The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck

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As humans, we spend a lot of time and energy on things that deserve neither. Just the other day, while driving home from a particularly difficult day at work, I was in my car waiting for a red light to turn green. As the light turned green, the car behind the car to my left blared its horn as though the driver next to me had been asleep at the wheel. I spent the next ten minutes being livid at the arrogance and impatience of the jackass who honked their horn. And why? I felt a profound sense of injustice. I was angry that the person who honked their horn was being an asshole and was going get away with it with no repercussions. I had allowed myself to be negatively affected by someone else's inconsiderate behavior and this is exactly the type of thing Mark Manson warns readers against in his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*uck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life.

For readers sensitive to or just do not care for profanity, steer far clear of this book. If the title alone is not a clue, profanity infects the entirety of this book. I am not sure why. Does Manson just speak like this or is this a gimmick used to set the book apart from the thousands of other "how to be a better person" books available in bookstores? We all swear from time to time and a well-placed f-bomb is effective and can even be humorous, but the liberal use of profanity causes this book to lose credibility. I found it juvenile and unnecessary.

I disagreed with many of the major points presented in this book. Early on, Manson states that what most people consider life problems are really just side effects of not having anything more important to worry about. If I can call back to my personal experience from the top of this article, there are several possible reasons for such a reaction. In my own case, I can point to three: 1) I had a rough day at work and was already on edge, 2) injustice always upsets me, and 3) I struggle to properly channel my anger. This third reason is the most important and the most embarrassing and painful for me to admit. I dealt with anger management problems well into my twenties and only recently have I learned to deal with the unreasonable anger I often feel. Most of the time, I do well, but when I am in a tender state such as after a bad day at work, my fuse is short, my trigger sensitive, and it does not take much to set me off. I suspect this is true for many people. Spend any period of time reading the comments section of YouTube, Facebook, or any other major news, social, or entertainment site and you will find a cesspool unbridled vitriol, hatred, and ignorance. Or how many times have you been at Starbucks and listened to a customer scream at the barista because they accidentally put whipped cream on the mocha when the customer clearly stated they did not want those empty calories on their 290-calorie dessert coffee beverage? These are not people without any other problems who choose to berate baristas. These are people with unsorted priorities or a temporary mental disorder brought about by an overabundance of other problems they are struggling to deal with such as an unpleasant job, loss of job, dissolution of marriage, drowning in debt, death of a loved one, or any combination of these. Perhaps they have a permanent, untreated mental disorder, but that is the subject of a different book.

A bit later, Manson claims "Much as the pain of touching a hot stove teaches you not to touch it again, the sadness of being alone teaches you not to the do the things that made you feel so alone again". This is a ludicrous statement. I know a large group of people who are doing everything right when it comes to dating and just cannot find the right person. To boil their struggle and frustrations to down to such a simplistic root cause and to suggest they just haven't learned not to touch the hot stove is asinine. 

At one point, Manson suggests whittling your life down to the point where you have fewer choices about anything because the more choices you have, the less satisfied you are with the choices you make because you will wonder what would have been had you made a different choice. Manson then suggests that the more experiences someone has, the less satisfied they are with those experiences and thus they should have fewer experiences. He claims to have visited an astounding 55 different countries and that the first five were great experiences, but each subsequent country and culture grew less impressive. How awful for him! And for him to suggest that people should limit their world to a single geographical area so they can stop being disappointed by visiting new countries is itself a disappointing statement and I think speaks volumes of Manson's character. Not many people have the opportunity to travel to a single foreign country let alone 55. I am fortunate to have visited 9 foreign countries so far and each experience has been a gift of broader world view, cultural education, and human understanding. I say that if you have the means to travel, travel as often and as far as you can. Eat the local food, walk the streets, make an effort to learn the language. I suspect you will return home a better and more educated person.

