Download Machines | How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy, by Stephen Richard Witt

How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy
by Stephen Richard Witt
Published by Viking (2015) 
Rating: ****

Introduction

Music is a very important part of my life.  I’ve recounted my own personal history with audio forms, downloading and piracy here. I don’t download music anymore – not since Spotify and other streaming services came to India. These services have changed the way that I work in more ways than one. Finding a book that methodically recounted, and exposed a similar history was quite lovely.

Communicating Complexity

When I read non-fiction books that hone in on specific subjects, one of the things I look out for is how well they communicate complexity, or technical information that would not ordinarily be accessed by individuals. This book begins with the discovery of the MP3 format, the science that went into understanding the frequencies the human ear could hear and the compression that was used to produce the output necessary. My knowledge of this is relatively reasonable given my usage of audio production software and a few of my friendships, but what I particularly admired in this book was the kind of simplicity with which chains in a logical sequence of sentences were formed. The filler sentences, the ones that establish context and provide examples and analogies: those are the crucial pieces of information we latch onto in order to understand something better, and Witt does a great job of breaking down some barriers for us there.

Picking Narratives

I highlighted this in another review recently, but it was great to see three figures form such an integral part of this story: first, a researcher, second, someone within the industry, and finally, a pirate. Piracy provides access to a lot of information, but it’s also disrupted industries and forced companies and law to innovate mechanism to prevent the stifling of incentives to produce, or create. These three narratives provide a lot of relatable information and contextualize things to time, since there is now a reference point for when things in the book are taking place, or how they’re actually impacting people.

Conclusion

A book worth reading. The only thing I found disappointing within the book was the lack of discussion of the freely accessible, legal art that’s come out of compression. The Creative Commons license, under which Soundcloud, for example, helps artists protect a original content was almost non-existent throughout the book. This would have felt more complete had it discussed the subject, which I personally believe is an extremely integral part of what piracy has done.

Minimal | The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (Magic Cleaning #1), by Marie Kondo

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing
(Magic Cleaning #1),
by Marie Kondo, translated by Cathy Hirano,
Published by Ten Speed Press (2014)
Rating: 
*****

Introduction

At University, the last evening before it was certain that we would be packing up and returning to our respective homes, one thought stood above all else in my head. Over the past five years, try as I might, I had accumulated a fair number of possessions. What was I going to prioritize carrying back? It was pretty straightforward that evening. I ran through everything I had, thought about what I had left at home, and prioritized accordingly. My approach to it was simple: if I never was able to return to University, what would I be alright letting go of?

I returned home to a house that stood suspended in time, to a room that looked exactly as I had left it in June, 2015, right after my Grade 12 board examinations. I’ve returned here several times on short stints, but never been invested enough in making my room look like I had evolved from the state I was in during that time. So answer papers from past exams were strewn around, a few revision guides were in my shelves, and my exam stationery kit remained exactly as is.

Considering I had time on my hands, I figured I ought to reorganize everything. I wanted to be methodical in the manner I did things, which is why I picked up this book. It did not disappoint.

Structure

Kondo is right about one thing. Nobody really teaches us how to tidy up. I certainly wasn’t taught, or “explained” why things went in particular places. My parents decided where things best fit – and we sort of stuck to those principles, even if (and I never did) come up with better ways to store things. Kondo treats this book as an opportunity to teach. Hence, there’s a lot of structure in the manner she writes, and that’s one of the things I appreciated most about the book. It lays down the premise of why there’s a high likelihood we know very little about what tidying up and decluttering truly means at it’s essence, and builds from there into the philosophy and evidence of how tidying up has assisted her and her clients. It is only after that she goes on to explain and illustrate how to apply these principles, along with additional principles per category of tidying up.

There’s a reasoning to her beliefs about cleaning up that I found extremely helpful, because they allowed you to opt-out and drop out of reading the book, or buying into her system – the one she’s popularized, rather, at any point. That reasoning is at the core of the book, and explains why she remains so passionate about the subject: something that comes to the fore when you watch her TV show.

The Language

Translating this would not have been easy. This is true of all translations: they require a lot of patience and a degree of meticulousness that aids in conveying precise, technical information to a wider audience in a language distinct from the source. The translator has done a fabulous job, not in the least because I smiled throughout my reading of this book. I couldn’t stop smiling because there was a simplicity and joy in the language that communicated the joy of cleaning up so well.

