The4thDave Reads: “Digital Minimalism” by Cal Newport

We’ve seen the blog posts and editorials for years: “How I Gave Up Social Media for 30 Days and It CHANGED MY LIFE!” “Why I Quit Facebook and Got My Life Back” “Quitting Instagram Helped Me Lose 40 Pounds and Run The Boston Marathon!!!” (Okay, maybe not that last one.) Hand-wringing posts about the dangers of online culture, social media addiction, and how often we contemplate quitting (or quit and then come back) are almost becoming a cliche lately. (Guilty.) But no matter how many productivity gurus talk about the power of “digital detoxing” and the benefits of set fasts from social media, many of us are still struggling with this form of addiction. (Yes, us, I’m a junkie just like you.)

I read these types of posts constantly. The most clear-headed thinker I’ve found on this topic is Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown and author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work. I’ve shared the link to his TED talk about quitting social media in the past. I heard sometime last year that his next book would deal with the idea of “digital minimalism” and was immediately intrigued. Well, it was well worth the wait.

Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in A Noisy World is a persuasive call to reconsider the choices we make about our digital lives.

Newport challenges the reader not to throw away all technology–he’s no Luddite seeking a purely analog life–but rather to ask very pointed and thoughtful questions about why and how we use technology. He challenges the notion that a mere potential benefit of a device or service is a good enough reason to adopt its use, or that having more features is automatically better. He draws the reader’s attention to the fact that we are the product being sold by social media corporations, and that our time and attention have been monetized for someone else’s benefit.

Beyond a Simple Detox

Newport suggests a 30-day challenge: an intentional digital fast (with common-sense provisions for certain necessary work/life demands), followed by a slow and deliberate re-integration of tech. During this post-fast period, he suggests that we ask 3 questions of our devices and apps: Does using this tool support a belief or priority that I deeply value? Is this the best way I can pursue that ideal or value? Can I optimize the way I use this device or program in pursuit of that value?

For example, if we use social media for keeping up with our family, Newport would argue that what we’re doing when we like or share or comment is mere connection, and it doesn’t take the place of real communication. Instead, while we might still use social media in a very limited way (both in time and scope) to catch up on news about our loose circle of acquaintances, we should also pursue actual communication with people who matter to us via in-person visits, phone calls, or even video chats (for far-flung loved ones). The complexity of face-to-face and voice-to-voice communication, Newport writes, is what provides the richness of human interaction–a complexity that text-based communication falls short of providing.

Don’t Click “Like”

Throughout the second half of the book, Newport gives recommendations of practices one can pursue as part of the “Attention Resistance” pushing back against screen consumption. Some of these ideas are pretty simple (make time for solitude, go for walks, pursue an analog leisure activity that requires physical exertion), while others are a bit more challenging, at least for me.

One such challenge Newport makes is to stop clicking “like.” He talks about how social media introduced the “like” button as a way of providing a minimal amount of feedback that still stimulates the user (the “digital slot-machine” idea of irregular positive feedback conditioning). I struggle with this, because I use the “like” button a LOT (as those of you on my socials can attest). However, I see what he means. A real-world example: I just posted on Facebook 42 minutes ago that we were having another baby. As of right now, 3 people have actually commented (2 of which said “congrats!”), and 20 people have hit the “Like/Love/Wow” emoji. [Update: I’ve gotten more comments since then, but the ratio of reactions to comments is running about 4-5 to 1.] Now, I do appreciate that these folks reacted to the news (that’s how Facebook describes it–reacting), but the vast majority so far have only reacted enough to click a mouse or tap a screen and then likely moved on with their scrolling. And I can’t fault them; that’s just what we do, isn’t it? But Newport suggests we stop, because this isn’t actually communicating anything. It’s one bit of information, a blip on the radar. And it’s a far cry from actual human community.

(And for the record, if you are one of the “likes” on my FB wall right now, this isn’t a slam against you. Thanks for taking a moment to read this. But hey, gimme a call sometime, so we can catch up, yeah?)

One Weakness

The only critique I have of Digital Minimalism is a worldview issue. Newport is writing from a secular perspective, so when he talks about the evolution of man as a social animal, he is missing a glaring clue as to why we are social creatures. Mankind was created by a personal, social, communicating God, a God who speaks and interacts with His creation, and because we bear the imprint of His image, we are social and communicative beings. That’s part of the reason why this reduction in human interaction is so unnatural; we were made by God for community, but our community is being undercut by a digital counterfeit that steals time away from incarnated interaction. The spiritual element of this whole idea is missing from Newport’s thinking on this subject, which is why other books by authors like Tony Reinke and Andy Crouch are necessary and helpful supplements to the ideas Newport presents.