The news is not all bad though. Manson does offer some gems of wisdom. They are good reminders to those of us who have lost our way and one of these hit pretty close to home. As a young man, Manson dreamed of being a rock star. He fantasized about it for years but nothing ever came of it because one day, he came to a disappointing conclusion: he did not want it enough. He was not willing to suffer the struggles and failures all musicians experience on their road to success. Manson's point is "what pain do you want to sustain?" Do you want something bad enough that you are willing to suffer to attain it? If not, then you are wasting your time and should find something else to do. This slapped me right across the face and the truth was painful. Since I was a little kid, I have enjoyed writing. I wrote a decent murder mystery when I was in elementary school and my teacher encouraged me to continue writing. I fantasized about being an author and every time I read a great book, I dreamed about how fulfilling the author's life must have been and fantasized about how my life would be when I was a successful author. Decades later, I have written exactly one unpublished novel, I am not an author and the reason for this, I realized as I read about Manson's rock star dream, was that I had not spent the time struggling through the hours of bad writing to get to the good stuff. I had not experienced the disappointment and frustration of receiving countless rejection letters from publications and publishing houses. I battled the blank page and I let it beat me. I did not want it enough. That admission is a dagger through the heart.

What does all of this have to do with a subtle art of not giving a f*ck? Throughout the book, Manson encourages the reader to decide what you want to spend your limited resources caring about during your life. He goes off on several tangents, he makes some silly statements, but dig through the muck and you may find that the primary message is a good one. Stop wasting your energy on stupid things. There was a wildly popular book twenty years ago called Don't Sweat the Small Stuff. I am going to suggest The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck is the modern version of Richard Carlson's blockbuster, but I do not see Subtle Art having the same legs. The presentation and profanity are going to turn a lot of readers away. I have already heard firsthand accounts from people who ditched the book halfway through. Those readers who stick with the book through the end might find some nuggets of truth waiting for them. That said, I find it difficult to recommend this book to friends and family. As Manson says, we have a limited number of f*cks to give during our short lives and even though this book is short, the people I know personally probably want to spend their f*cks on other things.

The Writer's Journey

In previous articles, I have stated that I had wanted to be a fire truck and an astronaut when I was a child. As I grew older, I discovered literature and creative writing and decided I would be a writer instead. Throughout junior high (middle school to some of you), high school, and college, I took a series of writing classes in which I was assigned a wide variety of projects from short stories to poetry to journalism. While attending college, I took a job at a local bookstore so I could surround myself with the words of others. I attended seminars and readings hosted by published authors. As I listened to them share their stories, rapt, I knew I would be one of them one day. The thing about being a writer --and every writer will tell you this-- is that you must write constantly. It has to be in your blood. If a writer is not writing, they are thinking about writing. And as time marched on, I realized that was not me. I enjoy writing as a hobby, but I knew I was not going to be the one to write the next great novel. I found myself lacking not just the discipline, but also the creative spark. My brain was not constantly burning with ideas like so many authors claim. It was a disappointing realization. It always hurts when a dream dies and I experienced a period of mourning.

I still have people in my life who encourage me to continue writing, to increase the volume, to elevate my craft. One of my greatest champions has been my longtime friend Jeff Garvin, who knows how difficult the journey is having become a published author with 2016's Symptoms of Being Human. In March 2011, we agreed to hold a personal NaNoWriMo (the official event is held each November), challenging each other to write a fifty-thousand word novel by the end of the month. We both achieved the goal and our respective first novels will probably never see the light of day, but Jeff continued on the fiction track and I turned my attention toward commentary, launching this website.

The main purpose of bookthump was to serve as a central repository for my experiences --nonsense or otherwise-- with the books I read. Too often have I been asked by a fellow reader for my opinion about a book we discovered we have both read and equally often I have had to admit I have little to no memory of the content. I think of this site as a book journal. It is not the fulfillment of that wide-eyed student's dream of being the next great novelist, but it does satisfy the needs of the adult I have become.

Years ago --I believe we were still in college-- Jeff gave me a copy of Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. At the time, I was secretly wrestling with the death of the dream, so it was both a heartwarming and heartbreaking gift. I gave it a prominent but permanent place on my bookshelf for years, knowing I might never read it for fear of tearing open ragged wounds. Then, in late March of 2017, Jeff approached me with an idea for a project. Hollering at each other over the cacophony of a local brewery's tasting room, we discussed this project that would require us to read Vogler's The Writer's Journey and mythologist Joseph Campbell's famous The Hero with a Thousand Faces. "Read Vogler by the end of April," he said, "Campbell in May". I threw back the last drops of the session IPA I was drinking and confidently agreed that I could meet those deadlines. Turns out I did not meet those deadlines because reasons, but I did finish The Writer's Journey on the last day of May.

