Strange Animals 30dec2019: 10 Things I Loved in 2019 – Part 2

I’m writing this from Kolkata airport, on my way back home to Pune. I just landed here from Hanoi, and essentially plan on sleeping the whole day tomorrow before waking up to bring in the new year with my friends.

This is continuing the list of ten things I loved this year. Again, these aren’t necessarily my favourites – these are things that stuck with me, and had some sort of personal meaning.

6. Digital Minimalism

Digital Minimalism is a book by Cal Newport, author of the also excellent Deep Work. In simple terms, if you feel that the internet has taken over your life, or that you never seem to find the time to do the important things, even though you find yourself online more than you need to be, this book will help you cut down.

Newport’s contention is that digital technology is a tool like any other, and needs to be managed, and the process has to start from scratch, because otherwise we make too many excuses on behalf of the things we use unthinkingly.

There are good points to be made about who can or cannot do digital detoxes, and that’s something to be engaged with, but I don’t think this book is for those people anyway – Newport himself repeatedly makes it clear that not everyone can or even should do everything he suggests.

There are a lot of people, though, who could use the internet less without having that affect their lives adversely, and who find it difficult for various reasons – including but not limited to the fact that a lot of apps we use are increasingly built to make us stay in them longer than we mean to.

This book is for people like that, and it’s been very useful to me personally. Over the last couple of years, I’ve limited my use of devices as far as I can, and I’ve tried to single-task rather than multi-task for most of the day. But the fact is that a lot of this stuff is insidious, and I found myself slipping from habits I’d put a lot of work into, and this book helped me get back on track more than once.

7. Linney

I don’t know if Lucy Knisley’s Linney comics would make any sense to people who don’t have or love cats, but to those that do, the Linney comics are some of the purest depiction of what being a cat owner is like.

At first look, it would seem that most cats have basically the same personality – slightly aloof, needy when it comes to food, very conscious of their space – and that holds true, mostly. But beyond that, individual cats have incredibly individual personalities. Not human ones, obviously, but something very specific to each cat that, looked at from outside, makes their owner seem a bit coo-coo.

I think the Linney comics communicate this very well – Linney the cat has a melodramatic personality that lots of owners would identify, and she expresses herself in faux-elevated English that implies a degree of blind snobbery on her part, and yet, she feels and acts like a cat, not like a human. Cats, let’s face it, are wonderful aliens that deign to grace us with their company. The final Linney comic encompasses all of these qualities, and is the one I find myself coming back to the most, but if you haven’t read any of them, I recommend scrolling down and starting and starting from the first, or waiting for the soon-to-be-released print compendium.

8. Snowflake/Tornado

Stewart Lee’s comedy has been transformative for me. His approach to his material – in terms of both content and form – is based on a deep knowledge of his field and his art, but manages to be very personal and honest at the same time. There’s a layer of irony to everything he does – perhaps too many layers, his critics might say – but the underlying sincerity comes through with every set. This combination has been inspiring to me on both a personal and a creative level, and I’d looked forward to seeing him live on each of my annual visits to the UK, but he wasn’t playing while I was there.

This year, he happened to be playing in London throughout my trip, but all his shows in that period were sold out. But because sometimes people are kind to strangers when they have no need or incentive to be so, I got to watch him perform live, and I had the further pleasure of introducing someone to his comedy and watching them enjoy it. I’ve had better evenings out, I’m sure, but I can’t remember any off the top of my head.

The show itself is one of his very best, with a renewed energy drawn from righteous indignation, and his control of his audience, earned over years of performance and experimentation, shines through at every moment. A proper thrill.

9. Shift Happens

This one’s a newsletter, and while it’s perfectly lovely, it represents something bigger that I really love.

Writer Marcin Wichary is writing a book about keyboards, and Shift Happens is his research-logger-cum-promo-letter for the book. It’s my favourite newsletter of the year, and Wichary is always entertaining, resourceful and knowledgable about his topic of choice. You should also follow him on Twitter, where he runs threads that are just as fascinating as his newsletter.

But this newsletter to me represents the rising trend of excellent email newsletters, which have started to be my primary way to access the social internet. There are a lot of things wrong with the world right now, things that have been wrong for a long time and new, unprecedented things as well. The internet has contributed to both of these, of course, but it has given us a lot of ways to connect with people too, and it’s good to retreat from the great shitshow on occasion and focus on the ways in which the internet is being used well.

I’ve always loved listening to obsessive people talk in depth about the things that they care about that nobody else cares about. It’s one of the best things about humanity, and I love that newsletters let that happen in a far more focussed way than otherwise possible. Like zines, you know – things that are being done not for profit or for propaganda but because someone loves a thing and wants to share it.

These newsletters, to me, are of a piece with the old idea of the compendium or the commonplace book – compiling one person’s view of the world, slowly, instalment by instalment. A futile exercise, never to be concluded, but worth committing nevertheless.

Robin Sloan’s just-concluded Year of the Meteor was another newsletter like this, as was Warren Ellis’s Orbital Operations, which has been making the world slightly better for six years now. And I’d further recommend Technoccult News by Damien Williams, Restricted Frequency by comics compatriot Ganzeer, and Robin Rendle’s Adventures in Typography.

10. Deadwood

This goes at the end, because, in so many ways, this is the most important thing that happened to me this year. Not Deadwood itself, though it was the impetus, but my engagement with Milch’s words and his philosophy of writing.

Deadwood is a beautiful show, and one I’ll probably rewatch for years to come, but it’s certainly not perfect. Threads are picked up and dropped as Milch’s interest and attention shift, and his “no incidental characters” approach has the downside of making otherwise well-written scenes lose dramatic tension at times, but the fact is that there’s no one who writes quite like him, and Deadwood embodies some of his best work in the dialogue, the manner in which each episode holds together as a piece of work, and the overall rhythm of the show, ramshackle in the way real life tends to be, but, in the long form, building towards the inevitable future.

Further than this, though, watching and listening to and reading Milch talk about how he writes caused a huge shift in my own relationship with my writing, making it feel more free, fluid, and bringing back the love that I had for it in the beginning before various realities took that away from main my adulthood. For that I must thank him.

I wrote more about this in a previous edition that you can read here.

Thanks for being a precious part of my 2019, folks. See you on the other side!