Conclusions

The book works if you buy into it, or go into an open mind and consider implementing any of the things she talks about. Even if you don’t, it’s an excellent theoretical read. For me, though, results were instantaneous. My room, today, is everything I am, personified. Less clutter and all, and that’s definitely helped my headspace.

Classic |Our Oriental Heritage (The Story of Civilization #1), by Will Durant

Our Oriental Heritage (The Story of Civilization #1)
by Will Durant
Published by Fine [reprint] (1993)
Rating: *****

Introduction 

I started reading this book in January, 2019. Aside from the big reading challenges I do in terms of volume, there are several subjects I’m curious to learn more and get more information into my brain about. One of these is History. That stems largely out of the fact that I didn’t study History beyond Grade 8, then discovered how much I enjoyed it, and now have a lot of unstructured History floating around in my head. In an endeavour to correct the timeline of events I’ve constructed for myself, I took to reading non-fiction History. The idea was to understand History better within 2019 – and I hoped to finish Will Durant’s entire Story of Civilization series. Little did I know how detailed they were, or how many questions they would spawn. There have been days on end with this book that I’ve stopped reading within a sentence of beginning, because something Durant says piqued my interest sufficiently to warrant a Google break, and down that rabbit-hole I jumped. As a consequence, completing the book took till February, 2020. What a lovely ride it has been. My mind is now filled with so much information – and quite honestly, I am sad that I will no longer relive reading through all of this for the first time ever again.

Underpopular Sides of History

I am – as we are all, a student of History. However, I am a student in a particular domain: Law, and the rest of History, I access through pop culture, or through popularized books on subjects. Microhistories are my favourites.

Most History books I’ve read though, especially those that explain civilizations, offer macroscopic views of what these civilizations were like. They focus on events that are popularized, or have had tangible, lasting impacts on a large population of society. Think, political decisions, dynasties, and wars. There’s less emphasis on movements in religion, philosophy, and art and culture – less, popularized, accessible versions of these histories. Durant spends large portions of time laying out what these were, for the absolute beginner. There is enough contextual information to start at this without any awareness about the Oriental countries, and work your way up to getting some command over unfamiliar names, or at the least, being broadly aware of what they speak of.

 Conclusion

This clearly doesn’t contain the latest information. The edition I read was a reprint. The first volume was published in 1935, by Simon & Schuster, so a lot of the information – for example, on Egypt, is outdated, or is, obvious to us today – it seems commonly known. For the time though, I cannot imagine how much research the Durants (there is credit to his wife Ariel, and I am waiting to see how her co-authorship informs the writing in the later books) must have done to be able to write all of these.

I’d recommend reading it, but take it slow. This is History worth enjoying; worth labouring through, worth conducting thought experiments about – and worth, in every bit, loving.

64 Squares and Technology | Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins, by Garry Kasparov

Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins,
by Garry Kasparov,
Published by PublicAffairs (2017)
Rating:
 *** 

This book was recommended to me at University by a guest lecturer who was taking sessions for us in Information Technology Law. I’ve been playing chess against the computer every day since the start of the year (my record is dismal, and improvements, if any, are not noticeable yet), so this book caught my fancy instantly. Deep Blue, in general, is well-documented, but I hadn’t read Kasparov’s thoughts on the game, or on machines generally. Plus, having read Andrew Yang’s bleak painting of what technology was doing to us, I figured it was time for a bit of a more uplifting take on things. One that inspired, and catered to the boundless possibilities that advancements in technology unlocked.

Kasparov takes a fundamentally simple approach the book. He traces through the history of artificial intelligence and machine learning, particularly in the context of chess, and paints how his matchup with Deep Blue came to be – and where the algorithms will take us next, with AlphaGo and everything.

This was a useful exposition of that history. However, my issue with the book is that the blurb made is sound like it would discuss the interaction between humans and artificial intelligence. I was curious, in particular, about Kasparov’s own work with artificial intelligence, and the manner in which he has contributed to chess algorithms and chess database systems, or studied them. That constituted less than one-third of the book, which is the reason for my rating.