Final Review

Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism does more than simply point out the problem of digital addiction and social media enslavement. Newport helps the reader consider how to use these tools in a way that is healthier and more intentional than simple consumption and constant attention. While I think there are some blind spots in his argumentation due to differences in worldview, I would happily recommend this book to anyone who struggles with the idea of giving up digital tech or social media but still wants to reconsider the way he or she approaches these tools.

#FridayFive: Five Books I Finished in January (2/8/2019)

Happy Friday, y’all! I’m back with five books that I finished reading (or listening to) in January. Hope you find something you might want to check out soon!

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Somewhere A Band is Playing, by Ray Bradbury

I’ve already written about this a bit. Technically, this was one of 2 novellas by Bradbury, published under the title Now and Forever (along with “Leviathan ’99,” a futuristic take on Moby Dick). After finishing Band, I wasn’t eager to keep reading Bradbury’s later work, so I stopped with the first novella. That said, if you like light science fiction, Somewhere a Band is Playing is a pleasant-enough diversion (though you could do better, especially with Bradbury).

The Tech-Wise Family, by Andy Crouch

This short hardcover volume by Andy Crouch is a must-buy if you have any concerns about how you and your family engage with technology. Crouch details ten commitments that he and his family seek to follow, so that they can learn to be more in control of their relationship with technology and social media. I appreciate that the author is also honest about how successful he and his family are at keeping those commitments. Using a large amount of research from the Barna Group, Crouch describes the typical family’s use of technology and helps the reader think through the potential dangers of its “easy, everywhere” promises. This is a book that I’m still thinking about, weeks after finishing it, and I encouraged my wife to read it as well, so that we can discuss how it may influence our household.

Them, by Senator Ben Sasse

In some ways, Senator Sasse’s book Them reminded me of Jonathan Leeman’s How the Nations Rage–a warning that life is more than politics and that we need connection and community to help address cultural issues as individual citizens. While Sasse is a professing Christian, what he proposes is not a theological solution as much as an ideological one: make the decision to see people who disagree with you politically as neighbors and fellow citizens, and work for their good as well. (Could you make the argument that you can’t do that well or effectively or for long without Christianity? I think so, but that’s not what he’s getting at in this book.) Sasse makes some pretty pointed observations about how our national conversation has become fragmented and fractured, and make suggestions about what we can do to try to shift course. I listened to the audiobook (read by the senator) and enjoyed it immensely. He gave me lots to think about and discuss with others. His chapter on political media and the monetization of outrage is stellar. He also suggests pulling back from overuse of technology by not only referencing Tony Reinke’s excellent book 12 Ways Your Smartphone is Changing You but also talking through Andy Crouch’s commitments from Tech-Wise Family. In other words, my favorite senator and I have a similar reading list. I wonder if he likes short stories…

All Things for Good, by Thomas Watson

This short-but-deep volume by Puritan pastor Thomas Watson is a 125-page meditation on one of the most misapplied verses in the Bible, Romans 8:28. However, in All Things for Good, Watson slowly considers each phrase (almost each word) and encourages the reader to meditate at length on God’s sovereignty and kindness. This was a rich and rewarding read, that I consumed a few paragraphs at a time before bed over several weeks. Just a page or so gave me enough to think about in the few minutes before I drifted off to sleep. As someone who struggles with nighttime anxiety, I can’t think of a better cordial (other than the Scriptures themselves) for soothing my worried heart.

Family Shepherds, by Voddie Baucham

I am reminded that there is no greater earthly role for me to take on than husband and father. Voddie Baucham’s excellent book Family Shepherds is a direct and bracing charge to men to be the spiritual leaders of their homes. In the book, Baucham looks at the man himself as a disciple, what it means to be a shepherd, the primacy of a man’s marriage in how he leads his home, how he should raise his children (with both formative and corrective discipline), and how he engages the world as a family shepherd. If you don’t know Voddie, I can’t recommend his preaching and speaking highly enough. Add this book to the list, especially if you are a Christian man who is or aspires to be a godly husband and father. In a culture that is currently debating the value and place of masculinity, it is imperative that Christian men seek to portray and exemplify Christlike leadership and care for their families, and so let their light shine.

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What have you read so far this year? Share your recommendations below in the comments!

52 Stories: 3 Stories about the Tyranny of Smart Tech

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

Today, let’s take a look at 3 science fiction stories about “smart tech” and the danger of AI that becomes a bit too independent.

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#4: “August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury

I remember reading this story back in high school (more than 20 years ago!), specifically the concept of an autonomously-running house, so I decided to revisit it for this project. You can find it online here.

