picked up from photographers like Phillip Penman and Greg Williams. Both work in monochrome with an approach of exposing using the dynamic range and live view that our current mirrorless cameras provide. It’s beyond pre-visulazation, it’s actual visualization at the time of capture.

For, embracing the imperfection of the casual has helped my push on with new work. Wabi-Sabi for Artists . . . has emboldened me to further embrace capturing light and nature as a simple path to creating images.

Intentionality: How Constraints Enable Creativity

23 01 17 Leica Camera AG LEICA M11 L1001053 1

My contraints: The Leica M11 with 50mm APO Summicron ASPH lens. Capture images during breaks outside with the puppy. Images quickly processed in Capture One using the Mastin Tri-X style.

Ever since I took on Sniff and Shoot as a project, I’ve been regularly producing some pretty nice images. It got me thinking about how often we hear that constraints help produce work rather than hinder it. Maybe it is the paradox of choice where when you can do anything you end up doing nothing. Contraints remove choice and guide action.

But I think it’s something deeper than that. It’s that when faced with limitations, we have to become more intentional about our actions. There are hard limits that I have to overcome that force action to act in spite of the constraints. So I pick up the camera as I walk out the door and look around to find ways to use what I hold in my hands and the visual world in front of me. It’s not having a goal, it’s that the limitations provide traction, something to react to with my action.

Whether it’s imposing constraints simply by limiting equipment and technique or it’s setting up a project within which to work, the path forward at the moment and action is engaged.

While “mindfulness” gets a lot of attention, it is simply the passive act of being aware in the present. “Intentionality” builds on mindfulness in providing immediate purpose for action.

Reading 2023

Currently Reading

Nonfiction:

Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock by Jenny Odell

Fiction:

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

The Pursuit of William Abbey by Claire North

Deciding Better: The Invention of Tomorrow: A Natural History of Foresight by Thomas Suddendorf, Jonathan Redshaw, Adam Bulley.

Jewish Studies: Nefesh Hachaim by Rav Chaim of Volozhin

2023 Reads

Fiction:

The Gunslinger by Stephen King (audiobook)

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norris by Susanna Clarke (audiobook)

Slough House by Mick Herron

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Joe Country by Mick Herron

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Stella Maris by Cormac McCarthy (audiobook)

The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler

London Rules by Mick Herron

Nonfiction:

Novelist as Vocation Haruki Murakami

Picture This: How Pictures Work by Molly Bang

The Entangled Brain: How Perception, Cognition, and Emotion Are Woven Together by Luiz Pessoa. Note that free PDFs of the book chapters are available here.

The Creative Act: A Way of Being Rick Rubin

Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren

Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America by Pekka Hämäläinen

Reading Plan

I’ve got three categories of reading running. Fiction, nonfiction general reading, and books related to the On Deciding . . . Better project. The idea is to have variety but focus on finishing a book in each category. Always having a few ready on deck of course.

In fiction now I’m branching out from pure SciFi and SciFi tinged Fantasy into more literary picks with SciFi overtones. I loved reading Sea of Tranquility by Emily St John Mandel last year, so I’m pushing a bit in that direction this year. But probably alternating that with finishing the Slow Horse series and maybe pickup another spy series- for the variety.

The nonfiction category is for general information, filling in gaps in my understanding of the world. I’ve enjoyed reading popular presentations of quantum physics like Carlo Rovelli’s Helgoland, history or art. Right now, after two books of political US history, I’m drawn to asthestics and am really enjoying Rubin’s book.

Next is my project specific reading for this project, On Deciding . . . Better which has been going on 25 years now. Last year, I spent time on the fundementals of statistics and Baysian reasoning. This year it’s catching up with neuroscience to ensure the current accuracy of the ODB manuscript.These books get written and then reviewed for note taking as I described here.

Finally, I spend time every morning on a work of Jewish ethics and philosophy. Having read through some recent commentaries over the last few years, I’m going back to sources like the famous Nefesh Hachaim. Now this doesn’t generally so directly enter my notes here, it is foundational to my thought and personal growth.

Reading: Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America

I think I first saw Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America by Pekka Hämäläinen reviewed by Tyler Cowen. After reading about it a few more time, I decided to read it primarily to improve my rudimentary understanding of Native American history.

During the upheaval that was the 2016 election, I wrote here about why seeking diverse sources of information was critical to providing a rich idea environment for optimal decisions. Bad information is like a pollution of the environment of mind, but with diversity and differential survival of ideas, we have the principle of natural selection working for us to provide a model of the world that best reflects reality and thus should allow us to act most appropriately in the world. So I try to read widely in subjects that I feel I don’t have a good grasp on.

Indigenous Continent is a scholarly work. Actually a refreshing change from the current trend for books to be edited into collections of anecdotes and stories that illustrate points. Here, it means that the book is often a catalog of groups, people, events with some historical context but little biographical or psychological background presented other than in passing.

But it’s a book of grand historical sweep with a point of view firmly from that of the indigenous people of the Americas and how the arrival of Europeans occured to them. And the thesis of the book, that the continent remained largely indegenous through the mid 1800’s, until after the Civil War puts my understanding of American history into a new perspective. I knew about the death by epidemic from reading Jerad Diamonds’ Guns, Germs, and Steel when it as well as other sources. I had read about the forced relocations of eastern tribes during my travels through the US.

Two points struck me while reading the book. One was how adaptable these indigenous cultures were as their situations and locations changed. There was a strength to the culture in being cooperative societies without centralization and authority based on a nomadic cuture that could continue to function as situations changed drastically.

But then I was continuously struck by how dependent on European technology the indigenous survivors were. Guns, metal utensils, farm implements and other means of survival meant trade and reliance on the Europeans. The relationship was always so unequal that the outcome seems to have been determined from the start. Survival ended up being dependent on either capitualtion or hiding. The book ends on a positive note as our Indigenous Americans have survived and are experiencing something of a renaissance in todays multicultural America.