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This review was written for my work blog, Read @ MPL. Enjoy!

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey is incredibly fantastic, offering a peek into the lives (and perhaps minds) of great cultural figures. The project started as a blog, so it has that same short, easy-reading format.

The book covers authors, composers, poets, artists, scientists, mathematicians, inventors, and filmmakers; and the huge variety in how different people create. Some toil waiting for inspiration, others chug ahead day after day. There are early risers (like W.H. Auden who said, “Only the ‘Hitlers of the world’ work at night; no honest artist does.” Harsh!), night owls (Jackson Pollock said, “I’ve got the old Eighth Street habit of sleeping all day and working all night pretty well licked. So has [my wife] Lee. We had to, or lose the respect of the neighbors.”), and nappers (Buckminster Fuller practiced “high frequency sleep” where he slept for 30 minutes after every 6 hours of work). There are many parents who write while their children are napping (Alice Munro and Sylvia Plath are two) and civil servants and blue collar workers who work after a full day on a job (like Anthony Trollope and Joseph Cornell).

And their eating habits! Holy moly, their eating habits! Soren Kierkegaard would pour sugar into his coffee cup so it was piled to the rim, and then slowly pour coffee in until it dissolved. He would down that concoction swiftly, then chase it with a sherry. Beethoven counted the beans in each cup of coffee (60, if you’re interested). Patricia Highsmith didn’t care much for food – an acquaintance remarked that “she only ever ate American bacon, fried eggs and cereal, all at odd times of the day.”

Currey focuses on the ritual, not necessarily the product. All of these individuals produced great work, but with wildly varying levels of productivity. People have quested for the perfect routine since the beginning of time, and this book is evidence that there are as many productive ways to work as there are people getting work done.  This book can also serve as inspiration for people looking to change up or tweak their routine.

As a sneak peek, here is Benjamin Franklin’s daily routine as outlined in his Autobiography.

2014 Reading Challenge

2014 Reading Challenge
Allie has
read 27 books toward her goal of 100 books.

Highly Recommended.

I started reading Decoded because I heard the re-broadcast of Jay-Z’s Fresh Air interview from last year. I also kept seeing Austin Kleon keep mentioning how good it is and I just had to read it.

There are so many reasons why this is better than a conventional memoir. This book is really good. Like overwhelmingly good. Jay-Z’s prose feels like a really intelligent, easy, affecting conversation. That is most incredible about the book is his respect. He writes with such tremendous respect for the readers, his influences, his friends, his generation, and culture and that makes it really easy and captivating. I love his music but there’s no way I could ever grasp all the layers of meaning. To that end, the footnotes are great. They’re appropriately explanatory without sounding patronizing or condescending — the pervasive tone of the book.

Throughout the book he talks about his influences. That, for me, is really wonderful. Hearing people talk about things they love is such a great pleasure. One of my favorite parts of his Fresh Air interview is when they discuss his sampling of a song from Annie. It’s funny to hear a rapper and big-time mogul talk about a broadway musical, especially the only one to which I feel connected (on account of the redhead thing). The book is filled with references to artists and works I have never heard of and ones I have, always speaking from a place of respect.

My love of this book does not end. Not only is the prose stellar and illuminating but is also perfectly visual. In the hands of someone else (I am referring to Jay-Z as the art director, and the team of artists and designers who worked on it) this could have turned out like a collage, but here it’s done with near-perfect execution and great style. In fact I would place it more in league with artists’ books because of how effectively the medium of the book is used. Often in memoirs pictures serve a purely expository purpose. In Decoded, the images, which are certainly not limited to photographs, are integral and are part of the structure and purpose of the book. It is meant to be a different kind of experience. There are the written and visual components but since it’s about music, about rhymes and lyrics, the prose is aural as well. It is so different and so stunning compared to a conventional memoir, and an astonishing success.

I think it’s really perfect that I read this as/after I read The Pun Also Rises by John Pollack. There is so much really elegant wordplay, but the nonlinear structure reflects a lot of the connections made when developing those linguistic connections. Before I started, I had read and heard reviews talking about how the book is part memoir and part explanation of his lyrics. From that I was picturing a linear memoir and lyrical explanation. The book jumps around between time periods and there is no timeline. He’ll talk about his childhood and then a story from when he was CEO of Def Jam — it’s not about the sequence of events, it’s about similarities in what actually happened and how that shaped his life and music. That constant movement, between times, between meanings of words, between ideas, is what keeps his music and this book interesting.

One last thought that was so very perfect for me, an obsessive pop culture lover. There is a section where he talks about the 2008 Glastonbury Music Festival controversy, addressing it in a wonderful, modern, pup-culture-loving way. He says, “But kids today have a mix of songs from all over the place on their iPods, and they take pride in it. There is no rock music with walls around it. It’s one of the great shifts that’s happened over my lifetime, popular culture has managed to shake free of the constraints that still limit us in so many other parts of life. It’s an open field.”

I read about the Smithsonian Folkways radio station just yesterday, and ever since I have been obsessed.  I’ve been a fan of the SF imprint since my Irish fiddling days, and since listening to the radio station I have added so many things to my List Of Things To Buy Once I Get My First Paycheck.

The station plays music spanning tons of genres: songs and ballads from the British Isles, calypso (my new favorite), American folk music, gospel, and native music from the Americas, Asia (including some great throat singing!), and Africa.  The music is instrumental, vocal, a capella, bands, field recordings, percussion, etc.  It covers so much ground!  This isn’t exactly surprising as Smithsonian Folkways recordings have been popular among ethnomusicologists for ages.

My favorite new discovery is Lord Invader, whose song “Crisis in Alabama” is really a treat:

Once more with feeling: the Smithsonian Folkways radio station –!