Review of Show Your Work!

Following every job interview I typically write down notes about it. I want my impressions to be fresh and any pertinent information transmitted not to be left merely to memory, which vacillates whether one is hopeful or despairing. After meeting with the Adam Ross to discuss the possibility of my taking on the role of Content Strategist and Social Media Co-ordinator at AR Design I found myself writing down a question that he asked me but that I felt was rather unusual: “What is your creative process?”

Now, I don’t think that the question itself is unusual. I think for any sort of creative oriented position one ought to be able rather clearly explicate one’s creative process. It was not unusual as I think that this is a taboo subject. I think that a good deal of obfuscation goes on by people that are creative and that this is often to their detriment as artists – a perspective that I share with Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way. It was unusual as in the several other interviews I’d had for what were essentially several creative positions and not one of them asked me this question!

After the job interview I went to FedEx in order to print out the last notes that the editor for my book had sent me. While there I saw a copy of Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered by Austin Kleon. It felt like serendipity that I’d been asked this question just a few hours before and that this book was now within reach! With this in mind I picked up the book and spent an hour each over the next 4 days reading it.

In short, the Ten Commandments to sharing like an artist are as follows:

You Don’t Have To Be A Genius.
Think Process, Not Product.
Share Something Small Every Day.
Open Up Your Cabinet Of Curiosities.
Tell Good Stories.
Teach What You Know.
Don’t Turn Into Human Spam.
Learn To Take A Punch.
Sell Out.
Stick Around.

In length, the 202 pages of the book expand on these ideas in a compelling manner. That there are a number of quotes by creatives to drive this home seemed par for the field of books like this, one of the things that I also liked was Kleon’s use of art to drive home the point that the creative process is a large one, that the excessive focus on only a few elements of the creative process can help lead to a failure to live up to one’s potential and that by being aware of these aspects and acting in accordance with them unleashes a lot of creative potential.

Inside book image from Show Your Work
Inside book image from Show Your Work

For myself, after reading this book I decided to start sharing some of my process about creating Unraveling rather than commenting on a number of images related to the story as well as providing background information along the lines of a Cambridge Companion to Literature. Sharing this process allows one to get greater fellowship, feedback or even patronage.

Two of my favorite concepts the book delves into is the idea of “scenius” and of creation as curation. Regarding the former, which Kleon states originates from Brian Eno, it’s pointed out that it is only through interacting with many people that a fertile “ecology of talent” is created. This can be in the form of consuming a variety of works but is mores evident in the interactions over the internet and in person wherein ideas get flushed out, aesthetic choices get analyzed and critiqued, and those that are also enthusiastic about what you are share in their joy over the exchange of work. When I think of the latter, curation as creation, in relation to my own work I recognize this as a direct mirror of my own process. Unraveling is unashamedly influenced by a number of novels, television series, movies thatI’ve read as well as non-fiction material from the newspapers, academic tomes and other sources. Part of the reason why I was attracted to getting an interdisciplinary studies degree at NYU was indeed a reaction to the perspective that the various subjects in school ought to be studied in isolation from one another. This does not mean I think that there ought to be no specialization, but that at a number of levels it’s important to recognize the totality of human knowledge and the benefits that accrue if not in the academic field than in life in general by being more of a generalist.

Inside Image from Show Your Work Related to Sharing Process
Inside Image from Show Your Work Related to Sharing Process

I got a little off topic there so then let me say in closing that I highly recommend this book as while it’s not pathbreaking contribution to the various DIY Inspiration/Creative Self Help books it’s a very timely and well written work that I think will become a touchstone for a number of creatives, like myself, who see in these types of mass-market tomes a type of professional/personal development.

Watch the trailer for the book below:

Show Your Work! Book Trailer from Austin Kleon on Vimeo.

