Commonplace Links #4

I found powerful this episode of OnBeing with David Whyte. Maria Popova helpfully points to some good parts of the conversation here.

One part that Popova doesn't touch on is Whyte's thoughts on the power of questions. Whyte reflects:

The ability to ask beautiful questions, often in very unbeautiful moments, is one of the great disciplines of a human life. And a beautiful question starts to shape your identity as much by asking it as it does by having it answered. And you don’t have to do anything about it, you just have to keep asking, and before you know it, you will find yourself actually shaping a different life, meeting different people, finding conversations that are leading you in those directions that you wouldn’t even have seen before.

I love this idea. Asking better questions is an underrated path towards transformation of both ourselves and others.

Relatedly, Jedidiah Jenkins writes about how another way we can shape others: highlighting what's best in them. Jenkins:

Saying what someone 'is’ is like witchcraft. For this reason, I tell people what is lovely, so that it becomes more of them.

Another way to put it: we are what others pay attention to. There's beauty in this idea of becoming through call and response, though we shouldn't forget James Baldwin's powerful admonition: "You've got to tell the world how to treat you. If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble."

Whyte's poem "Sweet Darkness," which he reads during the episode, offers a little help in the difficult process of choosing how to engage with the world. Its closing lines:

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you

Anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you. What an incredible way of sifting through yes's and no's in life.

Finally, Freddie de Boer on reading:

My recommendation to anyone, but particularly to anyone who wants to restart their habit of regular reading of book-length work, is a project book.


A project book is one that you want to take a long time with, often one that necessitates taking a long time with. And though so many of your instincts are going to militate against it, you should stretch out into that time. Get comfortable. Think of your project book as a long-term sublease, a place that you know you won’t live in forever but one that you also know has to come to feel like home. You want to take months, reading little chunks at a time. It might offend your bookworm nature, but I find it’s useful to make a regular appointment– for this hour, twice a week, I will read this book and ancillary materials about it. Think of it like appointment television, if that suits you. Learn to enjoy the feeling of not being in complete control over what you mentally consume all the time, a feeling that has become rarer and rarer.

I've been thinking a lot about reading and its importance to the both the mind and soul. I'm actively rebuilding my identity as a reader, which directly feeds my identity as a writer. A project book is a fantastic way of training that skill. I have a few ideas for one (perhaps Plato's Republic or DFW's Infinite Jest), though I think I will take one up this summer.

Background to this experiment in link-sharing here.