The Name of the Wind

The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss, is a delightful “High Fantasy” read. It’s a book I might be tempted, if I had the opportunity, to press on my 15-year-old self, because it showcases many of the kinds of serious mistakes earnest, good-hearted young men are prone to making, such as not asking for help or advice, or neglecting to notice how valuable it is to form an explicit long-term plan, and get input on it from others. Or to think everything a gal you’re dating is doing is about you. And, it warns against the kind of quiet despondency that old men can sink into, after they’ve made mistakes that–like everything in the past–can’t be unmade. While there is life, there is work to do. Stay active; keep humming the tune to your life under your breath, even after you make your latest great mistake.

Maybe the best thing about The Name of the Wind is the way it engages with what it means to be a mind that has a life. One example that will stick with me is the way a mentor taught him about how to think effectively, particularly for difficult decisions, which was to cordon off corners of mind for a cast of characters, and have them argue with each other. As a young man, the main character Kvothe is a quick study, who can learn a new language in a day or two. The best appeal of the book is going on adventures with him, as his talents, curiosity, and ambition carry him forward. He’s interested in music, math, art, magic (hey, it’s a high-fantasy book), women, philosophy, truth… and his projects include protecting the innocent and avenging wrongful death. At the same time, he’s still a young man–it’s kind of hard to express how stupid he is about very obvious things, in a way most people who have been a young man, or known some, may find quite entertaining. A great read. Hopefully I will find the next two books in the series are as good… the third isn’t even out yet, so it may be a wait.

Edit 24 Jan 2017: I am going to re-read this book (the whole series, actually) and post on it more. Reading this post now, it seems plain that I am under-specifying how well made this book is, and will probably only be able to succeed if I focus on capturing what is high-quality about a very small part of the book, and let the quality of that part speak for the whole.

Competition is Irrelevant

“Competition is Irrelevant” by Peg Marckworth is a business strategy/branding book. The book’s core theme immediately reminded me of a line I picked up somewhere, that the hardest part of any argument is knowing your own opinion. In other words, if you’re doing it right, branding isn’t about clever gimmicks to “spin” your company (or, in the case of a personal brand, yourself) in ways that make you appear to outshine your competition, or even to appear differently than you are. It’s not about approaching your customers with a mentality of using gimmicks to make them remember you or think of you in some way other than as you are actually trying to be.

The book offers five most common missteps in branding:

  1. Confusing branding with marketing. In short, branding is who you are, and marketing is how you spread the word. They overlap, but they’re not the same. Part of why these are so often confused is that brands are stories. E.g. Coke is a brand whose story is  about consistency and feel-good fun, meaning that Coke offers a story of people (or Polar Bears) drinking Coke and experiencing a consistent, feel-good fun. (I’m sure the folks at Coke might resent seeing this boiled down to something so crass as a few words, because they also want Coke to be about classyness and lots of other things–it’s a brand they’ve build up over a long history–but you see what I mean.) Meanwhile, marketing is the work you do to get that story to the ears/eyeballs/etc to create and sustain your customer base.
  2. Confusing a logo, tagline, jingle, website or etc. for a brand. Brands are stories. All that other stuff may be a way to transmit a story, or a recognizable way to help people remember a story, but it isn’t the story. To take the old Faith Hill / Pepsi jingle: “ba pa pa pa ba pa pa pa the joy of cola.” The tune isn’t the story, and making tunes comes after determining the story to tell.
  3. Failing to identify a difference between you and your competition. The book uses a realtor example, but to stay on the cola analogy, you are not going to be simultaneously quirkier than Dr. Pepper and better at being low-calorie than Diet Coke and better at being the classic feel-good beverage than Coke. Find your story, and be willing to tell it, even if that means some people will realize you aren’t what they’re looking for.

For #4 and #5, you’ll just have to buy the book. Plus, that’s just chapter one. There are many great marketing books out there, but this is the cleanest articulation of what branding  is all about.

