Cartographer of Meaning

I am a reader. This is an identity that is at once consistent and changing. Consistent because ever since I can remember, I had my nose in a book; changing because the way that we interact with words in an age of new mediums puts us our relationship with words in a state of flux.

When I was growing up, things were simple: my world was inundated with books. My grandmother had a small bookstore and always surprised us with books when she would visit. To this day, she is best recommendation engine I've encountered. My dad is an author and to discuss the next book on a long car ride was normal. Those days, I read books both voraciously and indiscriminately.

Sometime in high school, having discovered the Internet, I stopped reading books as much. I discovered The Dish, which became an anchor point in the 2008 presidential election and then a trusted space for a valuable conversation of ideas and analysis. (Sadly, The Dish is now a retired project.) I encountered writers thinking about ideas like minimalism or pursuing excellent work. I found Maria Popova's project Brain Pickings, a wonderful collection of the large and the small. I do not regret this shift of attention to the Internet. During this period, this group of writers on the Internet slowly grew and became interconnected. Their work greatly influenced the development of my young mind.

At college, my reading habit became even more fractured. A hodgepodge of book excerpts, textbooks, long-form articles, and academic writing clamored for my attention. Law school hasn't changed that equation. However, by way of a morning ritual of coffee, I've maintained a habit of reading the group of writers on the Internet that I've assembled over the years. Though I've made an effort to read more books unrelated to my academic work as a law student, this fractured world of reading is the new normal.

It's not that I am reading less. I still take in a fair amount of text every day and many of the things that I read only reward those with discipline and the willingness to dive in. However, I don't feel like my brain is processing it all. With books, the reader is steeped in the author's work for an extended period of time. A new world captures your imagination; a carefully constructed thesis slowly shifts your perspective. When you would emerge from the work, its takeaways linger. Everyone has a list of books whose ideas or characters stay with them.

In this new fractured world of being a reader, everything is a little more ephemeral. I don't remember what I read a few days ago. It's not just reading, either: stories and ideas have permeated every medium. In this new world, we are all sorting through books, blogs, magazines, the Social Web, podcasts, videos, films, etc. Certainly, as Paul Graham argues, I'm influenced by more than I can actually recall. It's also not uncommon for something to to bubble up from the subconscious. You'll often hear me say, "The other day, I read this..."

Despite those caveats, I think being a cartographer of meaning in a digital age (to steal the title of the wonderful OnBeing interview of Maria Popova) requires some more effort. We have to sort out ways to guard the wisdom we've encountered.

I think an interesting way of doing that is starting a commonplace book. It's not a new idea but is ripe for adaptation for the modern age. Ryan Holiday defines a commonplace book as "a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits." Put differently, it's a way of sorting out the stock from the flow.

My commonplace book will likely be a distributed Frankenstein's monster with varying degrees of depth. I envisage a combination of sharing on social media, reflecting in more depth on this site, and personal journal entries. One body part of this monster might morph into the other as I sit longer in that space created by something I read, listened to, or watched. I believe the process will help internalize the avalanche of stories, ideas, and meaning that one can encounter every day and hopefully showing the work of my own becoming can help others in some small way.

Read along on that journey here.