I wrote a review of the recently published English translation of Nakamura Tetsu’s book Providence Was with Us: How a Japanese Doctor Turned the Afghan Desert Green. You can read the review on BooksOnAsia.net here, but I just wanted to say a few more things on a more personal note about this book.
I knew about Dr Nakamura peripherally since he is just such a famous person in Japan. I could recognize his face (and his pakol) and knew that he was building canals in Afghanistan. I had no idea how much more he did there and in Pakistan until I read Providence Was with Us. The book really touched me. I drove across Kyushu to see his memorial before I wrote the book review.
Dr Nakamura is a hero here in Japan, and also in Afghanistan — maybe moreso there. He has very admirable qualities, which come across readily in the book. But the thing that struck me the most is how much he thought about his impact on the world, and strategically made choices to increase that impact. He started out as a psychologist, but by listening carefully to needs on the ground he transitioned to a medical doctor, and finally to a civil engineer, staying up late into the night studying books on well-digging, irrigation, and canal design.
During my (what seems bi-annual at this point) mid-life crises (yes, plural) I grapple with the question of impact, too. We probably all do. Nakamura is special because he was able to analyze and actually execute on it, making a massive impact. In this he is an example for use all. The interesting thing, is he was able to do it by keeping things simple and focusing on the needs around him.
In reading more about Nakamura’s life, probably the biggest lesson I drew was to listen. Quit trying to run around and “be useful.” Often you just end up a nuisance. Stay still and listen carefully. I suppose that is why it is called a “calling.”
I reflected on the year using Pat Kua’s End of Year Retrospective Template. I won’t share all my results here, just a bit of a roundup below, but the questions from that document I really appreciated were:
What brought you joy this year?
What made you sad this year?
What are you grateful for this year?
These three questions sure help in building out goals for next year. If you are looking for a handy framework for reflection, I think Pat’s is a great place to start.
The Last Year
2020 was an extreme year for all. We moved to Japan during a pandemic and my wife lost her mother. My kids endured Japanese elementary school and we evacuated during a typhoon. There was lots to overcome (some of it still going on!). I am certainly grateful for the financial stability to do so. This foundation, and a stable family life, allows me to pursue my joy of reading, writing, and engaging with ideas. Looking at the numbers below you can see how much I put out into the world this year, a marked increase on years past. 2019 was a year of figuring what I wanted to do with my life, and 2020 was actually going out and doing it.
Being outside the rat race of corporate life also gave me more room to engage with art. I spent time assessing how writers put together words, rather than just examining their arguments (cue Bruce Lee’s “don’t think, feel!”). I discovered André Alexis and still think about This Is How You Lose the Time War. Books, film, music, performance, ceramics… even sunrises and sunsets, puffy clouds crossing the sky. Maybe recognizing beauty everywhere is a feature of getting older? This year I definitely spent more time appreciating skills and craft. Thinking about the day in and day out of a writer’s craft is probably what made reading How to Take Smart Notes was so radical for me.
In 2020, since leaving my job, I spent a lot more time with my kids watching them grow and trying to figure out their passions. We are all trying to find out own way. 2020 to me was one of searching and growth a amongst a seemingly chaotic and changing world.
Ten years is a long time. I entered the decade a very different person than when I came out (who hasn’t?). I moved to Canada with Apple in 2010, and spent the next ten years working with startups and tech companies. I had a second child and built up a wonderful new network of friends and community in Kelowna.
Reflecting on this period one the thing I am happy about is all the self-reflection I did during that time. I grew a lot as a human, shifting my thinking on a lot of topics, and even took action by making changes to how I live my life (eg. downsizing, vegetarianism, anti-racism, technology ethics). At the same time, looking back I feel it was sort of a decade of loss. My Japanese language suffered and my knowledge of Japanese politics and history grew stale. That feeling might be due to recency bias. Since moving back to Japan in March I feel so left behind by all my friends who stayed here. No need to compare, I know, but I cannot help thinking I could have kept up a bit better. Now, well into middle age, I have a better sense of myself and what I find truly important. I will take this feeling into the next decade.