Standard of Living | The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future, by Andrew Yang

The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future
by Andrew Yang
Published by Hachette Books (2018)
Rating: ****

Introduction

A while ago, I wrote about my journey reading about the White House. Since then, I shifted my attention to reading about, and books by candidates running for the Presidency this year. It seemed like a useful way to gain contextual information about some of their policy goals, but also understand who they were as people, in their own eyes. Autobiographies and personal narratives written by the people going through them provide the perspective (and opportunity) for people to articulate their ideas without too much restriction or restraint. I began this journey by reading about Andrew Yang, whose #YangGang trend on twitter blew up in and around the Democratic primary debates when he wasn’t on stage.

Summary 

The title is a mouthful but is a summary of the core argument this book makes: people in America need a Universal Basic Income. This is premised on the changing dynamic of the economy, one that is more technology-focused and technology-driven, which has far-reaching consequences on communities across the economic spectrum. Yang, however, centers his consequential analysis on marginalized communities to showcase how a Universal Basic Income could alleviate additional societal stresses such as drug use and crime that pervade American society.

The Narrative

I enjoyed Economics as a subject throughout high school and University. However, reading non-fiction Economics for me is quite a challenge. Generally, non-fiction – especially those pieces of work that seek to argue a point of view, for me, are easier to follow along if there is a narrative to follow along too. Freakonomics and Outliers, for example, both take case-studies on a chapter-by-chapter basis. That seems like a simple enough way to present argumentative information.

Yang, however, splits up the book, in tone, into two distinct parts. There’s the premise, and the argument. His narrative is built up through the premise itself, drawing on from his own life – hailing from an immigrant family, and talking us through the history (recent past) of America’s economy, to understand the seismic shift that the economy has grappled with in recent years. He moves this narrative forward by talking us through the venture-focused economy America has become, of which, mind you, he is both a contributing cause – and effect. That enables him to portray a bleak picture of what the human has to endure. Additionally, America is a fractured country. Despite being the wealthiest nation on Earth, it has a significant wage inequality. The median, therefore, is not representative. Nonetheless, it is most significant to his argument – and so, he defines his “normal people” – the median in America.

The Argument

This brief history contextualizes most of the analysis that Yang provides. He puts forth, in plain terms, his belief that a Universal Basic Income would help address these issues of wage disparity, and help with the transition that has already begun.

However, Yang’s analysis goes deeper, looking at social dysfunction. He looks at gender imbalances in society, and how income would empower to help further the cause of equality. More importantly, any further stresses on people’s personal and social lives as a result of job disruptances (which Yang links back to the health of the economy) could be contained through the UBI mechanism.

The Humour

There are references to Civilization VI and computer games, which are always worth enjoying.

Conclusion

My only issue with the argument is that I needed more evidence – particularly in the second half. There was a point at which it delved into proselytizing people on the basis of faith and trust, which seemed like it made sense for a Presidential candidate to do, but not as much as an academic endeavour. Some of his statements felt suspect – and the case for the UBI could be made with evidence in a better manner. The tone of the book in these parts was misplaced.

Nonetheless, worth reading – particularly as a thesis on a strategy to cure economic inequality.

Did Not Hurt |This Is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor by Adam Kay

This Is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor
by Adam Kay
Published by Picador (2017)
Rating: *****

Introduction 

The NHS has fascinated me for a long time. As a non-British person, I’m truly in awe of the fact that healthcare, on a grand and very visible scale is affordable to everybody across the nation, and is chosen by people across economic classes. I understand that national healthcare models exist around the world, and in no means am I proclaiming the NHS to be the best – I am not an expert on the matter and have read limited literature around it. It just fascinates me that the system can exist with public backing.

I know one doctor who works within the NHS. I’ve never discussed the system with him. I know a few doctors – several of them in my own family. I’ve never discussed their cases or any funny stories they may have to share. However, I have imagined, as I do think everyone in the service sector does, that they would have seen some characters in their lifetime. I’ve always wondered what that journey was like. Adam Kay peeled back the curtain in his memoir, and I was enriched for it. Through his book, he takes us through his time as a junior doctor in the UK.

Entertainment

This was a stunningly entertaining book. It’s taken from Kay’s diary, and has retained it’s original format for the most part, with short entries interspersed with longer ones. While the format does take some time to get accustomed to, Kay writes in a manner that is unfiltered and accessible, giving you an insight into how he thinks really quickly – and boy, is his brain hilarious. There are jokes aplenty, and succinct, witty, two-line observations that’ll make you chuckle. The humour cuts across Kay’s treatment of more serious, current-day issues that the NHS has to tackle, including doctor allocation, understaffing, as well as a host of personal issues that professionals in the medical field go through that we, as patients sometimes take for granted.