Review of American Gods

The number of people I know that love American Gods is staggering. The many positive reviews I’d heard by word of mouth should have been enough for me to read it shortly after it’s initial publication. When I further consider the impact that Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series, recently collected and bound into two attractive hardcover books Volume 1 and Volume 2 available here, had on me it should have been a no brainer. The Sandman was, after all, the first true graphic novel that I read and was one that captivated me over the summer my sophomore year of high school so much that I read it twice in succession. Seven years later, when Gaiman published another graphic novel within that universe I even drove two hours to have him sign my copy. Despite this it is only now, thirteen years after it’s publication and shortly before it’s adaptation for TV, that I finally got around to reading it. As I’ve been getting most of my books lately, I picked up a used copy from the library and started it in the guest room of my grandmother’s air-conditionless mobile home 2 weeks before the official start of summer.
I’d completed the book in under a week and have been since struggling with how to properly categorize my experience of the book. As an American-style road-trip quest with supernatural elements, Gaiman’s stated intention, he hits the mark. Shadow’s release from prison and subsequent adventure amongst American Gods certainly hit all the major plot points required of the genre. There are the grifts, high-stakes confrontations, deadly debts that require payment, evasion of more powerful forces and enough encounters with strange people and gods that keep the pace of the book at a steady pace. Gaiman even does a good job of making the few respites of action look on the surface to be just that and nothing else. But as could be expected in this magical world underlying the façade of people’s lives, nothing is coincidental. Of the two aspects of the book that left me uneasy one is major and one is minor.
The paucity of tarrying with the more profound aspects of this magical world is the major issue that leaves me feeling slightly off about the book. I recognize that this is in part a result of my reading it while very aware of my own desires for a certain style of literary intervention. As such I felt that my hopes and desires took away from some of my pleasure in reading the book. At certain plot or narrative points I just awaited some sort of deeper exposition into the nature of belief, worship, offerings, fate, etc. that while sometimes raised were never dealt with in great detail.
What do I mean? Well ideally I could reference some of the conference papers that I heard at the 2009 NEMLA Conference in Boston, but I cannot. Putting it into a few short sentences, however, I’d say that the deeper edification possible for the reader within the book is just weak. Partially it is because Shadow, who clearly is special but we don’t know why until he is revealed to be the son of Odin-Allfather and thus a half-god, doesn’t represent an Everyman character by any stretch of the imagination. His initial struggle is in coming to terms with the death of his cheating wife (who then comes back to life as a progressively rotting corpse and functions as a Deus Ex-Machina at times so convenient to the continuation of the story as to be unbelievable even in a fantastical world) then learning submission to the wishes for his for-most-of-the-book unknown father, then coming to accept the magical as something that nearly everyone but himself cannot recognize but surely exists. Not that these are enough, per se, to take away from my enjoyment. I guess what I was missing was more along the lines of an individual that felt himself in more awe of the world around him and which could thus create reflections akin to those in a non-fiction work like The Power of Myth, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Myths to Live By or other works by Joseph Campbell. Having read all of these books shortly after Sandman I thought them wonderful compliments and feel that a story like Gaiman’s would have been made better for such reflections.
The second issue that I had with the book is the now dated nature of some of the new God characters. Media and technology are singular. As the struggles to maintain readership/viewership via traditional media outlets over the past 15 years have shown, this is no longer the case. Additionally, some of the descriptions of the gods are somewhat insulting, stereotypes at the time. This itself doesn’t bother me too much – Gods are after all often the human pinnacle of certain human qualities made divine – however in today’s landscape they appear somewhat dated. I’m sure that this won’t be an issue in the TV adaptation, but it was a minor burr when reading. All in all I did enjoy the book, even if I did find Shadow’s internal struggle to drag at times and at some points to be unrealistic.

Review of The Lathe of Heaven

George Orr is having trouble sleeping properly and Dr. Haber helps him. This is, in a sentence, the distilled story of The Lathe Of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin. The plot and story, however, are much more complex and send the reader on a strange journey that comments on the power of dreams, the nature of the human unconscious, whether or not human society is perfectible and the at times ethical ambiguity of action and inaction. While I found the book somewhat slow at times, a product of Le Guin’s clear love for ornate descriptions, I was able to read the book over two nights before bed.

I found myself rather amused by much of the purportedly dystopia future that I’d expected Le Guin to describe. I use the word purportedly as I’d noticed the term “dystopia” in a number of reviews of the book and disagree with its use to describe the conditions of the book. While there are clearly problems in this future that read very much like our own – environmental degradation, disease, financial insecurity – they are fleeting and serve more as a counterpoint from which to act upon rather than circumstances that cause reaction. To deny the importance of these social issues in the book, or indeed life itself, is not possible but they are presented in a very different manner than 1984 or Brave New World. They are a motivating force for Dr. Haber only upon the realization the George Orr’s dreams have ethe power to retroactively change time without the present being aware of such a change. I use the word amused as much of the descriptions of the “dystopian” future are, 45 years after it’s publication, holding true. Environmental degradation, racial strife, nationalist wars, gross economic disparity – these issues are as topical now as she’d predicted.

In a Daoist fashion, George Orr accepts this world as it is. The sleep therapist that he sees, however, does not and seeks to use his Augmentor, a machine with several important functions, to first direct George’s power and later transmit it to himself. Concerned by his use and unable to stop treatment, George began as part of a court ordered program for drug users as the Judge believed him that he was taking others people’s pharma quotas. Dr. Haber’s attempts at fixing the world’s ills through the power of the Augmentor, hypnotherapy and George Orr’s dreams leads to a number of somewhat humorous changes to world history. After Dr. Haber suggests that George make the world free of racism all people are on a grey scale. After Dr. Haber suggest that nationalist wars no longer continue, the world unites to fight off an invasion by aliens that look like sea-turtles and are later revealed to be peaceful and somewhat stupid.

