TAoN No. 59: The Worthy Binge

Plus: Transformative Listening; Cracks; A New Icebreaker; & More

The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy In the Everyday offers exercises, prompts, provocations, games and things you can actually do to build attention muscles, stave off distraction, pick up on what everybody else overlooked, and experience the joy of noticing. Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Knopf. This newsletter offers related news and ideas and noteworthy projects that have come along since I finished the book. ****Subscribe or unsubscribe at: robwalker.substack.com.****

The Worthy Binge

Sorry I’m a couple days late with this issue; I have really good excuses, I promise. But meanwhile, here we are, looking at a surprisingly hopeful post-vaccine future. And yet: between us and that future there’s a winter of rising cases forcing many of us to remain much more isolated than we wish. Hopefully this is the home stretch, but it still looks like a challenge.

Past issues of TAoN have explored pandemic-friendly ways of attending to the home environment, your neighborhood, and (via the icebreakers) other people. But maybe a personal, inward-looking strategy is most helpful now.

Or maybe I’m just looking for an excuse to promote this terrific essay by friend of TAoN Oliver Munday. (He did the illustrations in the book.) It’s about his “epic quarantine reading project,” tackling Proust’s thousands of pages In Search of Lost Time cycle. Here’s what Oliver wrote that grabbed me:

“Soon after beginning … I realized that I craved a reading experience like the pandemic itself: one with an ending so far off as to be inconceivable. Proust released me from the typical pressures of reading. Unconcerned with finishing, note taking, or retention, I stopped tracking my progress and let go of any expectation of what I’d read next.”

I totally get this. I spent years intermittently reading Zola’s 20-novel Rougon-Macquart cycle, totally “unconcerned with finishing,” as Munday writes; I had no goal in mind at all, really. But — as with Munday and Proust — that ultimately meant that the work crept into my life in a more natural way. I think about it all the time, and I believe that’s partly because I never intended to think about it again.

This strikes me as a particularly useful form of culture-binge for the months ahead: a culture consumption project that’s a challenge (not simple escapism), but an open-ended one, with no specific goal in mind. Something big enouogh that you’re not concerned with the idea of when, if ever, you’ll finish. (Notably, Munday, who has a lot of interesting things to say about what he’s learned from Proust, still isn’t done.)

And now seems like a good moment to start such a project, faced as we are with a future that’s both hopeful and challenging. It’s a way to mark this time, and beyond, on your own terms.

Obviously it doesn’t have to be Proust — or even a reading project. In fact, after some reflection, I’ve decided to start a listening project. Years ago I set out to explore classical music (which I know little about) through a list of 50 CDs recommended by the public radio show Performance Today. I didn’t get very far; it seemed too big a task, without enough payoff.

But inspired by Munday’s essay I recently tracked down the list I rememebered, and I’m determined to work my way through it. I’m streaming the works this time, not buying CDs, but it’s still going to take a while. And I’m happy about that. I’m taking my time with each listen, because I want this project to last. I want to give it the attention it deserves.

I hope that by the time I finish, I won’t even remember the circumstances that inspired me to start.

Missing Words Update (Soon)

There was quite a bit of excellent feedback to last issue’s item on “missing words” — so much that I’m still processing it all. More on that soon.

A Sound Shot Lesson

Here’s a brief anecdote about someone (not me) noticing a taken-for-granted element of the world — and completely transforming it.

A few weeks ago, I took the ferry from downtown New Orleans to Algiers Point, across the river. I paused to sit on the levee and look at the skyline. Something caught my ear, and I took this “sound shot”:

Now, I’d heard this sound before — it’s the steam-powered calliope on the Steamboat Natchez, a tourist riverboat — but not in a long time. And I’d certainly never thought about it any serious way. Until now. That’s because Kara Walker once heard this sound, really paid attention, and ultimately transformed the way I and many others hear it.

Back in 2016, Walker (no relation) visited Algiers Point, which was once the location of a holding area for slaves who would be sold in New Orleans. A cheerful calliope sound caught her attention. A New York Times story explains:

She started researching the instrument, which had its heyday just after the Civil War. (Calliope is the mythological Greek muse of epic poetry.)

“I started thinking about music and mind control — happy music being a way of keeping a certain level of peace, placating everyone,” Ms. Walker said. “The more I looked into it, the more it piqued my interest.

This led to the creation of an amazing and immense calliope installed in a wagon structure featuring Walker’s well-known silhouette aesthetics, playing music of “Black protest and celebration,” and briefly installed in Algiers as part of an art festival in 2018. E and I witnessed this, and it was amazing. It’s too much to explain here but check out this Art 21 feature/video.

So … back to my recent journey to the Algiers levee. Most likely, I would scarcely have noticed that steam calliope sound that I’d heard before and never pondered in any meaningful way. Except that Kara Walker transformed what I was hearing.

I knew that was true when E and I experienced her actual work — but in a way I really knew it two years later, listening to a version of the same sound she heard, and marveling at how much she made of this everyday thing that the rest of us hardly noticed.

Something To Notice

“Something To Notice” is a simple suggestion for something you might want to make an effort to notice in the weeks ahead. That’s it. This week’s suggestion comes from this essay by M.H. Rubin, via Peta Pixel.


Back story: “A good crack is an enormously satisfying thing, like a lightning bolt or a branch of an old oak tree,” Rubin argues, and he has been photographing them for many years. And thinking about them too. His essay ties in Zen aesthetics, fractals, and more. “They’re so ubiquitous they’re invisible. But not to me. They’re part of my photographic mantra to slow down and pay attention.

Have a suggestion for Something To Notice? Tell me: consumed@robwalker.net

Icebreaker Of The Week

  • Noticing is about other people, too. The Icebreaker series aims to help with that. There’s a central collection spot for all the icebreakers to date, here. || There’s also an Icebreaker Slack app, here. (Back story on that here.)

This week’s icebreaker comes from reader Prado.

What would you write on a gigantic billboard?

Responses that Prado got on Twitter are here. As a side note, I can’t remember the exact details, but this reminded of reading a piece that asked various artists what space they’d most like to work with, and one of them said “all the billboards between two towns.” I think about that on every road trip I take, to this day. Thanks for sending this one my way, Prado!

I’m still working through the backlog of icebreaker submissions, but as always, I still want more:

Send your favorite icebreaker (whether you made it up or found it elsewhere) to consumed@robwalker.net

In Other News

@ayalazarfjian, @judy_andrews_, @alfs_photos_

Okay that’s it! Next issue in two weeks.

As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, and your icebreakers: consumed@robwalker.net.

Thanks for reading!

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All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032 

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