This week, poet Dorianne Laux’s poem “For the Sake of Strangers” has repeatedly found its way to my inbox. And for good reason: It reminds us that we are tethered to one another, even when (especially when) we are isolated and alone:

No matter what the grief, its weight,

we are obliged to carry it.

We rise and gather momentum, the dull strength

that pushes us through crowds.

And then the young boy gives me directions

so avidly. A woman holds the glass door open,

waiting patiently for my empty body to pass through.

All day it continues, each kindness

reaching toward another—a stranger

singing to no one as I pass on the path, trees

offering their blossoms, a child

who lifts his almond eyes and smiles.

Somehow they always find me, seem even to be waiting,

determined to keep me

from myself, from the thing that calls to me

as it must have once called to them—

this temptation to step off the edge

and fall weightless, away from the world.

In the context of a pandemic, the poem takes on the weight of melancholic nostalgia. Crowds are a distant memory. And who is this kind woman, blithely touching the handle of a communal door?

While we wait for the thronging masses with their careless touches to return, we find other ways to keep ourselves from ourselves, to stop ourselves from falling away from the world. Prestige (also trash) TV can help, as can Instagram baking tutorials, at-home yoga apps, and home-streaming movies.

But, of course, books offer the most direct route to sustained-but-restrained escape. Poetry like Andrea Cohen’s Nightshade or Steve Healey’s Safe Houses I Have Known dislocate language, asking us to attend to distilled moments in ways we can’t with Twitter. Short story collections, like Lauren Holmes’s Barbara the Slut or Bryan Washington’s Lot, expand Facebook’s promise to offer us an evocative peek inside discrete but connected lives. Easy-reading YA, like Amy Spalding’s We Used to Be Friends, extend us comfort through the familiar intensity of first loves and losses. And, of course, the classics and big books, like Middlemarch or Infinite Jest (god help us), open up an escape hatch onto worlds so comprehensive they can feel like a trap.

I have a two-foot stack of to-be-read books on my bedside table, but pandemic reading seems to call for something special. I’ve ordered Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s lauded first book in her recently completed Thomas-Cromwell trilogy, and My Brilliant Friend, the first book of Elena Ferrante’s beloved Neapolitan quartet.

Starting a series can be as intimidating as starting a heralded classic or a formidably big book. In regular life, I don’t like feeling obligated to read on (and on) to find out what happens. But from my more narrow pandemic perspective, the promise of a future unfolding feels more like a (reading) exercise in hope.

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We’re writing under a NWO here in Minnesota…and everywhere else. Schools are closed, and events, bars, restaurants, cafes, clubs, and anyplace else people want to congregate, are cancelled or shut down to flatten the COVID-19 curve.

It’s a new normal that can be hard to process in the permanent now of Twitter’s micro-moods. Some of us (or just me) are swinging between a fight-or-flight response to the immediate crisis and the more considered calm required to take care—of ourselves, our families, our communities, our jobs.

In this case, taking care may mean thinking through—like thinking through the consequences of choices about self-quarantining, social distancing, and vector-stymying so that we can take care of ourselves and each other.

But we can also take care by thinking through seemingly less impactful choices, like the words we use.

Because language is an everyday modus operandi, words sometimes feel arbitrary and unimportant. But even in their apparent meaningless (see Molly Young’s expose of garbage language, Mark Morgioni’s defense, and George Orwell’s 1946 anticipation of the same), words carry political implications.

The words of the pandemic, for example, have been shaped into weaponry for deployment in infectious warfare. Over the years (errr, likely throughout the history of language), war metaphors have been dulled by overuse. But such metaphors still signal the scale of struggle and the unity required to face and fight a common enemy.

Often, the referent makes the difference: When the federal administration chooses to refer to the coronavirus or COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” for example, it matters. An enemy called COVID-19, for example, requires armament in kind: masks, tests, hospital beds, a systemic and coordinated frontline—and rearguard—response. Since we know we don’t yet have these weapons in effective numbers, we know we cannot effectively fight this enemy.