The Set-up

A “smart house” springs to life, in the stillness after war.

The Pay-off

My memories of this story were solely of the idea of an empty, automated house, but I had forgotten the actual reason why the house was empty. The line that most clearly explains what happens is almost a throwaway, but its simplicity and starkness caught me off-guard. This was part of Bradbury’s themed short-story collection The Martian Chronicles, which is an undeniable classic and a must-read for anyone interested in 20th century science fiction.

The Takeaways

  • While there were some limits to Bradbury’s imagination (would a robotic house still use film reels and spools of audio tape?), you have to credit him for foreseeing the popular uses of personal tech. (“Hey Alexa…”)
  • The idea of personal automation continuing to run after the demise of its owners is both tragic and a bit chilling. Plus, you factor in the contrast between an “easy, everywhere” life of household convenience and the sudden horror of atomic war, and it’s hard to see the future with quite as rosy a lens.
  • “August 2026” isn’t a story as much as a scene or vignette, a stack of photos (do anyone besides hipsters use actual film anymore?) depicting a society after its downfall. There is no plot or movement of action–just a description of slow collapse at the end of an era. If there is a message, it’s a warning against the threat of atomic war and the idea that no civilization is so advanced that it cannot still destroy itself.

#5: “Autofac” by Phillip K. Dick

My friend Leann K. on Facebook recommended this one to her feed, in light of our current cultural discussions on advancements in AI within social media. I had never read it, but I was a little familiar with the author, so I thought I’d check it out. I found it in a collection of Dick’s stories from the library, but you can find it online here. (And thanks to Leann for the link!)

The Set-up

A group of people seek to stop a factory on auto-pilot.

The Pay-off

Most PKD stories I’ve read are great ideas that never quite landed. It always seemed to me that he concocted great scenarios or set-ups, but they were better fleshed out by others. (Minority Report and The Man in the High Castle stand as evidence.) However, I have to give him credit on this one (and another story I’ll review soon): “Autofac” was a pretty effective yarn — lean, kinetic, and comes complete with that Rod-Serling-style gut-punch at the end.

The Takeaways

  • In the war of Man vs. Machine, PKD seems to argue that machines will win because they are single-minded, relentless, and unaffected by hope/disappointment. In “Autofac,” humans try to throw off the rose-petal shackles of a machine-run economy by force, by reasoning, and by subterfuge, but in the end, the machines’ innate drive toward self-perpetuation wins out.
  • I don’t know anything about PKD’s politics (and might just be scandalizing his devotees in saying this), but “Autofac” feels like a pretty effective allegory of statism’s eventual choke-hold on economic freedom. (For example, the machines say they will relent when the outside (human) forces provide the same level of  product output as theirs–yet they control all the materials for production.) Money quote: “We’re not children! We can run our own lives!” Throw in a “taxation is theft” meme and a Gadsden flag, and you’ve got a Libertarian protagonist.
  • Nanobots! How cute and absolutely terrifying! But seriously, though: PKD is writing about nanotech in 1955. Either he knows Dr. Emmett Brown, or he was WAY ahead of his time. Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman wasn’t talking about nanotechnology until 4 years later.

#6: “Digitocracy” by Andy Weir

I recently read a great piece by N.A. Turner on Medium about reading short fiction, and he mentioned how new short fiction is being written and shared on Medium, including new work from authors like Andy Weir, who wrote The Martian, one of my favorite novels from the past few years. Here is the short story by Weir that Turner mentioned.

The Set-up

A man on a mission to destroy the electronic “brain” controlling his city.

The Pay-off

…Eh. “Digitocracy” has a plot, such as it is, but again is little more than a scenario: a lone man stands against an “all-knowing” artificial intelligence, seeks to destroy it, and fails. I was looking forward to this story, based on my appreciation for the author’s longer works, but either the format didn’t give him space enough to flesh this out fully, or he didn’t have enough of a story idea to run with yet.

