So part of the reason I started my 99-word book review blog (besides giving me incentive to read more) was to share all the cool books that are out there and help people find new stuff to check out. To summarize Aziz Ansari, the internet’s given us a ZILLION options for things to read, watch, listen to, visit, eat, and do, which can be overwhelming when you’re not sure where to start.
But if you’re reading this blog, odds are that you’ve got a creative mindset and you’re interested in trying to balance that with the rest of your responsibilities. Here’s three books I’ve read over the past few years that you might find helpful for deciding what kind of creative life you want—they were definitely instrumental for me.
Shoplifter, by Michael Cho (2014)
A twentysomething girl who once wanted to be a writer moves to a new city but ends up writing nothing but ad copy for her job at an advertising firm. This short graphic novel from Michael Cho is about dealing with loneliness, finding your way in the post-college world, and handling the stress of working a job you can’t stand. Corinne, the novel’s sympathetic, not-sure-what-she-wants heroine, spends a lot of time reflecting on the shortcomings of an aimless life, though the novel itself never feels dull or slow-moving.
This book stuck with me long after I’d finished it because both Corinne’s dilemma and the unceasing advertisements of the novel’s world feel so real. Cho’s images of Corinne’s nameless city are filled with neon signs, banners, junk mail, shop windows, and online ads that pervade every aspect of the novel, and her real conflict centers on whether she’ll be able to escape from this world or be consumed by it. The resulting story’s really about the face-off between creative freedom and day job work, and how consuming our jobs can be if we don’t keep them in check.
Also, kudos to Cho for his spot-on caricature of the online dating world, which comes across as frustrating, empty, and comically hopeless.
In short: Read this book. You won’t regret it.
How Music Works, by David Byrne (2012)
Talking Heads frontman David Byrne has been involved with just about every music-related activity there is, from helping establish New York’s CBGB club scene in the ‘70s to arranging his own elaborate spin on color guard performance in 2015. His book covers ten aspects of the musical world ranging from the power of collaboration to an in-depth analysis of music distribution complete with pie charts of royalty breakdowns. Also included are the changes in how we’ve experienced music from ancient times to the present, insights into the recording process, and a chapter on what factors influence a creative scene for artists (Hint: free beer for performers is a good thing!).
Byrne’s discussions of music aren’t just about music—they’re applicable to creativity in general and to how artists work within different mediums, with music as the case study. In my favorite chapter (“Amateurs!”), Byrne cites everyone from David Hume to John Maynard Keynes to show how society holds the mistaken belief that so-called “high art” (classical music, operas, Van Gogh, etc.) is somehow superior to whatever amateur art you and your friends are messing around with or whatever forms are popular in the mainstream (shoegaze music, comic books, board games with the word “Catan” in the title, etc.).
This especially comes into play with funding, since certain forms of high art are given more money on the grounds that they’re more uplifting to society by serving as a kind of cultural medicine—or, as Byrne implies, as a kind of cultural bug spray to keep out the riff-raff. That’s because people tend to avoid places where they don’t feel comfortable, and bringing in certain kinds of art is a great way to control your clientele.
This book is informative, relevant, well-researched, funny, and full of cool pictures; it was also pivotal in influencing my thinking about art and creativity and directly led to the creation of this blog. Go read it.
Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, by Cory Doctorow (2014)
Cory Doctorow opens his compact treatise on internet distribution with a forward from Dresden Dolls founder and former street performer Amanda Palmer, who shares how she paid her rent by making $20 to $50 an hour as a human statue in Harvard Square in the 1990s. Not everyone gave her money, but enough people chipped in anywhere from a few cents to twenty dollars to make it worthwhile, and her financial model worked because the people who paid appreciated her work and wanted to see more.
The internet age is the same way.
In short, easy to read mini-chapters the length of this review, Doctorow shows how copyright laws are products of an earlier time, and how artists in the 21st century have created new payment models to distribute their work and get noticed. He analyzes the principles of self-distribution versus dealing with the major media outlets in a way that’s not only simple to understand, but also covers creativity as a whole rather than sticking to a single medium. Again, Doctorow’s book was essential to my awareness that creative people in any medium are really all going through the same challenges, and have more options than ever for getting their work out there in the internet age.
Of particular concern is the notion of digital locks (e.g., like the ones that stop you from downloading movies off Netflix), which have proven time and time again to be easily broken. These restrictions on those who can view certain kinds of media are designed to make money for the distributors, when in reality we should be embracing new distribution models for the digital age (e.g., ones where you give away some stuff for free, like I do with this blog!).
Since anything you create is just going to get put online anyway, artists should be figuring out new ways of getting their work out there, new ways of making money with it, and, like Amanda Palmer’s human statue, figuring out how best to pay their rent in ways that make sense for them.
To sum up: Times have changed, and the creative world’s a different place than it was in 1975, with those who don’t embrace it in a prime position to get left behind. If you’re at all open to succeeding in this brave new world, this book will provide both encouragement and a few ideas to get you started.