You gotta read this

Digital busyness is the enemy of depth.” — William Powers

$T2eC16VHJHgFFl-7tVUuBRjJetK3Qg~~60_12I really couldn’t put it down. When Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age arrived last week, I promised myself I’d give it a quick glance and return to it later. (So many other books in my need-to-read stack!)

But I got hooked after the first few pages, then ended up dragging my chair closer to the fireplace, where I stayed and devoured several chapters until dinner time.

Here’s part of the review I wrote on

In Hamlet’s Blackberry, author William Powers has managed to put into words all the vague feelings of disconnection and superficiality that I’ve battled ever since I began living and working behind a computer screen. Citing numerous studies and reputable sources, he articulates the emptiness many of us are experiencing — even if we’ve got hundreds of Facebook friends and followers on Twitter.

“The more connected we are, the more we depend on the world outside ourselves to tell us how to think and live,” Powers writes.

Powers nails it when he explains that what we’re missing today — what we long for — is depth. Depth in our relationships. Depth in our work. Depth in our daily activities. We’re skimming the surface of too many people and things; drowning in the shallow waters of over-connectedness.

But Powers offers a balanced view of this growing problem. In particular, I like the way he reminds us that technology is an incredibly useful and amazing tool. He’s not suggesting that we totally unplug and head for a lone cabin in the woods.

Instead, he approaches the topic as a philosopher and a humanitarian, asking us to examine WHY we’ve become reliant on our gadgets at the expense of deeper relationships and personal freedom. He asks us to consider WHAT is really dictating our lifestyle — the online “crowd” (as he terms it) or our inner compass? He invites us to reexamine creative folks throughout history who’ve accomplished masterpieces and major achievements — despite the various distractions of their time.

Most important of all, Powers’s writing style is crisp, clear, and direct, making it easier to digest difficult material from important philosophers, from Socrates to McLuhan. A surprisingly easy read, this is an important book and ought to be required reading. But those who need it most will probably dismiss it. Their loss.

For another excellent spin on this topic, read Melissa Joy King’s essay, “You Are Wasting More Time on Social Media Than You Think” 

Coping with a crappy review

Criticism is something one can avoid by saying nothing and doing nothing.” — Aristotle

Seven years after its publication, my collection of essays on home and family topics scored its first negative review on Amazon.

The reviewer, who identified herself as a copywriter and was brave enough to include her full name and city of residence, found my writing style “rather bland” and my topics “so-so” or uninteresting. Ouch.

Making its abrupt appearance in my “Most Recent Reviews” column, the two-star review splashed a small but indelible stain on my Amazon page. Never mind that the other reviews, many of which were written by fans of my long-running newspaper columns, were five-star praise fests. Never mind that the book had already won several press awards.

And never mind than Ive been writing professionally since 1984 and should be accustomed to criticism (not to mention rejection letters) by now.

That one crummy review from a copywriter in Atlanta threw me into a ridiculous dark-blue funk that lasted a couple of days. In a fit of self-doubt, I even grabbed a copy of my book and scanned several pages for incriminating evidence of “blandness” and boring topics.

In any event, the review provided a much-needed lesson in humility. But before I could cool off — and yes, I did cool off — I had to Google the reviewers name. I had to figure out how she’d managed to stumble on my seven-year-old book — and why she felt compelled to knock it down a few stars. I was half tempted to email her after discovering we had a loose connection through a professional writing group.

Instead, I did what most writers do when they realize theyve been spending too much time alone with their computers: I turned to a few trusted colleagues who always know how to set me straight.

“Bad reviews are part of the risk of getting our work published,” one of my editor-pals reminded me. “And thats why we all need to keep growing thicker skin.” In other words, if were going to put our stuff out there, we must learn to accept a few hurled tomatoes along with the roses and the press awards. Furthermore, if were willing to listen up, one piece of honest criticism can do more to improve our game than a dozen accolades.

Mean-spirited criticism is more about the critic and less about the work under fire.”

The crappy review also led to an online discussion about how to take (and give) criticism — an invaluable skill, no matter what your profession. To master this skill, you must know the difference between constructive criticism and mean-spirited criticism.

For starters, constructive criticism is always very specific. It includes concrete examples of what didn’t work along with reasons why the reviewer thinks your writing fell short. Even if it’s unsolicited and painful, constructive criticism can be a terrific learning tool.

On the other hand, mean-spirited criticism (or “sniping”) is more about the critic and less about the work under fire. Dead giveaway: The word “I” appears too often throughout the review or critique. “I don’t like Hemingway’s writing,” for example, isnt nearly as specific and informative as “Hemingway overplays the declarative sentence.”

Mean-spirited criticism might be the product of a foul mood or professional envy. Or maybe the critic doesnt share your passion, in which case your work doesn’t necessarily fall short, or stink.

The reviewer who dissed my book didnt cite examples of what irked her, nor did she suggest what I could have done to meet her standards. But she got me thinking about why I failed to engage or entertain her.

And that’s why a bad review can be an unexpected gift or a wake-up call. If we’ve been writing and publishing for a while, especially, a negative review challenges us to keep improving and refining our craft. Or, at the very least, to stop being so complacent.

William Faulkner once said that real writers and artists “don’t have time to listen to the critics. The ones who want to be writers read the reviews, and the ones who want to write dont have the time to read reviews.” And I suppose there’s some truth in that.

Still, its perfectly normal to feel bruised after getting hit with a rotten review. Scores of authors who are far more prolific than I am still wince when they get negative press. Or, as Danielle Steel once put it, “A bad review is like baking a cake with all the best ingredients and having someone sit on it.”

All said and done, serious writers get over it, then gather their new “ingredients” and get back to work. — Cindy La Ferle

— Detail from an altered book collage by Cindy La Ferle —

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