The Takeaways

  • I thought the idea of the city-computer-hivemind-entities taking the names of their locations (Wichita, Madrid, etc.) was fun, as was the fact that the cities discussed the events of the story after the fact as if they were a funny little anecdote.
  • I wonder if “Wichita” manipulating the events of Damak’s life to increase his “happiness” is Weir’s critique of the idea of a sovereign god. I have to admit, reading the story through my own theological lens, I couldn’t help but see Wichita’s dialogue about incorporating new events into an unfolding plan to bring happiness or satisfaction to its citizens as mimicking an “open-theism” style of Arminianism. On the other hand, Wichita’s grooming of Damak as a happy rebel could be argued as a weak critique of compatibilism. (I’m not sure Weir had any such thoughts beyond the conflict between free will and determinism, but hey, you ask a theology student to read science fiction… wait, you didn’t ask? Huh.)
  • Oh good, extended discussion about an unseen character’s same-sex relationship. Mark your social awareness bingo cards, kids!
  • The story left me a little cold. Damak was a cipher, and “Wichita” didn’t have the time or material to develop into a true menace like “HAL9000” did in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Rather, it was a little too “aren’t-I-clever,” even as it started monologuing like a Bond villain. You could strain and draw an idea that Weir might think the war over control of technology has been lost, but that would be reading way more into the story that what was likely intended to be a fun little bit of scary-AI fluff. Judged on that standard, then sure.

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Agree? Disagree? Do you welcome the smart-tech overlords? Let me know in the comments!

52 Stories #3: “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” by Neil Gaiman

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

My third story in this series is “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” by Neil Gaiman. (Thanks to Pedro Jorba on Facebook for the recommendation!) It’s part of Gaiman’s 2007 short story collection Fragile Things (and was apparently made into a motion picture).

The Set-up:

Two teenage boys crash a house-party hoping to meet some new girls and have a fun evening, but end up getting much more than they bargained for.

The Pay-off:

Wow, there’s a lot going on in this story. It begins as an everyday “boys being foolish on a weekend” tale and then slowly morphs into something else entirely. The protagonist’s matter-of-fact naivete is both funny and sad, as the reader picks up on what’s going on long before he does. In the end, this story is haunting, strange, and incredibly effective.

The Lessons:

  • This is a story that pays to read at least twice. Gaiman seeds the story with clues about the twist from the very start. When you begin to pick up on the references throughout, you have to shake your head at the author’s cheekiness.
  • What makes this story so effective is that Gaiman uses the science-fiction genre to explore the inscrutability of females to young men of a certain age and maturity level. The cliches about “Mars and Venus” are true in some sense when it comes to teenage boys who are both confused and intrigued by the fairer sex. Strip away the fantastic elements, and this is still a story about feminine mystique and masculine mistakes.
  • The title points to the recurring theme of talking without listening. The narrator’s inattention adds to the slow-burn reveal of the plot twist. Even when it seems almost incredible that he isn’t picking these clues up, I’m reminded again of how foolish boys are in high school. (And while I *hope* I wasn’t that clueless, I can’t be too sure.)
  • Although this collection of stories was published in 2007, you could probably draw some takeaways regarding the current #MeToo conversation, as well as discussions of masculinity and respect. But I’ll leave that to more skilled analysts.
  • I was just thumped by the sentence, “I bet an angry universe would look at you with eyes like that.” Well done, Mr. Gaiman. Wow.
  • The ending, and the implications of the ending, are well-served by what is left unsaid. I’ll admit, while I have an idea of what is implied by Vic’s comments, I’m not 100% sure. Truth be told, I’m happy to keep it that way, because what I’m imagining is bad enough.
  • Here’s the thing, though: not every story should be made into a movie. After reading this one a few times, I’m convinced that any movie treatment of this short story would likely destroy what makes it effective by adding anything to it. And though I have not seen the 2017 film adaptation, seeing descriptions of it that include the words “romantic comedy” and watching just the first 30 seconds of the trailer is enough to prove me 100% right. What a bizarre and lousy transformation it seems to have had.

In the end, “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” is a surprising and slightly-unnerving story about the dangers of not listening. If you’re looking for a quick read that’s creepy and strange, it’s worth a look.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

52 Stories #2: “Somewhere A Band is Playing” by Ray Bradbury

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

My second selection for #52Stories is Somewhere A Band is Playing by one of my favorite novelists from high school, Ray Bradbury. (Thanks to @ByronsShade on Twitter for the recommendation!) This 2008 story is technically a novella (clocking in at 115 wide-spaced paperback pages!), but I hadn’t read this one before, so I decided to fudge my own rules a bit to count it.

The Set-up:

A man on a mission jumps off a moving train at what appears to be an abandoned desert train station, in search of an idyllic community with a strange secret.

The Pay-off:

I have to admit, while I was intrigued as this one progressed, I was a bit underwhelmed by the ending. I don’t know if I was hoping for more of a supernatural/fantasy twist to the plot, or if it was actually an idea that could have worked better as a short(er) story. In the end, it felt a little padded, a little too wistful, and then it just sort of ended. I have found Bradbury’s later stories to be quite a bit weaker than his more notable early works, and this story just confirmed that opinion.