Edited for typographical mistakes 24 Jan 2017

The Gospel According to Biff: Christ’s Childhood Pal

Hokay, so, this is a humor book, and also a religious-ish book, which reads sort of like you’d imagine a book would read if someone with a personality like Adam Sandler (or, anyway, like the characters he plays in movies) were to accompany Jesus as his side-kick friend through most of Jesus’ life, including childhood, along the way mostly missing the different lessons that Jesus was learning/teaching even as he is witnessing literal miracles, in displays of humorous, Sandler-esque obtuseness–and then wrote a Gospel about it all, from a mostly-still-obtuse perspective. I think it is a mistake to read the book as though one knows whether its author is deeply religious, or deeply irreligious, or what. Lamb generally reflects back what you expect to find, and given the author’s discipline with respect to other literary tropes he employs, I expect we can infer that is intentional. If you prefer your religious experiences delivered by someone who will insist that your experience be characterized by certainty, rather than ambiguity, this book is to be avoided. A good way to read it for maximum enjoyment and to leave yourself open to learning as much as possible, whatever the status of your faith journey, may be to intentionally savor this ambiguity. After all, it is a nice and rare thing  that it is open to people from many different backgrounds as a vehicle to access the Jesus story for what it can offer them, without the pressure of feeling they have to believe any particular thing, since, of course, Biff (the Sandler-esque narrator) mostly disbelieves everything not immediately on display before his eyes, and for the most part remains immune to Jesus’ moral fables even in the seconds immediately after they are told.

Even with that caveat, there’s a lot of great stuff I could write about from this book. In fact I suspect there may be too much to talk about and consider the subject “covered” no matter how long a post is written. However, two easy things to note are:

1. Humor is a good way to skid over rough edges or avoid hard “with us or against us”-type lines that people draw, which is an invaluable tool for building and maintaining a sense of community in a diverse group. As the world gets smaller, more and more people with very different backgrounds end up in the same chat rooms, school rooms, and jury panels. Consequently I think this is increasingly a valuable talent for getting along, and taking care of people around you. Not everything has to be a fight.

2. The lesson of stone soup, that a little belief and community organizing can create plenty from scarcity, goes double for the belief that there’s a spark of the divine, a common humanity in everyone. Not only is it true (though of course it is that!) but when we believe it, we lead richer, fuller lives and have warmer, longer-lasting relationships.

Highly recommended for those with a sense of humor.

Lightly Edited Jan 24 2017

The Hoboken Chicken Emergency

Many so-called “children’s” books are great ways to practice mindful reading. Why did the author say this, instead of that? What’s intriguing about this plot? What’s charming about this character–why do I feel not only that I have gotten to know this person (e.g. their likes and dislikes, or that they are an extrovert), but also that, if we knew each other in real life, we would be friends?

The Hoboken Chicken Emergency is the story with two main characters. The first is a boy named Arthur Bobowicz, who is that age where a boy may get up early and play on a playground so his friends won’t see, because he is too old to play on playgrounds. Arthur is just such a boy, and at one point in this book he heads to just such a playground for just such a purpose. If you are like me, you like him already. The second is Henrietta, who is (spoiler alert) a 266-pound chicken.

The story opens with Thanksgiving approaching, and Arthur’s father (who like many of the immigrant fathers in Hoboken, was very big on being American, and particularly big on his kids, because they are American, having a turkey dinner for Thanksgiving.

Due to a mix-up at the meat counter, Arthur’s family does not receive their turkey as ordered, and Arthur’s impressively diligent Thanksgiving-day search turns up no turkeys not already spoken for in all of Hoboken. No poultry, in fact, until Arthur happens into discovering a mad scientist with a menagerie, who sells him a live chicken named Henrietta. It reads cleverly, as though Arthur’s child-like willingness to defer to adult authority is somewhat exploited by the mad scientist, who is apparently eager to unload some oversize chickens. At this point, some salient lessons a very sharp child might get are: 1. No harm in being proud to be an American, even if it is a little unimaginative. 2. Diligence pays off. 3. Those who have authority, such as the authority of full adulthood, will often abuse that authority to get their way, such as by pawning off an oversize chicken on an insufficiently assertive young boy.

Anyway, not to give away the whole plot, but there’s some great lessons about how to tell the difference between a charlatan salesman versus a capable professional, the idiocy of people in a panic, the foibles of politicians faced with seemingly intractable problems, and running through it all is the theme that if people took more time to really understand each other (and 266-pound chickens) they’d all find it quite easy to get along.

A fun read. Good for an early reader who is ready to move away from picture books, and for adults of any age.

Minor edits 24 Jan 2017.