All-in-all, it makes something very scary (medicine and people’s lives on the line) seem less scary, and I’m grateful for it.

Emotion

There are some very, very touching tales throughout. Doctors have a lot of empathy, and Kay certainly knows when to flick this switch on. The book ends hurriedly and abruptly, and you understand – especially around the final few pages, the kind of emotional toll and rollercoaster doctors must go through on a daily basis. I found myself thinking about surgeons most frequently, or diagnosticians, who rapidly must move from patient to patient, putting negatives behind them as quickly as possible.

Footnoting

Particular mention has to be made of Kay’s footnoting. The first thing I laughed about in the book was a note about footnotes that directed me to read the footnotes. At first, I didn’t understand why. Generally, especially when I’m reading e-books, I tend not to read footnotes. This practice is largely owing to the cumbersome nature of navigating to the footnote and navigating back. However, Kay uses a fair amount of medical terminology – and supplies helpful, contextual information in laypeople-English in his footnotes. Quite often, these are supplemented with humorous anecdotes, that made the footnotes a delight.

The other option would have been to omit medical jargon that was beyond the grasp of reasonably informed individuals – but that would have been inauthentic and a disservice to the craft he performed. I’m pleased that was not the route chosen.

Conclusion

Excellent, sit-down and laugh your heart out read. Worth a Sunday afternoon.

Classical Music, Declassified | Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music by Jan Swafford

Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music,
by Jan Swafford
Published by Basic Books (2017)
Rating: **** 

Introduction

By December, 2019, I had decided that one of the things I wanted to do in 2020 was to get back to classical music more seriously. For several years, between Grade 6 and Grade 10, classical music had consumed large chunks of my time: amidst theory lessons and piano lessons, all I was learning was classical pieces for examinations, or music in method books, all composed by famous composers. It was only in one of my later theory lessons that my music teacher at the time introduced me to the different periods of music composition. That revelation coincided with the time I was learning about literary periods, and the overlap was quite a phenomenon for my young mind.

Of course as time passed, my interest weaned off, and I stopped my piano lessons and everything that went along with it. For a while, therefore, I played the same 3 pieces I learned for exams in 2011 every time someone asked me to perform. Anyway, long story short, I figured that if I was going to get back to classical music, I ought to educate myself about it’s history and relevance, to some degree. Enter Jan Swafford.

Short Chapters 

One of the classiest things to do. With non-fiction books that present brief histories of, or introductions to individual subjects or niche areas, there’s often this desire to cover everything in the field, which stems out of the author’s own passion for the subject. I know that if I wrote a non-fiction book, for example, I’d want to cover everything imaginable about the subject. However, very often, that slips into making the book inaccessible to the general public – an outcome that isn’t the most desirable when you are trying to influence or improve general visibility for a craft.

Swafford keeps his chapters short and crisp, with a lucid writing style and dry wit that sparks off the page and keeps the pages turning. One of the more helpful things is the fact that he doesn’t seek to delve into a historical overview of every significant piece in an era or by a particular composer. He writes about the pieces that appeal to him – displaying a bias toward choral pieces, but that nevertheless allows him to explain the characteristic features of the piece by the composer.

Additionally, along with short chapters, the thing I admired was the selection of recommended pieces neatly highlighted in Bold, allowing for optional (yet highly recommended) listening alongside the reading. This book consumed me. Quite honestly, it left me wondering why books didn’t come with recommended soundtracks or playlists, and whether I could embark on another quest: to create playlists for the books I read – to capture the mood and emotion of the book most appropriately. That is, however, for another day.

Simplicity

Swafford is a composer himself. Another peril of having an expert write a book meant for beginners is the prospect of highly technical language. I’m not a complete beginner to music theory, however, there is jargon that is consistently beyond me. I am not an expert, and would not have liked for this book to have assumed any knowledge. To my surprise, the book assumed nothing. From start to finish, it felt as though someone had clasped my hand and walked me across all the 88-keys of a piano, teaching me what each sounded like and meant, but also helping me build the vocabulary into my own lexicon.

Swafford does a magnificent job structurally, building through and weaving more famous composers with less publicly known faces, allowing you to appreciate the breadth and depth of technique employed by these composers.