An enemy called the “Chinese virus,” on the other hand, diverts attention from the weapons we don’t have (and why) by modifying virality with origins. It unifies an “us” against a foreign invader, and signals the need for weaponry of a different order (such as the border closures President Trump indicates have aided the fight). In this way, the racism contingent on and inherent to the distinction may not be considered by its users to be a symptom but salutary.

The challenges inherent to naming diseases are significant: Just ask the WHO. Yet, because language is not “a natural growth” but, as Orwell argued, “an instrument which we shape for our own purposes,” we should take care to think these challenges through. Our words won’t keep us safe from COVID-19, but they can make a difference in how and where we focus the fight.  

Oh, look at those young women up there! It’s hard to believe how much has changed since Jessica Knight and I began Modern Writing Services: Houses bought and sold; babies born and grown; and, of course, business growth and change. 

This year marks the first full year without Jess. In 2019, she transitioned from her role at Modern Writing Services to that of a full-time research writer and analyst at United Health Group. While she still consults at MWS, she does so in a bespoke capacity. Here, she talks about her move:

Q: What precipitated your decision?

A: There’s not really one why, though going in-house is something I’ve thought about for a while. I was interested to see what it would feel like to have a longer-term stake in my work than I was able to have as a consultant. It can be tough to pour your heart and soul into a project and then have very little control over what happens to it after you turn it over to a client! I was also ready to step back from the business-ownership side of…well, owning a business. And I knew Molly would continue to do great things with MWS. Plus, it gave me an excuse to buy a bunch of new clothes!

Q: What’s your new position like?

A: It’s really challenging, and really interesting. It’s been a huge learning curve, and I imagine that’s going to continue pretty much as long as I stay in this job, since developments happen so quickly in the healthcare and R&D worlds. My role involves very diverse work, from conducting literature reviews and writing white papers for our business and scientific leadership; to working with our data scientists, statisticians, and clinicians to help them develop research questions, analyze results, and create narratives of their research; to collaborating with our subject matter experts to refine conference presentations and papers for publication.

Q: How is it different from, or similar to, your MWS work?

A: It’s a ginormous company, which has benefits and drawbacks. To some degree, the R&D group feels like its own little island with an independent culture, but even within R&D I have a couple hundred coworkers. And the work I do is very collaborative across research teams and roles, so the day-to-day feels a lot different from what my day-to-day was like at MWS, when my projects were almost completely solo ventures.

However, the job draws on a surprisingly similar skill set to a lot of the work I did at MWS. While it’s obviously all healthcare focused, the research, writing, and editing that I do isn’t so different from the kinds of work that I did for nonprofits, universities, and presses with MWS.

Q: The best part?

A: The energy and intelligence of my coworkers—it’s really exciting to work with such smart people and to be tasked with trying to solve such challenging problems. I’m constantly learning—and I love that constant learning is a foundational part of my job. And the food. We have weirdly good food at our office!

Q: The worst part?

A: Hands down it’s the commute. I’ve gone from rolling out of bed and into my home office, to slogging through a 30–60 minute drive each way. I can work from home, but it’s often just easier to be in the office. I listen to a lot of books on tape, which, thank god for books on tape, or I’d be a totally rageful driver. I do my best to be zen about it, but it’s for sure a drag to spend so much time in the car.

Q: When will you work with Molly again?

A: In my head, I still work with Molly. We collaborated on everything we did for six years at MWS, so I think there will always be a little piece of my brain that operates on a WWMD (what would Molly do?) basis. And I jump on any chance to actually work together againI’m always available to come on board for special MWS projects

Everyone’s talking about bookshop. Errr, now that everyone is almost done talking about American Dirt, the limits of representation, the perils of mis-marketing, and the lost opportunities of seven-figure advances, everyone is talking about Bookshop.

What’s Bookshop?

It’s the Amazon alternative founded by Andy Hunter (of Electric Literature, LitHub, and Catapult fame) to sustain and foster independent bookstores and their dedicated reader communities.

