Spaces between words

Marc Davis

Marc Davis

The good conversations are always the impractical ones, I’ve discovered. Either I do a focussed interview of somebody and I end up with the right quotes and facts in my notebook, ready to write a story. Or I … have fun. The notebook winds up chaotic, but I end up thinking about all sorts of interesting things.

My lunch on Friday with Marc Davis, Yahoo’s “social media guru” was a good conversation. Yes, we dutifully got around to talking about how technology might a) make all people permanent producers of “content” (photos, text, video) and b) connect them socially. But first we indulged ourselves with the fun stuff.

Marc, it turns out, is a student of words. He studied at the University of Konstanz with Wolfgang Iser, author of such works as Der Akt des Lesens (The Act of Reading). We talked a lot about what communication is and whether it is even possible.

It is possible, of course, but there is an arbitrary dimension to it. A spews out words (in text, audio or video, or in person) and perhaps other gestures. B receives them and does something with them (or not). (Mis)communication happens somewhere between A and B.

As Marc puts it, it happens in “the spaces between words.” A has to say the words, but B has to put something into those spaces.

This immediately reminded me of my drawing and painting classes in college. “Look at the negative spaces,” my teacher kept saying. He meant: Don’t just draw the leg and hip and waist and so forth. Look at the shape of the empty space surrounding them. And it’s true. If you draw the empty space it’s always a better drawing.

The spaces between words are a little different, of course. They are for somebody else to fill in. So the skilled writer/storyteller/communicator uses words in such a way as to create empty spaces for the other person’s imagination and projection. The writer cannot control what the other persons puts in there, but can shape the space.

That is really difficult. It takes the second secret of good writing, ie empathy, to do it well.


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Reading by deleting

In the old days, I would have researched my book by going to a library and pulling journals and books from dusty stacks, then reading them and writing down, on index cards, the passages that I might want to quote, or perhaps photocopying the pages.

These days, I’m finding a lot of journal articles and book passages–especially the classics–online. And in the past year, I’ve increasingly found myself doing something very different (without even consciously deciding to do so):

I download the PDF of some 100-page journal article, copy and paste it into a word document, and then read the article while simultaneously deleting everything I know I won’t need.

I know this sounds bizarre, but I really like it:

  • it makes me read much more actively, since I’m deciding for every paragraph and sentence how it does or does not fit into my themes. So I actually absorb the passages that I’m deleting, as well as those that I’m keeping.
  • it gives me this wonderful sense of progress. I watch the document’s word count go down, and down, and down, and I know I must be doing well.
  • and finally, I end up with exactly the same passages that, in the past, I would have typed in for citation at a later point. So I’ve reversed the process.

It reminds me of what I read somewhere about Michelangelo (I think): Somebody asked him how he sculpts these beautiful statues. Easy, he said: I look at the block of marble, see the statue inside, and then just chip away all the rest.


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The end of book publishing? Part II

I return to one of my threads, which is: What on earth were you smoking, Andreas, when you decided to write … a book?!?

So this is the second in what promises to become a series of occasional musings about the book industry, the first being here. As you can tell, there is an ongoing tug-of-war in my mind between pessimism and optimism.

Most writers, publishers, agents and even readers froze in shock this January when Steve Jobs, never one to mince words, seemed to sum it up perfectly: “People don’t read anymore.” (He was simultaneously dismissing Amazon’s new Kindle, an electronic book reader, and explaining why Apple does not have anything similar–an iPod for readers, say.) If you need academic gravitas, the National Endowment for the Arts gives the same verdict. (Thanks to Steven Harris, librarian at Utah State University, for the link.) So here I am, writing a book, just as people have stopped reading books. Great.

Now, the irony is that there seem to be more books published every year. I forget the numbers (anybody have a link?), but they are daunting. So we have: Fewer people reading books + more books than ever published. Greeeeat!

Now, I’ve always thought that the picture must be more nuanced. And there are several issues intertwined.

One is the issue of how we read, meaning what format we use. Many of us read more than ever before if you count screens (email etc), but less on paper, especially when it happens to be bound between two hardcovers. For example: More Wikipedia, less dead-tree Encyclopedia Britannica. So some categories and genres of books will disappear, others may disappear, and others yet will simply change, as I argued in The Economist last year; but some categories and genres of book may never change, and may even thrive in this new era. So the trick is to write a book that falls into these genres. Great. Easier said than done.

Another issue is how we read, meaning how our brains process the words. Whether reading online makes us lose the ability to read offline is an intellectually fascinating question. But will or should posterity care?  I doubt it. How many of us today still share the depression of that Renaissance monk who committed suicide because a new technology (Gutenberg’s printing press) had flooded the market–his market!–with a new text medium, leading to a drop in appreciation for monks transcribing Aristotle by hand (as in manuscript) in their monasteries, in between getting sloshed in the brewery vault downstairs?

As a book writer I commiserate with that monk, but I’d rather find a different solution than he did. So, besides writing my book, I’ve decided also to blog, as you may have noticed. The monastery and the printing press, as it were. (With this Californian Cabernet instead of the beer.) I’m hoping that between these two poles–a bound book and an unbound blog about it–some energy will flow. A good book blog can, over time, become something that a physical book can never be: a community, in which the author maintains a conversation with readers and everybody learns from everybody (ideally). My hope is–especially given the book’s topic of life, success, failure, reversal–that all of you will share your stories (by email, comment, whatever). In turn, the physical book, when it comes out, can provide something that a blog is not good for: an immersive and gripping story.

My thoughts about this blog-book alchemy owe a lot to people such as Chris Anderson, a former colleague of mine at The Economist, currently editor of Wired Magazine, and author of The Long Tail–both the book and the blog. He has long been saying that “blogging a book” and even giving much of it away free is enlightened. In part, that’s because, as Tim O’Reilly, a publisher, likes to say, “obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.” And also because, well, why wouldn’t an author seek input from as many people as possible?

But back to the basic conundrum, and to my search for possible solutions. So far we can summarize:

Fewer readers + more books in fewer genres = friggin’ big challenge

What about those genres, though? It’s not about fiction versus non-fiction. But non-fiction books do tend to contain a fifty-page idea that the author must stretch out to 300 pages just to please the publisher, leaving lots of books with 250 unread pages on most people’s shelves, as Seth Godin, an author and blogger, told me in my article on the subject. Good fiction does not face that problem, because it tells stories, and human beings love good stories. So the challenge is really a timeless and old one: to write great stories, whether fiction or non-fiction. Or:

Fewer (but engaged and appreciative) readers + great story with satisfying idea = happy readers + happy author

As Seth Godin said to me in that same interview, right at the end of the article: We are increasingly discovering that books are not artefacts, nor necessarily good vehicles for ideas, but rather “souvenirs of the way we felt” when we read something. A good author has to make you feel something, and then you’ll want the book to remind you of it. I’m giving it a shot.


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