What I wish the book contained though was a little more contextual information at the beginning of each ‘era’ so to speak – to place and locate it precisely in history. The issue with exploring composers is that at times (quite often), their histories overlap, leading to repetition. This is not a fatal flaw, nonetheless, I did feel that it compromised my own reading of the subject.

Conclusion

I’m looking forward to reading his more “heavy” work, The Vintage Guide to Classical Music, very soon. This is definitely a good starting point for anybody interested in understanding classical music better, or for anybody seeking some good classical music recommendations.

Wordy Self-Portraits | Min Kamp, by Karl Ove Knausgård

Introduction

The fourth book in this series received 4-stars, but other than that, I gave the remaining five books 5-stars (on a scale of 5). Now that ratings are out of the way, let’s get cracking.

Narrative non-fiction is the kind of non-fiction that feels the easiest to read because it never feels like you’re studying – which is often a feeling even the best-written non-fiction books give me. Autobiographies and biographical writing is generally therefore the least tedious real-life material to consume. As a natural consequence, I’m pretty big on the genre. Discovering that Knausgaard (and I will request you to bear with the spelling through this piece) existed was therefore pretty astounding. I read the first book in the series through December, and committed to it at the beginning of the year – embarking on a journey of too many pages.

The Title

If you read the title – I’m sure you’re going to think about Adolf Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf. Now, there’s this inquisition about whether or Knausgaard is an anti-semite for utilizing a title so similar to Hitler’s work for his own. The books however, rarely delve into political expression, using humour in some portions to poke shots at how politically correct Swedish individuals are. Discussion about the title only stems in the last book, however, that is, as Knausgaard has admitted, an afterthought, and delves more into Hitler than any justification about the title itself. There is no definitive answer for why Knausgaard chose the title, other than the fact that it appealed to him. It has, however, sparked off  a large debate about what associations to Hitler are permissible (and was printed in Germany under a different title).

Slow, Methodical Writing

Naturally, if someone is able to write six books about various happenings in their lives, they ought to be able to write well. Knausgaard definitely done that, however, this is not a light read. This is largely because it’s almost as if Knausgaard opens the only door guarding his mind and lets slip any veils that exist between his mind and ours. Things are extremely detailed. At various times, he slips into a comprehensive, minute account of the most minor, inconsequential actions. This is especially true of physical activities that form a part of his daily routine, like washing dishes, or setting tables.

While that may not appeal to everyone, I found that across the first two books, which deal with the death of his father and his marriage, this minute detailing helps to portray how solitary the struggle that Knausgaard faces is. This isn’t something he shares with anybody – his grief, his joy, they’re all emotions he experiences alone, and thus, it’s almost as though he experiences them more fully.

Existentialism

Across all six books, there’s a definitive quest for a sense of purpose. This is prominent in books two and three, which he writes after about four or five years of the first one, and the money is running out. What I appreciated was how much he engages with these thoughts of existentialism and a quest for purpose, and how often he oscillates between trying to find that purpose and assuaging himself that life doesn’t need to have fixed purpose at every point of time. There are segments where Knausgaard admits to the writing being forced, out of the need to feel purposeful. That resonated with me because I was trying to figure out how I felt about my hobbies at the time: things I did purely for the joy of doing them – and how seriously I wanted to pursue those passions.

Conclusions 

As you can tell, I didn’t ponder over the book too much. I enjoyed it because it felt like the kind of writing I wish to pursue on my own blog. I’d recommend reading it, because everyone’s life has moments we can relate to as human beings, experiences so fundamental that they feel shared. Knausgaard’s life is no different, and you will find atleast one page (of the many) that you feel connected to. That alone makes the journey worthwhile.

Reading the Obama White House

Introduction

In the past 4 years, since Donald Trump took over the Oval Office, I’ve been intrigued by the circumstances that got him there. I’ve missed having President Obama in power. There are only a handful of instances where the policies and politics of America has a direct impact on my life as an Indian. I’ve missed having President Obama because of the optics of everything and the image he projected of America. There was a quiet, commandeering strength about him, as opposed to the 3am twitter updates that President Trump (still not used to this) offers up. The result of this has been a lot of reading about America, and about Obama himself – and what the White House is like and what it represents. I was interested in understanding how Obama forged a White House in his image, and what Presidents do once they leave – which set me forth on a journey in reading several books. I’ll leave ratings and links to these books below, but here are some things I observed that were common through these narratives.