One of the aspects of the book that I liked very much in the first half was the hypnotic inductions and patter of Dr. Haber. It was aligned with the training that I’ve received in hypnosis through FICAM. The research that Le Guin spent on this is clear and allows even the laymen reader to be immersed in the Dr. Haber’s perspective and practice.
In some of the reviews on Amazon I noticed that a number of readers connected this book to Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. I don’t think that it’s unfounded. There are signs that hint at criticism of crypt-socialist views. A name like Dr. Haber can be associated with Ashkenazic Jewry, those that were often drawn to the socialist credo in Europe in the early 20th century, and has a clear resonance with Sigmund Freud. I believe such a reading, while interesting and valuable for some of the connections it is able to uncover, misses some of the nuances of the book. The somewhat stupid but benevolent aliens, a key component in Orr’s coming to understand his powers, after all have no equivalent in an simple analogy between the two books. Most tellingly, there is no amount of honest exegesis that one can do to the text to create a corollary connecting the wishes of a single, well-intentioned psychiatrist to a socialist party. Hayek and the scientific socialists he seeks to warn others about both state that comprehensive social changes is a collective effort. Secondarily the rational notions that Dr. Haber seeks to enact always have, as mentioned above, wholly unpredictable effects. While one could easily say that George, representative of the working class, is exploited by the Dr. Haber – beyond the ill fit of the latter as the party there is also the mystical and irrational nature of these changes that are contrary to the rationalism of socialist doctrines. In my reading of the text Le Guin seems more interested in displaying the mystery of the mind and the difficulty that we can have, even with the best of intentions, in manifesting those desires. Her book The Dispossessed offers a less ambiguous view of her socio-political beliefs. This novel, in the end left me in a state of wonder than feeling as if I’d concluded a journey. While yes, the action ends for all the characters in resolutions that seems fitting considering their trajectory – the journey’s that they took to get there are, at least to me, somewhat confounding and so, ironically enough, in a good way.

Review of "The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance"

Despite the fact that I have a stack of books resting on the stand by my bed ready to be read, when I saw a paperback copy of The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance with a deeply broken spine at the Lake Worth Library book sale I decided to pick it up and place it first in the queue. Weighing in at 848 page, this was no small diversion from previously scheduled reading. I was, however, richly rewarded for my decision. It wasn’t a total surprise, it did win the National Book Award in 1991.

How did it do this? The account successfully manages to illustrate the myriad complex legal changes made in the United States from the 1860s to the 1990s in a manner both informative and stylistically compelling. By describing the actions of Morgan personnel, their competitors, those that would seek to regulate them as well as those that want loans the contributions of Pierpont Morgan, Jack Morgan, Tom Lamont, and many others are placed into a context that allows the reader to see the effects that various flows and concentrations of capital had on the world’s political economic system.

The history of the Morgan Bank is periodized into three distinct periods: The Baronial Age, The Diplomatic Age and The Casino Age. The book explains the reasons for the changes that occurs – whether it be increasing public distrust of banks to self-regulate or the increasing capital powers of companies to raise their own capital – and also gives accounts of the most significant issues the leaders of the various financial service companies that spawned from the Morgan Bank following the passage of Glass-Steagall had to face.
In the Baronial Age – most associated with the aristocratic Rothschilds, bankers relied upon an individual’s character and social connections to determine creditworthiness and competition between banks was moderated by The Bankers Code. The Bankers Code was the set of value–judgments that inhibited bankers from poaching clients and getting involved in cutthroat competition so as to make any services provided not profitable. This was an age when most bankers relied upon their connections to aristocrats to do business and as such were highly cultured. England, then the Financial Capital of the World was where George Peabody first began his transformation from rich to wealthy. Peabody, a miser who financed many British and colonial merchant ventures, was the true “founder” of the Morgan Bank. Taking on a young Junius Morgan in the autumn years of his life, it is only after Peabody’s death that Junius is able to gain greater access to elite and rename the enterprise to J. S. Morgan and Co. An Anglophile to the core with blue-blooded heritage, Morgan is able to become the pre-eminent representative of the American financial market. As a representative of the British Bondholders for capital investments in the United States, Junius was constantly advocating for the financial duties of his clients to be fulfilled. Thus though American, he consistently fought for the interests of what were predominantly foreign investors. This was a logical extension of the Bankers Code, which sought to protect creditors’ investment and thus demonstrate integrity. As time went on and national conflict grew this came to be a ticklish task to accomplish without unduly promoting the interests of belligerent states in Europe. This internationalist position ostracized the Morgan Bank from the domestic political leaders of the time, the smaller domestic banks that lacked access to the British and European capital markets and was one of the reasons that much of the press at the time likened them to a foreign power placing undue duress on American working men. The domestic policies, practices and investments of the Morgan Bank, however, elicited much greater public brouhaha in the news of the day. It was typical for Morgan executives to sit on the board of multiple companies that they had loaned money to – a circumstance that lent themselves to being depicted as a financial cabal running the country. During the railroad price wars, for instance, the Morgan banks involvement in holding companies purchases to help create a monopoly line in the North-East and North-West lead to congressional investigations that went largely nowhere. Chernow here also documents how typical it was for the bankers of this era to be so hard working that many died both rich and young. The work culture that Banks imbued is so taxing that a number of associates and partners die prematurely. Also worth noting is the particularly fascinating scene were J. P. Morgan is able to “save” Wall Street nearly singlehandedly.

