I’ve had trouble sorting out what I read last year. The books themselves aren’t sorted. We moved in November – so they’re still all piled up in the corners of the house, like snowdrifts. Paperbacks I’ve not seen for a decade or more are sitting right at eye level, while my copy of one of the best things I read in the last few months, Lincoln in the Bardo, has disappeared without trace.
So I’ve only got the list I made to tell me what I read, and it strikes me as completely all over the place. If anything the list itself is an output – a trial of four ways of discovering things to read:
- Podcasts & social media recommendations.
- Big new releases, often reviewed or talked about in traditional media.
- Things about current trends.
- Stuff that “found me” – presents and books I’d bought months or years previously and that sat around until some moment caused me to start them.
Each of them generated one really good recommendation and lots of duds. The good ones were good in different ways; the bad ones, too.
On the occasion of the Rolling Stones’ 30 year anniversary, a journalist asked laconic drummer Charlie Watts, “what had it been like to spend three decades working with the band?”
“Five years of hard work,” he replied. “And 25 years of hangin’ around.”
Now Charlie Watts put the slink into Sympathy for the Devil and the pop into Satisfaction, so you can forgive a man a lot of hanging around when that’s what happens when he’s working. But if, in your next monthly catch up with your manager you announced you’d replicated this productivity ratio in the office – five days of hard work, 25 spent “hangin’ around” – you would likely be facing some tough questions. For all that digital leaders talk about outcomes not output, there is an invisible standard, a sort of “I know it when I see it” quality to what counts as being productive.
Most of us have internalised the fact there is no time for hanging around. Most productivity methods – Agile, Getting Things Done, Bullet Journals – have their things to say about “value” and “focus”, but the answers, the process, and the meat of what they’re about is basically throughput.
Make a list. Process it in some way, into categories. Get through it. Put a lot of ticks next to a lot of things.
Early in the summer last year, we went on holiday to the south of France. The lanes around the house smelled of lavender and olives. We ate outside on the veranda, looking out over wooded hills, the day’s dry heat like smoke in the air.
There was a swimming pool, a neat Topaz jewel, the same bright blue colour as the sky. Sadly my toddler son decided to hate it – he would sit on the edge and kick his little pink legs to paddle but if he got in deeper than his waist he would scream and cry in rage.
A few weeks later, at the end of the summer, in a hotel in Scotland, the same boy was very different. Again and again, he sat on the lip of the edge of the pool, grinning and bouncing, before pushing himself to fall toward, into the water and into my arms. Something had changed, and he was ready for the world. Now we try and go swimming every other weekend to the local pool. The first time we went, as we got changed, I took off my watch and my shoes and my socks and I remembered how when my father took my brother and I swimming as kids, he used to push his watch into one of the shoes before putting them into the locker. The carefulness of that action came back so strongly, even though I never knew I remembered it.
This year’s best books weren’t about character, but about the context of the past.