The Bookshop model offers readers Amazon-like convenience, but it disburses proceeds to independent booksellers and gives a 10-percent share of book sales to affiliate linkers—whether they’re independent bookstores, magazines, bloggers, or other members of the book-loving public.

Of course, Amazon is cheaper. It’s cheaper because it only offers affiliate linkers a 4.5-percent share of book sales and because, compared to Bookshop’s on-average 8-percent discount, Amazon book discounts are much, much deeper. In fact, its unsustainable discounts are a major reason Amazon drives competitors like local and independent bookstores out of business.

So, in this as in so many other cases, “cheaper” comes at a price. Committed to books? To weird and wonderful bookstores? Help them (and readers!) thrive by buying from and linking to Bookshop. Its transparent effort to support local independent bookstores may be a more expensive alternative, but anyone interested in and committed to fostering a lively and long-lived cultural conversation will benefit from its marketplace.

As has been documented (here and…everywhere else), I welcome the opportunity forced by the new year to reflect on the old, contemplate the present, and imagine a better, slightly more accomplished future. 

But reflecting on the old means reflecting on very many resolutions I’ve failed to uphold. So, when I make resolutions, I make one or two, in areas of life I actually want to spend time in, and small enough so I have a chance of fulfillment.

In this respect, the #2020bookchallenge is a hazard and an opportunity.

My 2020 book challenge is much less ambitious: I want continue tracking the books I read (a prior, miraculously successfully met resolution) and also track why I read the book in the first place.

The Newsletter Age has resulted in many excellent book recommendations, but they are hard to track. When I finish a book, whether I loved or hated it, I want to (mentally, at least) discuss it with its recommender. Yet, by the time I receive and then read the book, its provenance has vaporized with the mists of memory. 

The Library Extension tool and my trusty Excel spreadsheet are going to help me keep this resolution. The former (for Chrome or Firefox) will find the book at my local library the moment it’s recommended, and Excel will track its provenance. 

It’s too late for Trust Exercise–I reserved it in 2019 but no longer remember who recommended it–but I trust I’ll be able to engage in many more mental dialogues in 2020.

 

50s style microphone

Although transcription is frequently viewed as a tool for reporters and journalists, thinkers, writers, and professionals of all kinds can benefit from integrating transcription methods into their production practices.

For thinkers, writers, and professionals, a transcription habit creates an accurate record of conversations, interviews, presentations, and (perhaps) podcast-inspired soliloquies. The resulting archive stabilizes moments otherwise lost to time, making them available for regenerative reflection and exploration. 

This is important for thinkers and writers, who frequently require inspiration for pitching or developing projects. But it’s also helpful for communications professionals, who benefit from casting a wide net when building and refining best practices.

While transcription once mandated an at-least doubled time investment (first, to listen to the interview or the presentation; then, to listen again and write it down; then, to listen again, to figure out what was missed the first and second times), there are now a variety of time-saving automated services.

The Open Notebook recently reported on the new automated transcription services, like OtterTrintTemi, and Sonix, favored by science journalists.

The automated services offer benefits, particularly in terms of price and turnaround time, and I like the Trint app’s seamless interface for nonspecialized projects. However, I use Rev when I require professional transcription services (typically when writing white papers with subject matter-expert interviews). Automated transcription is faster and cheaper than Rev’s $1/minute, 12-hour (max) turnaround, but Rev often catches the specialized language usage missed by automated services.

​Of course, it’s worth mentioning that the time spent transcribing the old-fashioned, incredibly time-consuming way is not time wasted. Listening to and writing down recordings is a meditative practice: It focuses the mind, but it also frees it to discover moments and insights unobserved in real-time. 

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You may not be in the market for a book cover, but we’re all—surely—in the market for inspiration. You’ll find it at the Book Cover Archive, “for the appreciation and categorization of excellence in book cover design.”

There, you might marvel at how delightfully disparate design can be:

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Or, browse its links to consider the drawbacks—​but also the benefits—​of relying on Getty Images

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There’s value in a cover that places a book in conversation with its genre: When you pick up a book with “Man in the Fog,” you know just the sort of noir you’re going to get.

