I used to look for patterns in the books I read, as though each book was itself a chapter in another book, one that would tell the story of the year. But honestly, who would make up the story of last year? Not the news, but my own story, where I had my second son and lost my mother to cancer in the same month.
That being the story — less an arc and more a downpour, less a journey and more an explosion, less a beginning/middle/end and more a big bang and black hole — the books ought to reflect things like faith and fatherhood, or grief and growth. There’s a little bit of that, because there’s a little bit of that in so many stories, but 2018’s reading was really just a jumble of fiction and non-fiction, and I am not sure there is any great lesson in it.
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.