For now, goodbye 2020, goodbye 2010s. And goodbye to all you readers! I will see you bright and early next year. May you be happy, healthy, safe, and free-from suffering.
Pankaj Mishra delivers a sweeping account of the intellectual history of anti-colonial thought in the early years of Western colonialism. He builds this narrative through mini-biographies of two lesser-known intellectuals: Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī and Liang Qichao. These early thinkers diagnosed the challenge of Western imperialism faced by Asia. The evolution of their thought is influenced by historical milestones such as the Indian Rebellion of 1857, a failed uprising to gain independence from the West, and the 1905 Battle of Tsushima, where an Asian nation defeated a Western military power for the first time. Japan’s victory was a turning point for optimism in the oppressed Asian psyche, celebrated by anti-colonialists like Gandhi, Ataturk, and Tagore. Here was an Asian country beating the West at its own game.
This part of the nineteenth century was a cosmopolitan moment for Asia. The subjects of Mishra’s work were inveterate travellers, moving throughout the Islamic, Indian and East Asian worlds. This is in contrast to Western political intellectuals at the time who philosophized about Asia almost exclusively from the comfort of their comfy overstuffed chairs. From the Ruins of Empire follows both Asian intellectuals on their travels where they meet with and influence one another as well as a new generation of activists like Sun Yat Sen. The author also traces how their thinking on Pan-Asianism transforms, from initially advocating for Asian nations to modernize by mimicking the West and adopting its scientific and industrial advancements, to their horror at the First World War, which turned them away from so-called “Western progress.” This frames the ultimate dilemma facing Asia in the book: to be more like the West (which is what Tsushima teaches) or to progress with Eastern alternatives which are more suited to the multi-ethnic, multi-religious reality of Asia—modernization sans Westernization.
Despite the successful anti-colonial movements in the post-World War II era, the story Mishra tells is ultimately a tragic one. Asian nations may have won out over political colonialism, but lost against intellectual colonialism. India and China are very adeptly wielding the power of centralized nation-states, effectively replacing the role previously occupied by Western imperial overseers. The “South to South” dialogues by the intellectual network described by Mishra did go on to inspire later revolutionaries. Mishra makes these connections, showing for example how the ideas of al-Afghānī have been twisted into the narrative of political Islam.
This book originally came out in 2012 amidst the Arab Spring and Colour Revolutions. That time also saw a surge of revisionist histories of empire by writers like Niall Ferguson which helped to justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. From the Ruins of Empire demonstrates how people can be motivated by humiliation, and in it you can see the seeds of Mishra’s later book Age of Anger (2017) centering on the politics of ressentiment, so prevalent in our era.
Reading From the Ruins in Empire in 2020 I was amazed at some of the nearly 200-year-old critiques of the West. You could copy-and-paste them directly into today’s media. Mishra has done a brilliant job excavating these perspectives and tying them together with his usual smooth writing skill. The authour offers no specific solutions, but reading about such intellectual journeys outside the standard one of Western progress with everywhere else trying to catch up, is fascinating. This was probably the most thought-provoking book I read this year. With the waning of liberalism and democracy described by Luce and others, it feels like we are at another turning point. Discussions of what happens next are occurring worldwide, but what does the fall of liberal internationalism mean for Asia? What are the indigenous intellectual legacies that might fill the void? From the Ruins of Empire shows that there can be imagination outside the box of Western political thought, alternatives rooted in history, that are possibly more viable than completely new and alien systems.
These and more are just some of the happenings in these longterm disputes that have been drawn out for decades. Luckily there have been no clashes, and the “fighting” has been mostly taking place in the legal realm. If you are looking to get a good foundation on one or more of these conflicts, check out my review Serita Kentaro’s book The Territory of Japan: Its History and Legal Basis for BooksOnAsia.net. The review is posted on BooksOnAsia.net, check it out here → Negotiating the seas
This is my first piece for BoA, and I hope to have a couple more before the year is out.
