Why read the news

It is easy to make fun of journalism as a profession or even claim that “news is bad for you.” But journalists continue working even when the news gets too depressing to cover. They are driven by a purpose, which an editor explained to me in my early days of journalism is to inform and entertain.

To some, however, informing and entertaining are goals that do not provide enough motivation. The right information delivered to the right audience at the right time can be powerful. News can have impact, and to the remaining few journalists it is this “impact” that makes the struggle worthy of the effort.

Such impact, however, is hard to measure. Unless you are working on a story such as the Edward Snowden leaks, it is difficult to find out what kind of impact your story about about jellyfish swimming can have on the real world.

Fortunately, every so often there is a reminder why good journalism is important even if “impact” is not always visible. Consider what Harvard University economist Sendhil Mullainathan wrote in the New York Times on racial bias:

“Even if, in our slow thinking, we work to avoid discrimination, it can easily creep into our fast thinking. Our snap judgments rely on all the associations we have—from fictional television shows to news reports. They use stereotypes, both the accurate and the inaccurate, both those we would want to use and ones we find repulsive.”

We are shaped by the thoughts that surround us. Good journalism plays a vital role in providing those thoughts. So don’t feel too bad about spending some of your time every day reading bite-sized news pieces, even if Mark Zuckerberg would like you to read a book instead. Just make sure that you are selective about the journalism you are reading.

Image credit: pslee999 CC-BY

What maketh a man

Francis Bacon’s wise words worth imprinting in memory:

Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit; and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know, that he doth not.

On reading books

Francis Bacon’s words on reading books are worth memorising:

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

Of course, now the question is which book should fall in which category?

Redefining the notion of a book

Two months of failing to fulfill my reading goals towards the #100bookschallenge has made me rethink the purpose of taking up the challenge

Less than a decade ago, it was easy to recognise a book. It was anything that could be printed, bound and put on shelf of a library or a store. Now, though, things have gotten messy.  There are ebooks, Kindle singles, Atavist originals, Matter stories, and the list goes on.

In many parts of the world, digital has become the primary platform for the written word. The advantages are plenty and this trend towards digital is no surprise. But it disrupts how ideas get shared, and sharing ideas was the main reason for books to come into existence.

While it was with the classical definition of a book that I began my #100bookschallenge, the main reason behind taking up the challenge was to be able to learn about the greatest ideas out there. These are increasingly being communicated not just in books. A lot of the ideas are long conversations that have been running on a blog, or those that appear in longform writing/journalism like the New Yorker or The Economist’s special reports.

Thus I’m revising the definition of a (non-fiction) book that can count towards my challenge of 100 books. Apart from the classical definition, all pieces of writing that will fulfill all the conditions below can be counted towards my target:

  • Longform writing that has a clear-defined message or explores a topic in a significant amount of detail or has a central theme.
  • Has been written by a single author (‘classical’ books may have more than one author).
  • Is more than 10,000 words long as a single piece.
  • A series of blog posts won’t count if at least one of them is not close to 10,000 words long and explains the main idea of the series.
  • The writing should be so dense (full of ideas) that I cannot stop myself from writing a review of what I read.
  • (UPDATE) The work should be not just newsworthy ie it should still relevant and worth reading after, say, many months or sometimes years.

As to why just 10,000 words? Because it’s not too short and it feels like the right length to have a comprehensive look at a topic. I’m open to revising my definition, so please feel free to make suggestions.

Ten books in one month

100 books

I hadn’t heard about Aaron Swartz before his demise on January 11th. He was a brilliant chap: master computer programmer, co-founder of Reddit, activist for open data and much more. He was also just 26 years old.

After the news of his suicide, the web exploded with eulogies. Much was said about bullying by US prosecutors, openness of data and difficulties of dealing with depression, all of which contributed in someway to his suicide. But what stood out for me came mostly through Aaron’s own words. (His blog Raw Thought is a treasure trove and a great way of learning about him.)

One thing in particular stuck with me: his ability to read more than 100 books every year. (He dropped out of high school and that’s how he taught himself.) I want to do this. And I know managing that with a full-time job and my other writing work is going to be a hard thing to do. So I’ve decided to start by setting a goal of reading 10 books in the next 4 weeks. (This is a little more than the 2 books per week needed to make up 100 books per year.)

At first glance this seems like a difficult task given that previously I averaged about 1 or 2 books per month. But some simple calculations show that this is not a ridiculous aim. At an average size of 300 pages (70,000 words), I’m aiming to read 25,000 words per day. This means at an average reading speed of 200 words per minute, I will need just over two hours of reading time. Allowing for sometime for note-taking and breaks will make it 2.5-3 hours every day.

If I cut out watching TV and I read only the most essential things online, I should be able to do this. If I can do 10 books before February 24th and manage the rest of my life properly, I’ll extend this challenge to 100 books before January 27th, 2014.