The Lessons:

I enjoyed Bradbury’s use of dialogue–particularly the banter between the protagonist and the delivery/taxi coachman who served as his guide through the town (like Virgil in the Inferno?). Their conversations were playful, with little bits of subtext peppered throughout until the big secret was revealed.

There seemed to be plotlines and characters that were introduced and then just left off or ended. (The whole business with the newspaperman was just ended abruptly, for example. The fact that he was still alive seems like a pulled punch from Bradbury to save the reader’s feelings about his main character.) It makes one think that keeping the story leaner and more focused would better help to emphasize the big ideas you want to communicate. There’s something to be said for providing atmosphere, but with shorter pieces, it would make more sense to make the scene-setting work toward the central concept (I’m struggling to working a joke about “Checkovian gun-cases” but it’s not quite landing.)

Somewhere a Band is Playing was an interesting idea that didn’t quite work in the prolonged execution. I have seen better from Bradbury, so I know what he is capable of, and I don’t think this was reflective of that.

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Agree? Disagree? Have suggestions for my next story to explore? Let me know in the comments!

#FridayFive: Five Book Series I Loved in Grade School (1/11/2019)

Happy Friday, friends!

As I’ve said repeatedly, I was blown away by the Wingfeather Saga series of books last year. (Have you read those yet? Seriously, what are you waiting for?!?) They are the kinds of books I would have loved as a young reader–funny, playfully-written, just a bit scary, and full of heart.

Speaking of which, here are 5 series of books I *did* get to enjoy in my younger years. (And I’m going to purposefully leave off the Chronicles of Narnia series, because that’s pretty much a gimme, right? Lewis’ masterwork was my all-time childhood favorite, so let’s leave it aside.)

While there may have been more books or series that I would call “favorites,” these are the books I look back upon with a deep and abiding fondness:

The Hank the Cowdog Series, by John R. Erickson

I can’t tell you how many of these books I ate up over the years. Erickson created two of the great children’s book characters in the eponymous Hank the Cowdog and his trusty (but cowardly) sidekick, Drover. These two ranch dogs are duty-bound to protect their master’s cattle ranch from such terrifying threats as mysterious noises, unusual smells, and the occasional vampire cat. There are DOZENS of these books, and I’ve probably logged most of them in my time, thanks in large part to my old church’s huge lending library. I had the double-joy of listening to the audiobook versions of these stories, and if you get the chance, you really REALLY need to do the same. Many of the stories include original songs (which are a HOOT), and if I were pressed, I could probably recall a few of those tunes, more than 25 years later. Just a delightful series of books.

The Encyclopedia Brown books by Donald Sobol

For kids who liked a good puzzle, Encyclopedia Brown was the jam. This pint-sized Sherlock Holmes would be face with a mystery of some sort, and would use the powers of deductive reasoning to solve the case and find the culprit or the missing whatever-it-was. The thing I loved about these books was that the story would reach a point where EB would be able to solve the case, and then you (the reader) would be asked by the narration if you figured it out, too. The solution would then be revealed at the back of the book on Page __ , where you could flip to see if you were right. (Confession: I was never right.) This series of fun short stories was perfect preparation for enjoying Arthur Conan Doyle’s classics later in my school-aged years.

The Cooper Kids Adventures, by Frank Peretti

I’ve talked about my love of Peretti’s writing before, but this series was how I became acquainted with his work. This brother and sister duo traveled with their archaeologist father around the world, discovering all sorts of mysteries and facing various middle-grade-appropriate perils. These books also fed my fascination with exploring ancient civilizations (fueled by a viewing of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” if I recall). I haven’t read these books since middle school, but I have a hunch I would still enjoy them.

The Spirit Flyer Series, by John Bibee

Obviously, as a fan of Narnia, I enjoyed some on-the-nose Christian allegory. This series (which I always thought of as the “Magic Bicycle” series, since that was the first book!) by John Bibee brings straightforward Christian allegory into a modern setting, with a group of heroic kids taking their stand against a diabolical corporation called Goliath Toys (diabolical in a “controlled by dark forces” way, not a “capitalism is bad” way). They face these spiritual foes with the help of some old magical bicycles that contain secret powers and abilities to help their owners overcome the darkness. The allegory is painfully obvious in some ways, but there was also something charming about it. Certain books in the series were quite thrilling and some of the imagery was striking. This series may be worth giving a spin if you’re into Christian middle-grade fiction.