For a book with “how” in the title, there is not much instruction.Better Living Through Criticism is more of a “watch me think about art, pleasure, beauty, and truth” which is much more entertaining. If writing described as “pontificating” or “a meditation” does not immediately turn you off, you will probably enjoy A.O. Scott’s reference-filled critique on the practice itself.
Imagine sitting at an outside cafe on a brisk autumn Sunday morning, steam rising from three coffee cups as you look across the cold, green, metal table at your Uncle A and your other Uncle O. They both super smart, well read, and are going through a sort of mid-life crisis, questioning everything. Also, the only way they can communicate is in references, stringing together literary quotations like a pair of (Philadephia-based) conspiracy theorists. Furthermore, they have been meeting here every Sunday for weeks and still haven’t come up with any solution. But there have been lots of conclusions.
To some, this might be the worst kind of excuse-inducing scenario. I would immediate pull up my chair and take an expectant sip of coffee.
Each chapter takes on a fundamental topic (What is criticism? What is the role of the audience? What is the role of the critic? What is the business of criticism?) and is interleaved by conversational asides where Scott interviews himself, revealing more of his thinking in a sort of disarming, conversational way. (Chapter summaries here)
Although at some points the book feels like a drawn out magazine article, I do appreciate the philosophical approach he takes on the topics he covers. Although I do a lot of book and movie reviews, I have never really considered myself a critic. Better Living Through Criticism did make me think more seriously about my approach. I attempt to read every book with a critical eye and engage with the ideas within when I write about it. I want to add value, above and beyond any value judgement. This is the result of the “thinking” that goes both into criticism as into writing. A.O. Scott quotes Elizabeth Hardwick in the inaugural New York Review of Books:
“[T]he great difficulty is making a point, making a difference—with words.”
H.L. Mencken declared that any good critic was motivated to “make an articulate noise in the world.” This advice I took to heart, but I was struck by Scott’s definition that “a critic is a person whose interest can help to activate the interest of others.” Of course this does not mean a critic should “sell” the work. Scott returns often to the “struggle between criticism and publicity” throughout: critics shouldn’t be PR or marketing, nor should they hack down everything. For Scott, if he doesn’t like a work, “the only ethical and honest course of action for me would be to remain silent and leave the discussion to others.” (I have not always followed this advice, but as you can see I read many more books than I review). For the works that are worthy, one task of the critic is to re-create their experience of the work to the reader. Scott describes a budding cineast who “dreams of casting a spell like the one he finds himself under.” Critics are artists too.
Better Living Through Criticism didn’t give me a map, but certainly gave me a destination to strive towards in my own practice of criticism. There are many ideas in the book to grapple with and I have a stack of notes that I will return to. Also, there are many referenced works for me to look up and appreciate next. To better living!
There has been a spate of new Audible Original Dramas out recently, and I have been hooked.
As everyone knows, I listen to a lot of audiobooks. Audio accounts for about 2/3rds of the books I read each year. My very first audiobook, way back in about 2007 was Ender’s Game. Though not a full cast production with sounds and music and the like, this audiobook had a multiple readers and was a great first listening experience. I was in Tokyo at the time, staying near Akasaka Circus, doing some stuff at the Canadian Embassy, and I remember just walking around the streets of Tokyo endlessly in the evening while listening to this audio drama, not wanting to go back to the hotel. I just couldn’t put it down.
Since then I have been a huge consumer of feature length audio content (and podcasts too of course). I get my audiobooks from a bunch of different sources (library, Downpour, Audible is my last choice since I avoid DRM where I can) and you can see a full list of what I have listened to and my recommendations on my Goodreads Audio Shelf.
Full cast audio dramas, especially well-produced ones with professional voice actors, are a great way to escape while you are doing chores or just walking around. I remember listening to the Star Wars audio dramas from the 1980s, and while in graduate school I soothed my tired brain by listening to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy BBC production while shovelling multiple feet a snow a day in Kingston Ontario.
Recently I have been listening to some classic adaptations such as The Three Musketeers and Treasure Island, both adapted by Marty Ross and lots of fun. The one that has blown me away is the newly released audio drama adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, the classic comic book series.
