I've been slowly working my way through the new translation of The Brothers Karamazov and for the past two weeks found myself in an odd place: paused in my reading not because I'm bogged down or bored, but because the next two chapters are among my very favorite pieces of writing ever.
Have you ever had that experience? Where you know the next bite is so sumptuous you hesitate to put it in your mouth because the anticipation is nearly as good as the taste itself?
This morning, before getting started on anything else – before my walk with Clare, before coffee, before placing the needle down on today's record – I sat down with Ivan and Alyosha and read the "Rebellion" and "The Grand Inquisitor" chapters. I know that Alyosha is Dostoevsky's hero, but these two chapters, these 40 pages or so, cement Ivan as the star of the show and one of my favorite characters ever.
When I first read The Brothers Karamazov, I was 17 years old, working a temp gig during the summer before I started college. I was working the front desk at a specialty kitchen and bath store called "Splash!" Naturally, I spent 90% of my time reading and every once in a while greeted some rich lady who came in demanding to talk with someone.
One Thursday in July, I brought my new copy of the book to Splash! and settled into the shockingly comfortable chair at the front desk, and cracked it open. I was transfixed by the end of the strange, contradictory Author's Note. My friends, I ignored phone calls, greeted guests with grunts without looking up from my book, and generally did all I could to be fired that day. I got through the first two hundred and some pages during my shift and left off right as Ivan and Alyosha sat down at the diner to talk. When I got home and reentered Dostoevsky's world, these two chapters, "Rebellion" and "The Grand Inquisitor" awaited me.
I read straight through to the end of this 800-page book that night, finishing at around 4:00 am. There are many, many scenes and chapters in the book that I can recall as though I just read them (Mitya's manic trip to Mokroe with Grushenka, Ivan's nightmare of the devil, the courtroom passages), but "Rebellion" and "The Grand Inquisitor" are among the very best things I've ever read. The only comparable passages I can think of are the "Snow" chapter from Mann's The Magic Mountain, Stephen Dedalus's stream-of-consciousness musings on the Strand in Ulysses, the episode early in Gravity's Rainbow when Roger and Jessica come upon a church in Kent at Christmas, and some epiphanic passages in Proust.
Anyway, good morning! I'm feeling the full-body tingles that come from being transported somewhere well beyond myself this morning. Elevated beyond my meager mind and body. So let's throw on a record that is low-key and won't interrupt this feeling, yet is itself a mood.
I first heard DJ Shadow when I was a sophomore in college – so, about four years after this album, Endtroducing..., was released. An incarnation of my college band was practicing for a show coming up and a guy named Andy – one of the chillest dudes I've ever been around, a super-quiet kid from NYC with dreads and a soothing voice – was playing drums for us. Except Andy wasn't just a drummer: you could place any instrument in front of him and, whether he'd ever played it before, he just knew how to play it.
So we were taking a break from trying to figure out a song we never did get right and Andy sat down behind a keyboard and started playing this little tune. It may have been 30 seconds or five minutes, but at some point we all realized every one of us were stopped, rapt in attention to what Andy was playing. As he realized we were all watching him, he became self-conscious and stopped playing.
"What? Is something wrong?"
One of us, I think Dave, asked him if he'd written that song. No, he hadn't: the song was "Building Steam From a Grain of Salt" from this album. To this day, it is a song I come back to when I want to calm down, to center myself when a storm is forming.
As most of you know, I'm pretty active on LinkedIn (if not any other social media platforms). There are a number of reasons for this: it's a kind of non-traditional marketing that has worked pretty well for me, it's a way for me to meet people and make friends, I learn a good bit reading smart people think and interact, etc. LinkedIn has been good to me, and all I have to do is show up and be weird.
Lately, though, I've been really concerned about the effect the internet is having on me. Over ten years ago, I read Nicholas Carr's The Shallows and remember being alarmed for the rest of society but, in my arrogance and ignorance, thought I was immune from the perils of skimming, shallow reading, and the attention-diverting nature of the internet and social media. I now know better.
I read books more than most people do, I'd guess. (Probably not much more than you, Dear Reader – but we are a special bunch, aren't we?) And still, I find my capacity for deep reading slipping. Some of this might be simply the function of where I am in life: building two businesses, writing a novel, putting out a podcast and this newsletter, etc. Many things are vying for my attention and I don't have hours every day to dedicate to reading something the way I used to. No way I could sit down and read a technical work of philosophy right now the way I could have twenty years ago.
I've slowly begun being more intentional about what I feed my brain. A month ago, I started leaving my phone charging downstairs when I went to bed. It's helped me stop the doomscroll of clickbait before bed and instead focus on a bit of specific journaling and reading books. I'm sleeping much better, you won't be shocked to hear.
The big battle, though, is still before me. I read a ton of shit on the internet. "That's reading!" you might say and, sure, there's some amazing stuff on the internet. But my own perception and a lot of scientific studies show that 1) reading on screens is pretty fundamentally different from reading on paper, in some seriously worse ways, 2) we skim a ton of information when reading the internet but rarely do the work to understand it, and 3) the distracted reading we do on the internet makes us more anxious, dopamine dependent, and suggestible.
Potato chips and chocolate will make you feel full (and, for a little while, happy), but won't help you get the nutrients you need to function well.
I'd never really been exposed to DJ culture and music prior to listening to Endtroducing... but I had some pretty misguided ideas. It's funny how that works, isn't it: it's easy to be prejudiced when we don't have any actual exposure to the thing or the people we've decided aren't "good." When Andy burned us copies (remember those days?) of the album, I remember sitting, listening to this album for hours on end through headphones in the library. Just sopping up the music.
It was the first time I'd consciously paid attention to sampling and the art that goes into it, the way you create something new by reusing old bits. Before, I'd thought of it as derivative and unimaginative – but I was coming around to the idea that all art is necessarily reusing old parts and the creativity isn't in the newness of the parts but in the use and assembly of them. There are, after all, only twelve notes and twenty-six letters. Music and language have a logic to them and tend to arrange in certain ways.
Why do you think large language models work?
When confronted with what feels like a significant choice, I first consider the extreme options. This isn't some strategic frame I've learned or developed, and it isn't necessarily healthy. I'm simply observing something about myself.
Here, I know that my current diet of internet is not good for me: it's drawing down my capacity to do deep work – and deep work is the kind of work that I find meaningful and fulfilling. Yet my livelihood is utterly dependent on the internet. My firms are digital natives and I serve clients from London to Los Angeles. They would cease to function without the tech platforms I've built them on. Indeed, a shocking amount of my social connection occurs via LinkedIn, Zoom, and email. I mean, I have friends here in Pittsburgh, but I talk with many of you as often as I do those in close physical proximity.
All that to say, I am feeling awfully conflicted. The very thing that is empowering my businesses and a majority of my interaction with peers and friends is also debilitating my ability to think at the level that makes me feel whole. I want more time with my buddies Dostoevsky, Pynchon, Rebecca West, Montaigne, etc. and less with reading about Notre Dame recruiting, sensationalized news coverage (and that is all news coverage), and "5 steps to creating a perfect webinar."
What to do when the internet superpowers your ability to work, project yourself into the world, and connect with people all the while it restricts your personal capacity to work at your highest individual level?
Friends, I am open to suggestions. I doubt it will ever happen, but if I ever suddenly disappear, either I'm dead or you should refer to this edition of OTR and draw your own conclusions.