Vogler's book is, as the author himself states in the preface, an "accessible, down-to-earth" modern version of Campbell's famous work. A student of Joseph Campbell, Vogler admits Campbell may be overwrought for current audiences because he cites so much ancient mythology and psychoanalysis that are no longer part of contemporary popular culture. I have recently started reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces and have found that the references Campbell makes are either entirely foreign to me or are completely different from what I recall. I used to love reading mythology when I was in elementary school, but the versions of the stories I read had been edited for young audiences. I feel like I need to camp out in the Mythology section of my local bookstore and absorb the adult versions of these stories.

In The Writer's Journey, Christopher Vogler takes the common story elements recognized by Joseph Campbell and analyzes several modern works such as The Wizard of Oz (1939), Pulp Fiction (1994), and the 1998 recipient of the Academy Award for Best Picture, Titanic. I found his analyses fascinating. That these starkly different stories share similar story elements was illuminating. I began thinking about my own works of fiction and was stunned to realize I had constructed my narratives in similar ways without even realizing it. Recalling some of my favorite stories, their frameworks share many of the elements Campbell and Vogler identify. This is not because authors steal from their predecessors. It is because good storytellers recognize the elements and structure that make a story connect with audiences. Readers enjoy novels about normal people who face extraordinary circumstances, perform heroic feats, and have spectacular adventures. Such stories allow us to escape our ordinary lives and let us fantasize about being someone greater than we are. This book opened my eyes to something that had always been there, lurking in my subconscious. No "Eureka!" moments, but there certainly was a considerable amount of chin-scratching.

Days after having finished The Writer's Journey and having started Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, I feel a charged sensation, that fidgety buzzing one feels when their mind has been introduced to an exciting new concept. I am interested to see how this new perspective affects my future experiences with books and films. My journey continues...

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying up

A few weeks ago, I was expressing to a friend of mine my growing frustration with the state of my living space. It is cluttered which makes it difficult to keep clean and as a result, I often have the feeling I am living in squalor. Now, truthfully, this is far from fact, but when one is accustomed to a particular lifestyle and then allows oneself to stray from it, the change in mental state is profound. This friend of mine mentioned that her mother had just gifted to her a book by a Japanese author who specialized in decluttering and organizing. She read the book, followed many of the suggestions within, and ended up with a much tidier, pleasant living space. She warned me, however, that the author is crazy.

I had to see for myself so I borrowed her copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and gave it a read. Based on the statements the author makes about her obsession with tidying beginning during childhood, I suspect this woman has some serious OCD issues but has somehow turned it into a lucrative career. Good for her! This is a prime example of someone taking the lemons of life and making lemonade. She could easily have boarded the crazy train and been doomed to a life of cyclical tidying, a counter-hoarder, but she learned from her childhood mistakes and has devised a method that she claims will, if followed to the letter and to completion, will result in a persistent positive change and habit. The method, which she names after herself in a totally not egotistical way, is extreme and requires trust –dare I say faith—in the process.