The Archives of Anthropos series by John White

Okay, this is a really deep cut, but I discovered this rarely-discussed fantasy series when I was in fifth grade. I happened upon the first book in the school library and was blown away by the adventure it contained. While these stories are very similar to Lewis’ Narnia (apparently, this was the author’s intention, since his own children loved Narnia) and begin in an almost identical way (siblings discover an enchanted commonplace object that becomes their portal to another world), I remember them taking a decidedly different turn into a more classic fantasy plot. I’m surprised to discover (thanks to the power of The Internet!) that I may have never actually finished the series! I only remember four volumes, but it looks like there are 6 on Amazon! This may require a re-read, then. Hopefully, they still hold up! (They probably won’t, but one can hope, right?)

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There you have it: 5 children’s series that still hold a warm spot in my heart. If you haven’t read these, and are looking for something fun to enjoy and perhaps share with a younger reader in your house, these would be a great place to start.

Your turn: What books or series did you love as a child? Share your picks in the comments!

52 Stories: #1 — “Gifts of the Magi” by O. Henry

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

The first entry in my #52Stories journal is a classic–“Gifts of the Magi” by William Sidney Porter, published under the pen-name “O. Henry.” (I always thought the title was “The Gift of the Magi,” but per the O. Henry collection I read last night [and Wikipedia], it’s was actually plural when published originally in 1905.)

I read this story in a collection printed in 1979, but you can read it for yourself here

Unrelated Sidenote: The introduction to the 1979 collection I was reading mentions O. Henry’s “problematic” racial references in his writings, and how later editors tried to clean up some of his antiquated and offensive stereotypes. Unfortunately, being a child of the Reconstruction, Mr. Porter carried a lot of mental baggage that later generations of readers would rightly find offensive. I have nothing to add; I just thought that was an interesting bit of trivia.

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The Set-up:

A housewife resorts to somewhat desperate measures to buy her husband a gift on Christmas Eve; soon she realizes that he has done the same.

The Pay-off:

The plot twist of this story is almost universally known, but I’ll still try to avoid spoiling it, just in case. However, knowing the ending didn’t ruin my enjoyment of this surprisingly short story. I had read it years ago, so it was fun to come back and appreciate it anew. It’s literary cotton candy–it’s sweet and a bit cloying, but there’s not enough substance there to be offensive or heavy. By the same token, it’s not going to “stick to your ribs,” either. It’s just…sweet.

The story’s final lines sum it up perfectly: this was a story of “two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house… They are the Magi.”

If you haven’t read it recently, I’d encourage you to take a few minutes, click the link above, and revisit this sweet literary trifle.

The Lessons:

  • OH’s most famous short story is a great example of how to get a lot of mileage out of a minimal number of pages. I was impressed by how economical the author (henceforth, “OH”) was in setting the scene and describing this couple and their financial situation in just a few paragraphs.
  • The story feels lived-in; the way the author capitalizes certain words (The Combs, The Watch) clues you in that this couple has a personal history that OH isn’t going to flesh out fully. These tokens become symbolic of that fuller life. He leaves just enough unsaid and unexplained that you’re curious about some of the details.
  • OH’s omniscient narration is effective in giving you a sense of who Della is and how she thinks. Jim, on the other hand, is idealized–seen almost entirely through Della’s adoring gaze; he appears in the last page or so and is only given a few lines of dialogue in the story, so we don’t really know much about his character other than through his (unseen) prior actions and his stunned response to Della’s decisions. Honestly, I almost wanted a little more from Jim by the end–he seems a little too perfect–but one wonders if what OH gives us is just enough.
  • OH’s narration overall is a bit heavy-handed in guiding the reader’s emotions, but that’s a style preference, not a problem. That era of American literature has more than a few examples of such narrative influence, I guess.
  • Signs I’m Fully Middle-Aged: Reading the story of the sacrifices this couple in their early 20’s made for each other, I couldn’t help but think, “That’s sweet and all, but you two are in a tight spot financially; wouldn’t it be wiser to buy a less ostentatious gift and save the money, just in case? We’re talking about half-month’s wages here!” Younger-me would be so disappointed.
  • The opening sentence is poetic in its simplicity: “One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all.” Reminded me instantly of “Call me Ishmael” or “Marley was dead”–an opening that sets the tone of the story effectively in just a few words.

The real strength of “Gifts of the Magi” is that it’s all about that moment when Jim comes home; OH doesn’t need to pad the front half of the story with a lot of detail or distraction. His goal is to get to the “twist,” and he does so as directly as he can, with straightforward narration and the barest skeleton of a plot. That said, nothing felt missing; it was just enough to feel true. And that’s why we remember it, more than 110 years after it was first published.

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Agree? Disagree? Have suggestions for my next story to explore? Let me know in the comments!

What is #52Stories?

 

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Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Pexels.com

Happy Tuesday, friends!

