We Are The 1%

We are the 1%, the 1% who keep reading notebooks. And here is what we believe.

The key word for the commonplace book is “annotated.” It is not just an anthology; the compiler reacts to the passages he has chosen or tells what the passages have led him to think about. A piece of prose, a poem, an aphorism can trigger the mind to consider a parallel, to dredge something from the memory, or perhaps to speculate with further range and depth on the same them. William Coe

There follows a few recent annotations of passages in my commonplace book.

On Biases
Near the end of his review of Daniel Kahneman’s widely praised Thinking, Fast and Slow Freeman Dyson asks, as Kahneman finally does, ‘What practical benefit can we derive from an understanding of our irrational mental processes?” In my mind, this is the critical point of all the research on our inferential shortcomings, our biases and illusions.

According to Dyson, Kahneman answers by saying that “he hopes to change our behavior by changing our vocabulary.” I suppose this translates into saying to yourself: Wait a moment. Am I falling prey to a bias or error in reasoning about my judgment? Is it (a tentative judgment now as I am stopping for a moment to think about it) an example of the availability bias or the confirmation bias, or some other cognitive error?

Holding back like this is not difficult to learn. Do we not admire the person who takes a while to respond to a question? Isn’t it a pleasure to see someone turning inward like that before firing off an answer?

Dyson concludes by hoping that our children and grandchildren will come to use this approach, the new vocabulary as he puts it, and will automatically correct their errors and biases when making decisions. He says we will owe a big debt to Kahneman if this “miracle” happens.

On Questioning
In a symposium on creativity, Gerald Schroeder, a physicist, claims that asking questions is the major source of creative behavior. He urges readers to take nothing on faith, keep wondering how things work, and never stop doubting.

The same point is made by Ezekiel Emanuel, Diane and Robert Levy who write that challenging conventional wisdom and “pushing the boundaries is exceedingly important to creativity—not taking what you or the world has as a given and trying to imagine it in a new way.”

I imagine that most creative thinkers use an approach not unlike that of a Socratic dialogue where research becomes a progression of questions designed to arrive at a conclusion quite different than the original one.

Some people feel very comfortable with this kind of approach. For them it becomes an endeavor to correct errors and sharpen beliefs and perhaps in the process arrive at something not recognized before.

I sense those of a more accepting frame of mind do not fall naturally into this mode of reasoning and are perhaps less likely to think of creative solutions than those of a more questioning frame of mind.

On The New Yorker
Patrick Kurp on his blog Anecdotal Evidence writes that, “The New Yorker in its most recent incarnation reflects the nation around it – self-absorbed, politically strident, smitten by celebrity, ultimately trivial. Worse, most of it is badly written.”

While I disagree with Kurp on the quality of its writing, I am aware that the character of the magazines has changed significantly from what it was, say ten or twenty years ago. Most notably it is far less devoted to the literary arts than it was in the good old days.

The days of two or three short stores are over. So too are those special issues devoted to one long essay on a major topic—Rachel Carson’s “The Silent Spring,” John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” or a those remarkable Salinger short stories. And those who have been reading the “New Yorker” forever surely miss the lengthy film reviews by Pauline Kael or the equally extensive Mavis Gallant commentaries from Paris.

To catch any of this old spirit you have to head for the magazine’s blogs, most notably the Book Bench and Culture Desk. But even here the material is short and less analytic.

Today I find myself scanning many issues, not reading much of anything, something that used to be inconceivably when it sometimes took a week or more to read everything before the next weekly gem arrived in the mail.