During the Diplomatic Age, which occurred following the cessation of the First World War and ended a decade after the second – many of these prerogatives, policies changed due to the new situation on the ground. The bank slightly eased its underwriting policies – previously they has only been willing to underwrite “sure-things” – and became, to an extent, an extension of American diplomatic policy in Latin American and Asia. Innuendos voiced by government officials transformed into guarantees on return. Given the rhetoric and history of U.S. involvement in these places, this is understandable. Conflicts between other banks, previously seemingly small, start to become more heightened. The animosity between the Jewish banks and the Anglophile, Anti-Semitic House of Morgan are a partial cause for a new set of hearings. It is also during this time that the bankers heightened service for his clients is tested. As various foreign powers, such as Italy and Japan, began bellicose campaigns in foreign nations under the aegis of self-defense and development Morgan partners defend those that will soon be enemy combatants. The sections on the creation of an Italian-American news group that re-frames Mussolini’s actions in an American context and that is apologetic about Japanese military action in Manchuria. The Diplomatic Age lasts a little bit longer than the end of the Second World War, though this time instead of directly writing loans to destroyed countries seeking to revivify their industries they play predominantly an advisory role. Not only had experience shown that this was a problematic situation for these banks to operate in but also by this time the American Federal Government has successfully bureaucratized and expanded enough that it no longer needed to rely upon private financiers.

By the time of the Casino Age, the Gentleman’s Banker’s Code is practically out the window. Competition created by the resurgence of the defeated WW2 powers and the increasing ability means that the banks need to offer greater incentives to maintain clients as now large industries are capable of raising funs themselves. As a wide variety of cultural productions such as Wall Street, The Wolf of Wall Street, American Psycho, etc. have shown – this is when a massive consolidation of American industry occurs. The shift from Gentlemen Bankers to hot-headed, rash, ultra-competitive bankers marks a total one-hundred and eighty degree shift in the manner in which business is done. Sectoral shifts in policy are often initiated by the House of Morgan – which by now is a number of enterprises that actively compete against each other.

In Chernow’s depiction of these three epochs there are so many biographical/business stories that makes the world of banking not merely come alive but seem much more interesting than it had before. I enjoyed reading about the work-culture of Wall Street as well as getting to understand the minds working behind the scenes. There were several people that I’d like to learn more about, but considering the name of the bank I’d like to focus some thoughts on Junius Morgan.

He is depicted in the book as practically possessed by the need to collect as much of the “great” European art as he can. A telling statement that Chernow discovered is the fear that art sellers had that when he died the prices for their products would drop by nearly half. While I understand his desire to collect all of the treasures of the past that he thought the most edifying onto American shores so that those less financially endowed as himself could have the opportunity to visit it, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened had he encouraged the most talented artists in both Europe and Asia to relocate as a condition of their patronage.

One of the more interesting insights that I learned about Pierpont’s perspective was his attitude on macro-economic policy. Even thought he is considered the incarnation of finance capitalism today as in his own, his perspective was for a managed economy. At a time when an increasing number of attacks coming from the organs of industry promote political candidates that would enact austerity measures on the economy is worth finding examples of capitalists who THEMSELVES state that macro-economic planning principles are the only sound way with which to manage an already large and continuing to grow industrial economy.

While it may seem that this era has little to do with the present it’s worth noting that while talking about a different book of Chernow’s – Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.Corey Robin posted a quote from this peer of the Morgan’s to Jodi Dean’s Facebook Profile. That commentators on the current state of political affairs continue to look at this period to contextualize the present indicates how a historical, material perspective is needed to understand the world rather than simply decrying an abstract “injustice”. It’s through understanding the people that lobbied and influenced government policies – as well as understanding how those policies function – that one can better understand both Wall Street and U.S. policies.

Much like Liquidated and To Serve God and Wal-Mart The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance provides a history of Wall Street. I am grateful for Mr. Chernow’s contribution to my understanding of that world that is at the time of this writing so far away and yet having such a huge impact on both the USA and the rest of the world, especially at a time when J.P. Morgan associated banks are paying out more than 30 billion dollars for activities that many are calling criminal.