I thought I’d take a minute–just sit right there–and explain this year’s blog project: #52Stories (formerly #100Stories, because I tend to set overly ambitious goals).

I first started writing fiction in grade school, turning 10-sentence vocabulary homework assignments into 2-3 page serialized adventures, featuring explorers and spies with surprisingly advanced word-usage. My teachers encouraged me to keep writing, and I did, even if it wasn’t for class credit. I wrote short fiction throughout high school and shared it with friends and family. I loved exploring ideas or scenarios in this format. In college, that creative itch shifted toward poetry and dramatic scripts, and eventually a few false-starts on full-length novels.

In recent months, I’ve been thinking about turning my attention back to writing some short fiction (as I try to rebuild a writing rhythm), and that has me thinking: What can I learn about the craft of short story writing by reading (or re-reading) a ton of short stories suggested by everyone I know? 

That question is the inspiration for my 2019 personal reading/blogging challenge: #52Stories.

My list will be based on the recommendations of my blog readers, social media circles, and friends/family, along with a few of my own additions. I’ll be reading all across the dial in terms of genre, while trying to maintain a mix of classic and modern. I don’t purport to have a perfect demographic representation of human writing or experience (my social circles are admittedly limited), but I have tried to open things up as best I can (and I’m absolutely open to more suggestions!).

My plan is to read each story and write a reaction post with 3 parts:

  • a one-sentence blurb about the story’s plot/idea (“the Set-up”);
  • my possibly-but-not-necessarily spoilery reaction to how well it unfolds (“the Pay-off”); and
  • something I can take away from it in terms of how to write better stories (“the Lesson”).

If the story is (legally) available online, I’ll post a link for you to check it out, and if it’s not, I’ll tell you where I found it.

I hope you enjoy #52Stories, and that you find it as fascinating and useful as I expect to. I’m excited to get started–which is a good thing because, at one story a week, I’m already behind! Gotta get cracking! Talk to you soon!

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Any suggestions for #52Stories? Post them below!

My 2018 Reading List and Top Five Favorite Reads of the Year!

Happy New Year’s Eve, friends!

The end of the calendar year means a look back at my 2018 reading, so I present for your consideration my 2018 reading list!
January

  • The ESV Reader’s Bible: Pentateuch

March

  • A Little Book About the Christian Life – John Calvin
  • The ESV Reader’s Bible: Historical Books
  • The World-Tilting Gospel – Dan Phillips
  • The Gospel According to Jesus – John MacArthur
  • On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness – Andrew Peterson (audio)

April

  • North! Or Be Eaten – Andrew Peterson
  • The Monster in the Hollows – Andrew Peterson

May

  • The Imperfect Disciple – Jared Wilson
  • The ESV Reader’s Bible: Poetry
  • S. – JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst
  • Sing! – Keith and Krysten Getty
  • The Warden and the Wolf King – Andrew Peterson

June

  • Real Artists Don’t Starve – Jeff Goins

July

  • Finish! — Jon Acuff
  • Smallville Season 11 Vols. 1 and 2 (Guardian and Detective) –Various
  • God at Work – Gene Veith
  • American Assassin – Vince Flynn
  • The Keto Reset Diet – Mark Sisson
  • The Pilgrim’s Progress — John Bunyan
  • Pops – Michael Chabon

August

  • Side Hustle – Chris Gillebeau
  • ESV Reader’s Bible: Prophets

September

  • Fantasy Life — Matthew Berry

October

  • From Death to Life — Allen Nelson
  • Day of War — Cliff Graham
  • After the Fire — Will Hill
  • ESV Reader’s Bible: Gospels and Acts
  • The Exemplary Husband — Dr. Stuart Scott
  • What is Reformed Theology? — RC Sproul

November

  • Wingfeather Tales – AP, ed.
  • Elevation – Stephen King
  • ESV Readers Bible: Epistles and Revelation

December

  • Illusion – Frank Peretti
  • Katharina and Martin Luther – Michelle Derusha
  • Why the Nations Rage – Jonathan Leeman

Totals: 37 volumes (6 volumes of Scripture, 14 fiction titles, 17 non-fiction titles)

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My Top Five Favorite Reads of 2018

(For the record, I’m not counting the Bible in this list, for obvious reasons. Just assume I enjoyed that greatly.)

The Wingfeather Saga, by Andrew Peterson — I don’t know if there’s anything else I can say that I haven’t said already. This fantasy series is an absolute delight to read and I commend it to you most heartily. (And to be fair to the other books, I’m counting all 5 in this first slot.)