Gaiman’s audiobooks are always good, especially when he shows up as a creepy narrator, but this drama, with all the great foley and musical score was just brilliant. Just look at that cast list! There is one arc that was a bit too gore-horror for me, but in general it was all top-notch creepy Gaimanisms. I respect him so much as a storyteller, his ability to weave such emotional tales with the barest of suggestions, rather than saying anything outright. I admire the way he sets up his stories with a simple hook that pays off by the end with an arrow to the listener’s heart. The final chapter of The Sandman, involving a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is the perfect example of Gaiman’s use of historical and literary references as a guide for the reader, only to subvert the reader’s expectations in a particularly heart-wrenching way. While reading Gaiman I feel as though I am his mere plaything, and this is only enhanced by the performance of professional actors whispering sweet nothings directly into my ears.
First of all, this is not really review of Matt Alt’s new book Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World. The book is great, it is a fun romp through Japanese history using the lens of some of its most popular products. Go get it, you will love it. What I want to do here is to engage with a specific set of ideas as presented in the book. As a pop history of Japan and a selection of Japanese products, I think this book is wonderful. But there is a (small) aspect of the book that I found jarring, and I think it comes down to the framing — “conquering the world.” The commentary below is pretty in the weeds (not to mention possibly pedantic), and assumes that you are familiar with the content of the book. So, if interested, go read the book, then come back and check this out. I’ll wait. 😉
I have finally finished Emily Thomas’s short book The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad. I started this fun little read in the summer on my last trip to Kyoto, and held off on finishing it until I was back here, as I knew I would be coming to think deeply on why I travel (and why I write about it) — an important topic both for my book project, and an upcoming magazine piece I am working on.
This is not so much a review of the book, but I thought I would share my chapter summaries. Thomas uses each chapter to raise philosophical questions about various aspects of travel. Each chapter is a stimulating jumping off point for thinking about your own reasons for leaving your cozy world behind, or vicariously reading the accounts of others who did. Furthermore, each chapter actually introduces a particular topic or subdomain of academic philosophy. She doesn’t always come right out and label it, so I have included it in square brackets in my chapter summaries below. As an amateur philosopher, these are merely my best guesses. People in the know would be able to categorize these better I expect.
All in all, this is a great read, and if you are interested in travel, well worth it. Beyond asking the deeper questions she opens and closes the book with some excellent “vintage tips” for travelling well from famed philosophers of yore, including such nuggets as label your luggage legibly, do not hurry, or “Have you considered all the dangers… what if some Patagonian Polyphemus [Cyclops] were to tear you to pieces and then straightaway devour the throbbing and still-living parts?” (Joseph Hall, Another World and Yet the Same, 1605); and my favourite: “No young person under forty is ever to be allowed to travel abroad under any circumstances” (Plato, Republic, 380 BCE).
Upon returning home is such pithy advice as “banish ‘all affectations, and apish tricks, and fashions of other nations’” (Thomas ‘The Travailer’ Palmer, An Essay of the Means how to make our Travailes, into forraine Countries, the more profitable and honourable, 1606.) as well as the very good advice of “do not bore people with travel talk.”
Read below for a short description of the content of each chapter, with some of my thoughts thrown in.
I read a lot. Maybe too much… I am not a particularly fast reader, and I only do about 48 books a year (about 70% of those books in audio).
So why do I say that I read “too much”? It is because I can barely remember anything I have read in the past. To date, since 2010, I have ticked off over 500 books. But like most people, I have forgotten pretty much all of it. Is it because I am consuming too much too quickly? Of course not. It because I am not retaining knowledge in an effective manner.
A few months ago my buddy asked me an intriguing question: “What note taking system do you use?” He said he was reading a new book on taking better notes… I thought he meant what app do I use. I have about 15 note taking apps on my devices, so I launched into a (yet again, unnecessary) comparative analysis lecture. What we was really asking was about my methodology. It was pretty simple: I annotate books like crazy in my Kindle, using different colours for certain things, then export the notes to plaintext and store them in one of my many note-taking apps. Generally I write only short articles or book reviews, so during writing I usually pull up my highlights in a window on the left, and a bit of an outline on the right, and piece together my draft that way. When I do a book reviews I might read four or five books from the author to get a sense of their ouvre. It is not too difficult to keep all the salient points in my head.