Would you feel weird talking to your inanimate belongings? I certainly would but this is exactly what the KonMari Method asks of its participants. Let us say you wish to reduce your closet clutter. Take every piece of clothing in the house and pile it all on the floor. Now pick up each item, hold it, consider it, and ask yourself if the item sparks joy. Sparks joy? It’s a shirt. If I only wore clothing that sparks joy, I would have no choice but to wander around nude, which my office colleagues would not at all appreciate. It sounds strange, holding everything I own and asking myself if I feel joy while holding it. If I am being completely honest though, then yeah, a few of my belongings do spark joy and those have a prominent position on desks and shelves. A photo of me with my old hound dog, may he rest in peace. My tiny stuffed sheep that my wife and I bought at the Stonehenge gift shop during our trip to England in 2007 and which has joined us on every international journey ever since. Nearly every book on my shelves and piled on the floor. These are a few of my favorite things. And if you find something that does not spark joy that you wish to discard? This is where the entire method becomes a little wackadoo for me. As you discard the item, the KonMari Method asks that you thank the item for its service and wish it a pleasant journey. I find this more than a little absurd and I wonder how many people actually perform this step. Still, I did manage to collect four bags of clothing for donation and this is really the important part. I may have been too haughty to wish my old coat a fond farewell, but I was able to part with it because I was able to recognize that I was keeping it for foolish sentimental reasons and not because it sparks joy.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is short and many readers will probably be able to finish it in a couple of sittings. I read terribly slowly so the book spent two weeks on my nightstand. Read it with an open mind and I suspect you will find something useful in the book. Follow the author’s procedure perfectly and do not take shortcuts though or one is doomed to fail, or so she says. Who am I to contradict her? She is the tidying expert with a three-month waiting list of clients and millions of books sold. I am just a guy with three piles of unread books on the floor. At least I can remove The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up from those piles now. Thank you, book, for teaching me your ways and may your next reader learn much from you.

The Gutenberg Elegies

When Sven Birkerts’s The Gutenberg Elegies was published in 1994, the Internet was an infant.  The primary purpose of a cell phone was to make phone calls.  Texting was barely a thing.  It wasn’t until three years later that you could order a DVD in the mail through Netflix.  Youtube was a decade away.  iDevices didn’t exist yet, nor did e-readers.  Amazon had just been founded and wouldn’t release their popular Kindle device until 2007, a year after Birkerts released an updated 2006 edition of The Gutenberg Elegies.  The point is that our world has recently been flooded with new technologies all designed to make our lives simpler, more fun, more efficient.  Birkerts is afraid that books and literary culture as he knew it as a young man will disappear, occluded by electronic noise of the modern world.

In The Gutenberg Elegies, Birkerts expresses concern that the onslaught of electronic technologies will convert humanity into a species of automatons and that we will “lose the ability to confer meaning on the human experience”.  My initial reaction was to dismiss this concern, to think that humanity will be just fine.  But I look around and see an increasing number of faces buried in glowing screens.  I was at a baseball game a few weeks ago and hundreds of people around me spent the game staring at their iPad or cell phone screens, browsing the Internet or texting people.  Only when those of us actually watching the game cheered or booed would their heads snap up and they’d look around frantically asking those of us around them what had happened.  The next time you go to a restaurant, take a look around at how many people have their smartphones in their hands, not talking to each other.  Birkerts may be on to something, though I do not want to admit it.  Maybe it is not too late.

Most of the notes I took while reading this book are counter-arguments to the points of view Birkerts shares.  As I read those notes now though, having had a couple of weeks to mull them over and observe the world around me with Birkerts’s perspective, I find myself agreeing more often.  There are bright spots though.  Thanks to the Internet, we now have the ability to connect with like-minded individuals from around the world whereas in the pre-Internet age, one would need to meet up with book club members at the local library to discuss a book.  I think we should still do that because nothing beats a face-to-face conversation, but outlets like goodreads.com and the book blogosphere (into which I hope bookthump.com will be accepted soon) offer thriving communities full of intelligent people yearning to have thoughtful discussions and debates.

Sven Birkerts displayed an eerie prescience in 1994 about the effect modern technology has had on literary culture.  Many readers are converting to e-readers and downloading their reading material.  Brick-and-mortar stores are closing by the hundreds, unable to compete with the wholesale prices offered online.  Personally, I love the physicality of a book, particularly a nice hardback.  I even named this website after the sound a thick hardcover makes when you snap it shut.  I enjoy collecting books, browsing bookshops.  I enjoy the experience of holding a book in my lap and reading.  In this, Birkerts and I agree.  I am not sure I am ready to believe mankind is losing its humanity as a result of technology, but the more I read Internet forum comments (pick any news outlet and prepare to recoil at the magnitude of vitriol and hatred expressed by commenters hiding behind anonymity), the more I wonder if we may realize his prescience about our loss of humanity in another decade. It may already be happening, but we are too busy with our noses glued to tiny glowing screens to notice… or care.  Oh, and Birkerts is on Twitter so his journey toward the Dark Side is complete.