On Reading and Writing: A Personal Journey
Why I read
I first started reading in my junior year of high school. Not as in “I didn’t know how to read before” — I went through the requisite litany of young adult fantasy with everyone else growing up: Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Eragon, etc. But it was starting junior year that I really began to read consistently, broadly (as in non-fiction), and increasingly purposefully.
It didn’t start because of any innate maturity or wisdom, but because I started having trouble falling asleep. I found that reading before I went to bed was the only way I could sleep, a problem that has persisted all these years. Even in college, when I woke up for 8am’s and was out until the wee hours of the morning, I would collapse in bed and think “surely, I can fall asleep without reading 10 pages”, and then spend the next 20 minutes lying in bed staring at the ceiling.
But what was a curse has turned into a blessing, as my poor sleep quality has forced me into the habit of reading 10-20 minutes every night for years now.
The first book I read in high school was “Strategy: a History” by Lawrence Freedman, a massive 750-page history of warfare that I’m pretty sure I randomly picked out one day at Barnes and Noble because the cover looked “intellectual”. I can’t say I remember too much from it, but I did have the chance 4 years later to attend a talk that Freedman gave at Berkeley on the future of warfare.
It took a long time for me to develop a taste for what to read. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that in high school, I considered the words of Malcolm Gladwell and Robert Greene to be gospel truth, unimpeachable and authoritative. There was a time when I was subscribed to Scott Galloway’s newsletter. In hindsight (and in my own defense), it was hard to discern the difference between truthful authority and fraudulent confidence as a naive high schooler, especially when presented in the anonymized, contextless, and controlled format of a book.
But over time, I began to discover my own genres and interests, and moved beyond the NYTimes best seller list. I consumed C.S. Lewis’s work in college to the point where it was hard to tell the difference between what he wrote and what I believed; I stepped into the struggles of housing in Dougherty’s “Golden Gates” and Desmond’s “Evicted”; I had my perception of life and the world expanded by Michael Sandel and Charles Taylor.
Reading is perhaps the best way to stretch the finite set of experiences and contexts we inhabit through the lives of others. It’s a practice that I cannot commend highly enough as a virtue and as a way of living. [Obligatory goodreads plug]
addendum: I realized upon further reflection after writing this that my habit of broadly reading is perhaps one reason why I feel so old. Through reading, I’ve lived many lives beyond my current, very short and fairly youthful one. I’ve seen how often success is due to the luck of the draw or how even the best of schemes fail due to some happenstance. I’ve also seen how deeply situated the injustices are in our world and how much of what we experience today is not new, but just dressed up differently.
Why I write
Writing is a powerful technology to crystallize thinking and promote clarity of thought. It is a way to paint your inner thoughts onto a canvas, step back, and examine if what came out really makes sense. Once imprinted, it becomes a memory device to encapsulate and timestamp a particular time and setting, a mental snapshot of where you were and what you were doing.
This was my motivation for starting a substack in 2019 around ML4Sci covering ML applications for Science. It was a field I was interested in and enjoyed learning about - writing about it publically was a way to motivate myself to read papers and precipitate out the jumbled, disorganized observations in my head about the importance of the field.
What has held me back from writing publically more (and personally) is a competing duality of a fear of judgement and a fear of value-capture (or what some would call “clout-chasing”).
Fear of judgement is an external fear, driven by the probably unreasonably sized fear that someone, years later, will come across something I wrote online, and amplify it in a negative light. Someone from a different context, in a different time, who doesn’t know me, could use my writing to destroy whatever current endeavor I am working on at the time. An unreasonable fear perhaps, but fears need to be named all the same.
Conversely, the fear of value-capture is a struggle with internal desire that is far more pernicious. It’s the fear that rather than using writing as a tool to better understand my own thoughts, I, like many others today online, will devolve into using writing as a means to show proof-of-work, to gain influence. Many of the most successful “thought-leaders” on Twitter write prolifically; and I’ve seen many adolescent substacks grow into full-time jobs. This phenomena is not a bad thing: writing serves a valuable purpose to distill and communicate ideas and good writing should be rewarded! I would be at a great deficit today if not for the many incredible substacks out there, written by people knowledgeable in their own niches who graciously take the time to share their passions and experiences through their writing.
But for me personally, I feel the tension inside of me, between the pull of the attention economy, that lures me to write for the sake of others, and the belief that writing is a tool for myself. As a deterrant to myself, I go to moderate lengths to make this substack unappealing and unattractive to would-be readers. There is absolutely no topical theme and no sign-up buttons anywhere; and I do this so as to confine this space to be free of impure motivations. I only publish this publically to harness the monkey-brain in me that likes clicking “publish”, which motivates me to actually finish things. Who knows, maybe one day I will master myself and finally be self-motivated enough to write out my own thinking privately. And then this blog will disappear and all you will see is what I choose to reveal in public…
This is the Part 1 of some thoughts I’ve had floating in my head about how to think about digital technology/social media and the literary revolution we are still living in. This part 1 is to share my personal experiences with the written word. The next part(s) will be more abstract/historical, but I think there is value in sharing my personal experience so I (you?) can see the personal trace of how my experiences shape where my ideas come from.
lol I love this:
> As a deterrant to myself, I go to moderate lengths to make this substack unappealing and unattractive to would-be readers. There is absolutely no topical theme and no sign-up buttons anywhere; and I do this so as to confine this space to be free of impure motivations. I only publish this publically to harness the monkey-brain in me that likes clicking “publish” on a semi-finished artifact of work, which motivates me to actually finish things.