Most of these books are memoirs written by former Obama White House staffers. A few disclaimers:

  1. There are more books describing the Obama White House I haven’t read;
  2. I have read books presenting arguments which criticize the Obama White House; and
  3. I have not read books about previous White Houses. My experience with the other White Houses come from History reports and pop culture.

The Books

  1. Ben Rhodes – The World As It Is: Inside the Obama White House – *****
  2. Dan Pfeiffer – Yes We (Still) Can: Politics in the Age of Obama, Twitter, and Trump – ****
  3. Alyssa Mastromonaco, Lauren Oyler – Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?: And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House – ****
  4. Katy Tur – Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History – ***

The Stories 

I loved reading through each of these because they portrayed an incredibly personal narrative of some of the most defining moments in the last few years under Obama’s presidency and during the 2016 Elections. There’s a ton of insight that would have ordinarily been available only if White House staffers were entitled to maintain personal twitter feeds during their time in the White House.

Alyssa Mastromonaco and Dan Pfeiffer write the books that will make you laugh about Obama. Everyone knows President Obama had a great sense of humour, knew how to make people smile (and when), and both these individuals tap into a goldmine of memories they’ve created with Obama front and center to tell you the kind of things you wouldn’t have expected from the Commander-in-Chief, including comments on people’s wardrobes.

If Mastromonaco and Pfeiffer write about Obama the person, Ben Rhodes takes Obama the professional and gives you insight into that separation of powers (do you see what I did there?) Something I’ve wondered about is the kind of toll that certain decisions and politics takes on the personal lives of those in power – and how personal lives actually unfold with so much chaos and noise all around you all of the time. Rhodes tackles this issue-by-issue, almost – constructing a wonderful timeline of everything Obama & him experienced in the White House. In each chapter, Rhodes explores what Obama the President and Obama the person felt – where they coincided, and where they separated, and the burden this placed on him. At all points, the book exudes this warmth that Obama clearly imparted on all of the members of his Service – individuals who still feel privileged to have been a part of things.

And if Rhodes gives you that insight, into that warmth, Katy Tur is able to write about the exact opposite – the narrative that Trump was able to tap into in order to unite the country not through action, but through words – none of which exuded warmth and inclusion, but exclusion at its highest.

Concluding Thoughts

These make for good reads if you’re interested in the changing face of American politics. You’ll take to them far easier if you have bias, I think – as with most pieces of literature. My bias shines through here.

Old Dog, New Tricks | Play It Again, by Alan Rusbridger

Introduction

First off, I must apologize for the title. I tried long and hard to find something more suitable, but nothing felt quite as right as this did. Apologies, Mr. Rusbridger, if you do read this.

Secondly, some context. This marvelous book was recommended to me by the genie that is Goodreads, thanks not in small part to my recent completion of another book on classical music (which I should hopefully review shortly), and the fact that Year of Wonder is now a book I am currently reading. My own history with classical music is long and storied. It forms a part of a poem, and a blogpost from early 2016. At present, I am falling in love with it all over again. I’ve begun piano classes, I listen to more classical pieces, I’m engaging with my own study of music theory – and I’m enjoying every bit of it. However, it has been 6 years since I properly attended lessons and focused on technique instead of playing things by the ear. As a consequence, my dexterity is something I am relearning. In that sense, finding this book felt like more than a coincidence. My review might therefore be coloured by this experience.

Plot Summary 

Pretty straightforward really. Rusbridger explains it in a video he recorded, which you can see here. In a series of diary-style entries, Rusbridger recounts taking up the challenge to learn and play Chopin’s Ballade No.1 in G minor Op. 23, which is one of the most daunting pieces of music ever written. There are added layers to the challenge, though. First, he gave up the piano when he was 16, and took it up as a serious hobby only past the age of 40. Second, he’s got a day-job (and not any day-job. At the time, he was Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian). Third, he wants to learn it in a year – committing to do so by giving himself 20 minutes a day of dedicated practice. To anybody, developing a habit over the course of a year by attempting it for just 20 minutes of a day sounds ludicrous enough. To commit to learning a fresh piece of music – and something that lasts 10 whole minutes isn’t just committing to a habit – it’s committing to teaching yourself something new that develops on past knowledge, which is incredible.

To give you a spoiler alert: yes, he manages to play it, and rather successfully, I might add. There are snippets of his playing in the video I’ve linked above.

