Moyra Davey on Random Reading

Moyra Davey on Random Reading

“So how are we to draw up those reading lists finally? I have been fascinated to note how many writers invoke chance and randomness as guiding principles in choosing their books. I am talking about Lynne Sharon Schwartz, who, citing ‘the John Cage-ish principle that if randomness determines the universe it might as well determine my reading too,’ spent a winter reading the Greek tragedies because she happened to find a discounted set in a mail order catalogue. I’m talking about the serendipitous findings of Virginia Woolf, the little pamphlet from a hundred years ago that she comes across in a second-hand bookshop that stops her in her tracks and rivets her to the spot. I am talking about the happenstance of Georges Perec, who, while engaged in the tedious task of arranging his bookshelves, comes upon a book he’d lost sight of and writes: 'putting off until tomorrow what you won’t do today, you finally re-devour [it] lying face down on your bed.’ He further speculates that in our pursuit of knowledge, 'order and disorder are in fact the same word, denoting pure chance.’ And finally, I am talking about the passionate book collector uncrating his treasures after a two-year hiatus, as portrayed by Walter Benjamin in his autobiographical essay 'Unpacking My Library,’ for whom 'chance and fate … are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these book.’

"Just as a bookcase full of read and unread books conjures up a portrait of the owner over time ('joggers of the memory’ Perec calls them), so the books that arrest us in the present constitute a reflection of 'what we are, or what we are becoming or desire’ (Schwartz). There is nothing random about that, or about any of these other seemingly random ways of coming to books, and it is from this notion that the oddly apt idea of books choosing us, rather than the other way around, seems to make sense. The idea of a book choosing the reader has to do with a permission granted. A book gives permission when it uncovers a want or a need, and in doing so asserts itself above all the hundreds of others jockeying to be read. In this way a book can become a sort of uncanny mirror held up to the reader, one that concretizes a desire in the process of becoming.” –Moyra Davey fr. The Problem of Reading A Documents Book, 2003

Lindsay Marshall on serendipity:

We are not, I believe, looking for tools to record our thoughts or to provide them with structure. What we seek is something that leads us to the unforeseen collisions, the copulations that lead to new thoughts, new connections and yet more new meetings.

From Charles Bowden in Blood Orchid:

“We are an exceptional model of the human race. We no longer know how to produce food. We no longer can heal ourselves. We no longer raise our young. We have forgotten the names of the stars, fail to notice the phases of the moon. We do not know the plants and they no longer protect us. We tell ourselves we are the most powerful specimens of our kind who have ever lived. But when the lights are off we are helpless. We cannot move without traffic signals. We must attend classes in order to learn by rote numbered steps toward love or how to breast-feed our baby. We justify anything, anything at all by the need to maintain our way of life. And then we go to the doctor and tell the professionals we have no life. We have a simple test for making decisions: our way of life, which we cleverly call our standard of living, must not change except to grow yet more grand. We have a simple reality we live with each and every day: our way of life is killing us.”

So which is it: job or calling? You can answer the question directly, or allow time to answer it for you. Either way, I think you’d be happier if you stopped thinking of what the world had to offer you, and started thinking a bit more about what you had to offer the world. Real excitement isn’t just in whatever you happen to be doing, but in what you bring to it.


Client begins first meeting by making a big show of telling you that you are the expert. You are in charge, he says: he will defer to you in all things, because you understand the web and he does not. (Trust your uncle Jeffrey: this man will micromanage every hair on the project’s head.)

Daniel Lemire:

Highly productive people do not have more time, but they may have more energy, more method and better feedback on their progress.

Jack Cheng:

That’s what most people do. They keep waiting and waiting until they have enough saved up, find the right idea or until they’re in a position with more responsibility. But conditions are never perfect. And when we’re so focused on our plans, we lose sight of the openings in front of us. Instead of plans we need habits. Habits of taking risks. Habits of keeping our eyes open for new opportunities. Habits of putting ourselves in situations that force us to grow and change. We can all introduce a little chaos into our lives.

Maeda’s SIMPLICITY (404):

It’s not for others to recognize the fruits of your work; it’s for yourself. The desire is to complete a thought. So then … you can go on and find a new one to torment yourself with. The intellectual torment … is … fun? Hmmmm. Difficult to say. Perhaps it is a kind of acquired taste for an odd pleasure.

"A reasonable first step"

Scott Aaronson:

I see a world that really did change dramatically over the last century, but where progress on many fronts (like transportation and energy) seems to have slowed down rather than sped up; a world quickly approaching its carrying capacity, exhausting its natural resources, ruining its oceans, and supercharging its climate; a world where technology is often powerless to solve the most basic problems, millions continue to die for trivial reasons, and democracy is't even clearly winning over despotism; a world that finally has a communications network with a decent search engine but that still hasn't emerged from the tribalism and ignorance of the Pleistocene. And I can't help thinking that, before we transcend the human condition and upload our brains to computers, a reasonable first step might be to bring the 18th-century Enlightenment to the 98% of the world that still hasn't gotten the message.

"The most important reward of all"

Judson Jerome:

Like virtue, poetry is its own reward. … The immortality game, like that of getting into the circle of the two hundred, can be wicked and delusionary. … That leaves you with perhaps the most important reward of all: personal satisfaction. … You are more likely to succeed at poetry, as in love, if you get success out of your head. Concentrate on quality. Learn the joy of creating excellence — whether or not anyone else recognizes it.

"A really simple question"

We all know the one about the Emperor walking around with nothing on, while everyone admires the finery of his garments – garments so fine that only really clever and smart people like investment bankers can see them. The rest of us thought that debt, was, well, debt, but the bankers said no, debt is asset. It’s just that we couldn’t see it because we were so stupid…
... Yes, we need to stabilise our present situation, and then, perhaps, we could ask a really simple question – far too simple for the clever people – what is money for? At least that way it stops being an end in itself.