Day of War, by Cliff Graham — I grew up reading historical/Biblical fiction, and Graham’s books should rank among the best of the genre. This first volume of Graham’s “Lion of War” series is a first-rate adventure, and his battle sequences are as thrilling as any in fiction.

What is Reformed Theology? by RC Sproul — This classic volume from the late and much-missed Dr. Sproul is a must-read for anyone who is studying Reformed theology or wants to understand the “Doctrines of Grace” better.

Side-Hustle, by Chris Gillebeau — I have to admit, part of the reason I am including this one is because the podcast that it inspired is a regular listen for me. Gillebeau provides practical direction for anyone wanting to start a side-business, and includes lots of interesting stories to inspire and challenge new entrepreneurs.

The Keto Reset Diet, by Mark Sisson — My final selection is this must-read volume for anyone looking into the ketogenic diet. I’m giving it a slot on this list particularly because I’m about to reread it, as I get back on track with my eating and exercise in the coming weeks. If it’s worth revisiting, it’s worth recommending.

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Okay, friends–your turn! What were some of your top reads of 2018?

Let us know in the comments below!

DNF: 4 Books I Gave Up on in 2018

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Photo by Tim Gouw on Pexels.com

In my younger years, I would NEVER give up on a book halfway-through. I can only think of 2 books I tried to read before I was 18 that I chose not to finish because I was offended by the content or language.

When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the misguided notion that it was somehow wrong or bad to quit reading a book if it didn’t interest me or I didn’t have time. It took me a few years, but I finally came to realize that life is too short to slog through books you don’t care about reading.

So this year, while I have finished most of the books I began reading, there have been a handful of books that I started but decided not to finish for one reason or another:

  • The Loneliness of the Black Republican, by Leah Wright Rigueur — I may actually come back to this one at some point in the future. The premise intrigues me, since it challenges the unspoken assumption that all African-Americans do or should or must support the Democratic Party. However, the book is written at a pretty high academic level, and when I tried to read it back in February, I was not ready to keep up with Rigueur’s rigorous analysis. After struggling for about 30 pages to follow her initial arguments, I threw in the towel. She won’t catch me off-guard next time.
  • Meddling Kids, by Edgar Cantero — I figured this premise was a winner: A group of kids who became locally famous as a detective team (like the Scooby Doo gang) are haunted by something they discovered during their last case years ago. Now adults, the surviving members of the team (and the ghost of the non-surviving member) return to a haunted lake where a mysterious evil lurks–and it’s not just an old man wearing a monster-mask. And yet…it didn’t work for me. To be honest, it could have, but some of the narrative choices the author made bugged me, as well as the way he wrote some of the adult characters. I got about halfway through the book and realized I wasn’t having nearly as much fun as I had hoped, so I cashed in my chips and moved on.
  • The Essential Guide to Freelance Writing, by Zachary Petit — This is a helpful field guide from the good folks at Writer’s Digest about the ins and outs of freelance writing, particularly in the world of print and online short-form content creation. The style of the book is funny and light, and the information looked really helpful, but I realized after about 70 pages that it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for when I picked it up this fall. I had been gathering information about how to juggle side-work while keeping my day job, but since I wasn’t doing content creation, it wasn’t a good fit. I think it would be a great resource for anyone who’s entering the freelance writing market, so it’s worth checking out if that’s what you need.
  • Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts, by Jaron Lanier — You’re probably thinking that I didn’t finish this book because I am deep in the throes of social media addiction. Well, you’re… Look, you’re not wrong, necessarily, but that’s not the reason, okay? As it happens, right before I started this book, I was listening to an episode of the podcast “Table of (Mal)Contents.” The hosts were discussing books that “should have stayed a blog post or TED Talk”–popular (and sometimes best-selling) titles that are basically an inflated repackaging of earlier content, puffed up by repetition or illustration to reach “book” length. Well, I don’t know if Jaron Lanier gave a TED talk about deleting social media, but this 150-page book felt about 120 pages too long. It’s not that he had bad ideas, or that he was necessarily wrong. The book was just thin. After the first 2 or 3 chapters, I skimmed the rest of it. Other than some cheap shots at political parties and politicians he disagrees with, Lanier doesn’t provide anything groundbreaking here. (In fact, if you would actually like to watch a really good TED talk on the subject of quitting social media, this talk by Cal Newport is excellent.)

I think there have been a few more, but these are 4 books that I checked out on, this year. (Note: I didn’t include the handful of books that I’m still reading and just didn’t quite finish before entering 2019. I’ll add those to my 2019 reading list!)

What about you? Are there any books that you decided to quit reading this year? Or are you the type of reader who perseveres no matter what? Let me know in the comments!