With help of friends on Twitter and Facebook and my own reading list, I’ve compiled a list of 10 books that I am planning to read in the next four weeks:

  1. Breakout Nations by Ruchir Sharma
  2. The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean
  3. Erwin Schrödinger and the Quantum Revolution by John Gribbin
  4. The End of Science by John Horgan
  5. Genome by Matt Ridley
  6. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  7. Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
  8. Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  9. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
  10. Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch

If I find the book not worth my time, I will replace it with another one and update the list here. Although I doubt that this list of 10 will need any replacing. I will post a review of the book once I’ve read it (here and on Amazon). If you are keen to support me in this endeavour, you can buy me one of the books above. At present I only first 5 of them. Here is my Amazon wish list. (PS: email me if you need my address).

The #100bookschallenge starts now.

PS: I’m taking the average word count of a book as 70,000 because I am planning to read more non-fiction than fiction. Image from here.

The problem with paper

I was browsing through the archives of this blog when it struck me that very soon I am going to be completing the 5th anniversary of Contemplation and thus, 5 years of being a blogger. It has been a pleasure to share my musings-in-solitude with the world while, in the process,  I learnt some very important lessons in the art of writing and thinking.

This little realisation took me on a new train of thoughts. I started mentally browsing the history of events that have shaped this blog: I’ve moved countries, refined my idealogies, improved my writing and made many new friends. Each of these have affected me in ways which this blog reflects quite well.

There was one more realisation though. Perhaps not a very insightful one. Over the time of these years, I realised, more and more of my writing happens on the computer screen rather than on paper. So much so that, now days, I find paper an inconvenient medium for writing.

When I first started blogging, I was still an undergraduate student. Most hours in the day were spent attending lectures where I jotted down important bits in hardbound notebooks and in the labs procedures, observations and conclusions were all noted in a lab-book. Our examination answer sheets were made of paper (!). Sure I spent a few hours in the evenings in front of the computer screen but most of those hours I either played computer games or watched some movies (social networking was yet to take over the world). So paper remained the primary raw material for writing.

My foray into writing began with this blog and the first serious venture that shaped my writing was my undergraduate institute’s newsletter The Spirit. For both the publications, I wrote on my computer using Microsoft Word and published either through the web or through a designing software (QuarkXpress). Although, the smell of the freshly printed (paper) copies of the Spirit was enchanting, paper had lost it’s place as a serious requirement for writing.

The last time I wrote over a few 100 words on paper was when I wrote a letter to my mum last week. Not because she does not do email but because I felt that writing in my own handwriting will make a stronger impact on her than sending her an email. After finishing the letter I re-read it just to make sure that it was all coherent. It was coherent and I seemed to convey the message that I intended to. But I was dissatisfied with the inability to be able to edit my own writing.

Usually, when I write, I tend to re-arrange the words, change the phrases, organise the paragraphs, expand on some idea, cut out some unnecessary flab and most of the times I do all this together. Writing on paper made that much harder. I felt my abilities were limited. And moreover, writing at the pace of thought made my handwriting look terrible.

It is not just writing though. For me paper seems to have also lost the title of the most preferred medium of reading too.

During my days in Mumbai, newspapers were cheap enough to subscribe even with the limited money that I got from my parents. I received a copy of the Times of India and Hindustan Times delivered to my doorstep in the hostel every morning. Only rarely did a day pass when the copy received in the morning wasn’t read. Someone flipped through the sports section without fail.

All the textbooks I had were big fat hardbound kilos of paper. Other non-academic reading was also in the form of cheap paperbacks or pirated copies of classics that circulated from one room to the other. Social networking hadn’t pervaded our lives as much and thus I did not read things only because it was recommended by someone (which is what I do now!).

After coming to Oxford, although we still have big fat textbooks, most of the research papers are read online. I print an article only if I am desperate. As for the non-academic reading, I rely on my twitter feed, google reader and facebook feed to give me my reading dose (and by the way, newspapers in the UK are just too expensive to buy!). Since I’ve got the Kindle, I don’t carry paperbacks any more. Actually, the Kindle has enhanced my reading pleasure, especially with its text-to-speech option. Now I prefer a Kindle book over a paperback anytime.

These days the use of paper sometimes surprises me. For example, I came across an academic in Oxford who doesn’t do email. He prefers communicating on paper by passing information through pigeon-holes (University’s internal post). No surprise he has a good handwriting because of all that practice.

Of course, paper still holds some value. I like to receive a hand-written letter or greeting card. It is still a good note-taking tool but I think EverNote is going to replace even that functionality of paper for me. And although I can’t see a future where it will be extinct, paper just seems to have too many problems.

Photo credits: rjhaffke.com