But for writing that relies on more sources, especially longer writing, this approach is impossible. The big thing my approach lacks is connecting what I am reading with other knowledge. I am relying solely on my memory to hold all the relevant points in order to generate insight. And since the human brain is fallible (well, mine at least), the raw materials used to generate insight are constantly receding into the murky past. This results in me being a victim of the “feature-positive” effect, which is when one puts more emphasis on information that they have recently encountered, even if it is not the most relevant (ie. Recency > Relevancy).
My master’s thesis was over a hundred pages, with dozens of references. My current book will be much larger. I needed a better approach. So I asked my friend about that book he was reading…
The Getting Things Done for academics
There are lots of “productivity gurus” out there selling you bunk. I am a guilty sucker ✋, I’ve tried a bunch. The only two I have stuck with, and evangelize still today, are the Inbox Zero and Getting Things Done methodologies (note, Inbox Zero is heavily based on GTD, so it is really just one methodology). GTD saved my life back in 2005 when I was running my first web design company, had too many competing priorities, and was dropping the ball all over the place. The GTD book by David Allen is super popular — because it works. I even mentioned it in my post of Your life-changing books.
So when it came to having a methodology for taking notes so that I could retain more of what I read, and thereby come up with better insights, I started looking at the book recommendation of my friend: How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens.
I am not going to write about the how here. It is one of those things that is deceptively simple, and if you read the book you will see its many impacts on learning, thinking, and creativity. However, to sum up the “simple technique” from the subtitle: it is about reading with a pen in hand and recapping the ideas you are reading in your own words in full sentences, then connecting the ideas in those notes to ideas in other notes to build a web of knowledge, and finally putting notes from various sources together to produce writing products like articles, papers, or books.
From a productivity standpoint, it is similar to GTD in that it breaks projects down into discrete, manageable tasks so you won’t freeze up due to your lack of productivity. You focus on the process and not the outcome, which is much more motivating. If each day you are faced the monolithic task of “writing a book,” it is understandable why you can’t leave dirty dishes in the sink and cannot log out of Twitter. But if you set your goal to be simply writing a handful of well-constructed notes each day, that is a much easier task to tackle.
Each day you add notes and make connections, then make notes about the connections. This is where “thinking” happens. This is the work: the productivity that you can easily measure every day. This is the zettelkasten methodology, or what some people call building a “second brain.”
The zettelkasten is the field where you harvest your ideas, your daily productivity is seeding that field with a critical mass of useful notes.
I have been working with this methodology for the past couple of weeks and it has been pretty freeing. Like when you do your first GTD brain dump and feel your stress dissolve because you trust the system, I have been recording all the ideas/facts/data I have been coming across in my system, freeing my brain up for thinking, which is the most enjoyable creative act to me. After reading the book How to Take Smart Notes I see there are many more benefits to using a zettelkasten other than productivity. I feel like it has been life-changing, and it certainly has already impacted the approach I am taking with my new book.
If you want to learn more, in this video the author gives a nice introduction to the concept and its history (at about the 30 minute mark he discusses productivity). That is highly recommended viewing, but I would also recommend the book. It is short, and packed with ideas (it generated 3,300 words of notes in my zettelkasten!).
However some had a lasting impact. In fiction, Sadie was the most engaging as an audiobook; I loved finally getting into the lore of the wuxiaCondor Heroes; and Lincoln in the Bardo showed me that there is still new ground to break in novel-writing (tip: don’t listen to this one, read it in text it will make more sense).
I just finished Ibram X. Kendi’s excellent How to Be An Anti-Racist, which I am processing and hope to write a little review of soon.
Of the five I rated as 5-stars, only one film wasn’t a rewatch: Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 masterpiece Tokyo Story. In fact 16 of the 42 films I logged were rewatches (lots of Harry Potter and Ghibli films with my kids. I was even able to see Totoro in the theater this year! So brilliant! 😭).