The Writing 

I’ve often found that diary-style entries face the arduous challenge of establishing context in as few words as possible before developing plot, or rather, furthering plot in a manner that is engaging, yet succinct. Some preliminary comments on length and style before analyzing the writing itself.

Some books written as journal or diary entries end up writing these extracts at length. They feel well-edited, meticulously-crafted – that the thoughts come in a structured manner, or a structured flow at all points of time. While it is arguable that journal/diary writers do spend time thinking about what they wish to write about, I often feel that there is an erosion of the unfiltered thought that takes place when they are crafted to be literary. There’s a beauty to the natural flow of thought when somebody sits down with a pen and paper to write – the brain hops, skips, and jumps, and you can see that with the writing. It feels organic, and natural, with stops that are as abrupt as these thoughts themselves. There is no doubt to Rusbridger’s talent in the English language (he studied at Cambridge and was a journalist, for goodness sakes’), but what I loved here is that the diary entries never felt too long. While we do not know whether these were extracts culled out of longer pieces of writing from each day, there’s a flow to the book that feels like I could’ve sat and written it at home.

This does two things for me: one, it makes it incredibly easy to read, even when it’s discussing something like the art of choosing which piano to buy – something that is incredibly boring if you cannot hear the tone of the pianos being compared and the subtle differences in tone. Two, it makes the amateur portion of his piano playing feel more genuine. You can see that this is something he is incredibly passionate about – (at least this one project), but having the writing laid out in a very amateur-like way makes it feel more relatable.

Interweaving Subplots and Interviews 

The book would have been incredibly boring to the general public if it was exclusively about him learning new sections of the piece each day, with stylistic changes being described as if you understand everything about how the piano is to be played. It would make for excellent technical reading, and I wouldn’t mind reading that too, but that’s for another day. There’s a lot going on in Rusbridger’s life, as I pointed out. There is success not only in the fact that he does play the piece at the end of the book, but that he doggedly and determinedly ensures he gets in as much practice as possible whenever he finds the time.

It’s evident that he needs to make the time for this hobby. He explains, at different junctures, the WikiLeaks stories, the phone hacking scandals, and other stories – including the rescue of a Guardian reporter from Libya (where he conceives the title of the book). All of this means that pages turn not exclusively because you’re interested in finding out more about his journey with the piece, but also because you’re trying to figure out whether or not he’s succeeding in the other things that are the top of the priority list for the paper and for him.

While that is admirable, what I enjoyed even more was the fact that he presented the art of learning this piece in a very holistic manner. It isn’t him self-learning, or self-teaching the piece. In technicality, once you learn how to read music, you can pretty much learn how to play anything – for playing sakes’. It’s clear that he doesn’t want this. He enrols in regular lessons, which you can see changes his perspective on the piece by giving him an observer to play to every time he visits. There are nuggets of information from professional pianists whom he has the opportunity to spend time with (as a result of his day-job), and all their interpretations offers him with the chance to look at the music through his own eyes – and reflect in the music a story that he connects with, which I think is beautiful. He also speaks to neuroscientists to understand the art of memory and learning an instrument better in an attempt to figure out what the easiest way to commit the piece to his brain would be.

All of this portrays Western classical music and its performance as being so much more than the random notes and squiggles on a staff. Indeed, in various moments, Rusbridger taps into his historical knowledge to offer different views on the context and meaning of Chopin, which I absolutely adored.

The Personality 

This would’ve also been a little less interesting if the writing didn’t allow the personal side of the story to shine through. I’ve stated above how personal the challenge itself becomes, but Rusbridger takes that one step forward, involving the reader in several aspects and decisions he’s taking on the fly. This includes the fact that he ends up building a music room in his house, he buys a piano, and he attends a couple of amateur piano conferences. There is humour interspersed in his own reflections of the kind of mountain he’s trying to climb – all of which really allows you to see who Rusbridge is beyond this singular focus he has for a year.

Conclusion

Listen to a performance of Chopin’s Ballade. Then read the book. It’s a wonderful exposition of how immersive classical music, or any hobby can be really. For me, it’s deepened my own resolve to learn the piano to enjoy it as much as I possibly can, given the history I’ve got with the instrument. It’s also convinced me that I can learn new things at any age, and I’m never going to be dissuaded by my age as an excuse to learn a skill I’m interested in. Without much doubt, this book earns ***** (5 stars).