But of course, there’s value in arresting design, too.

The cover to Forgetting Things doesn’t reveal its origins in Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life. But its cover certainly suggests something a bit forbidding, a bit primitive, a bit universal, and a bit fanciful, too.

Ultimately, the best book covers draw a map of a world that readers want to explore.

This post it not a how-to. No primer, no matter how comprehensive, can teach the know-it-when-you-see-it quality that catapults an everyday shelf-piece into the realm of  book art.

The Peter Mendelsund-designed Ulysses (as well as Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), provides a startlingly effective illustration. Here is style and savvy in spades. But here, too, is the kind of entrainment between writer, reader, and designer that channels  a book’s essence.

In The Wave and the Mind, Ursula Le Guin describes entrainment as the tendency for two wall-mounted clock pendulums to slowly swing in sync. Physicists call this “mutual phase-locking”; Le Guin describes it as the “beautiful economical laziness” by which successful relationships are formed.

It’s all a little spectral, but this (2013) Ulysses cover illustrates the certain quiescence by which a design imparts the spirit of a story. What looks like boldly scribbled marginalia interrupts but also completes the title with the “yes” acknowledging the book’s last—and now first—word and its (arguably) most famous line:  “yes I said yes I will Yes.”

While this isn’t a how-to, it does offer an injunction: When approaching book cover design, find inspiration in books that illustrate style, savvy, and this kind of economical soul. Then, aim that high.

Back when my readerly tastes were driven by the limited options at my suburb’s small, strip mall-located library, I rarely chose my books by their covers. Most of the library books sported dogeared, aggressively stickered covers anyway, so my appreciation for a cover’s import remained stunted.

It wasn’t until I arrived at college and received a syllabus that included Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea that a book cover swept me up in a passionate embrace. I had read Wide Sargasso Sea before (an excellent companion to Jane Eyre), but my copy was library-bound and looked like this:

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The copy I purchased at the university bookstore looked…different:
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The newer cover doesn’t say “post-colonial prequel” so much as “hot, sexy movie tie-ins!” And it certainly captured my attention. How did my first reading miss all that under-the-waterfall lovemaking?

While the wet, white-hot muscly embrace bears a mostly fantasy-based relationship to the book, the cover makes a potent play for reader’s eyeballs. This is the point of all book covers…although some achieve their aims more thoughtfully and cleverly than others.

But what makes for a thoughtful, clever book cover? One that captures readers with style that is inspired by and germane to the story between the covers? There’s a lot to consider—we’ll cover some of it in a coming post.

Stack of Papers

While most people benefit from plans, it’s often the preparation begotten by planning that matters more than the plan itself. This truism is attributed to Eisenhower, but its commonsense application pre- and postdates his mid-century usage.

First-time nonfiction authors, whether they walk the traditional or self-publication path, benefit from planning when they develop a completion* strategy in the earliest stages of drafting.

In most cases, this strategy begins by simply determining a completion date. The date is strategic not only because it encourages an author to set a realistic time frame in which to produce a book, but also because it invites an author to think ahead, anticipating the best-case timeline for publication and pointing to the larger continuum on which a book’s publication exists (on which completion is not completion but the beginning of the publication strategy).

Many authors are excited to set a completion date in the idea development stage. It’s only later, when faced with inexorable variables that limit progress, that authors feel the pressure of a self-imposed deadline. Of course, this is entirely as it should be. Everything feels possible before we begin—the exhilaration of possibility is the reason that some of us resist planning in the first place. It isn’t until we actually experience limitations (such as the inefficient cooperation of sources or coauthors) that we acutely feel their restrictive influence.

But pressure is often conducive to completion. And the date from which that pressure proceeds can help authors prepare for inevitable challenges, sometimes by helping to force different, more inventive, efforts at countering them.

There is another, less recognized reason for setting a completion date, too: The soft strategy authors develop for completion anticipates and readies them for that later stage of the continuum—the much harder, much more tactical strategy of publication.

*Let us stipulate that after reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, some of us will never be able to use the word “completion” without a sense of despair.