Life on The Edge

One of the keys to success is supposed to be a morning routine.  I figure one of the keys to creative success is to always stay curious.  While I sometimes come short on both, I strive to blend the two, hoping for some kind of Voltron-style mega-success.  Whatever.  Worldly success may be elusive, but I do find that injecting exercises to satisfy my creativity and curiosity into my morning routine makes me more excited about my morning routine, which is important on those mornings when bed just feels so good.

Often when I shop thrift stores, the “good deal” is the one that makes you say, “Oh my God, they have no idea what they have here!” and you snatch it as if the elderly gentleman down the aisle was just moments from doing the same thing, and you watch furtively as the cashier rings it up, hoping they don’t decide the bargain basement price was in error.  But a few years ago, I snagged a much better deal of an entirely different variety.

To keep my curiosity fed, Goodwill, the Salvation Army, and a handful of smaller thrift stores has stocked the most impressive library of books I will someday read; my friends should be jealous, but I think they mostly just wonder how I navigate around the stacks of books filling every room but the kitchen and bathroom.  To be fair, the stack of books next to the bed is decidedly less impressive when it is (a) static, and (b) covered with a visible film of dust.  The “read” pile grows at a snail’s pace compared to the burgeoning “to read” pile.

With little thought of anything beyond the 89 cent sticker price, I added What We Believe But Cannot Prove.  The title was catchy, and so was the line drawing of a chicken and an egg on the cover.  “Someday,” I thought, as it found a home on a relatively stable stack in my apartment.

In that case, “someday” came relatively quickly (I’m sure there are other books from that trip which remain boxed or buried on shelves).  As I perused the table of contents, I found it was an anthology, a collection of answers to the title question by leading scientists and cultural figures.  These weren’t in-depth answers, generally; they were aimed at lay – but curious readers.  Readers, say, like myself.

The next thing I found out was that the book was not a standalone, but was part of a series; What Have You Changed Your Mind About, What Are You Optimistic About, and the wickedly cool titled What Is Your Dangerous Idea soon joined it on my shelf.  The books – and the questions on which they are based – are the brainchild of John Brockman, editor and publisher of Edge.org, a website dedicated to exploring the cutting-edge of science and culture; think Wired meets All Things Considered.  Every year, Brockman sends out his question to scores of sophisticated thinkers, and compiles their responses in a book, up to the recently released Know This.  In the true spirit of an intellectual community, you don’t have to follow my path and purchase a growing stack of books to find out the enlightening answers to these burning questions; Brockman curates the answers at Edge, where they can be found under “Annual Question.”

My reason for the book stack on my desk goes beyond eclectic (and questionable) decorating tastes, however.  I do have this funny belief, even in my relative poverty, that a simple way to support groups doing work I appreciate is to buy their product.  As I indicated, my poverty is relative, so the $10 – $12 I spend on a book every year (sometimes more, as Brockman has also started publishing anthologies of more in-depth works, thus far covering Culture, Thinking, The Universe, and the all-inclusive Life) might help supplement the site so some non-relatively poor student may end up being inspired, and eventually make her own contribution to the conversation.

But the more practical – and more personal – reason for the stack of Edge question books on my desk goes back to my morning routine.  Almost all of the answers are between 1 – 5 pages, which involves a time commitment of 5 – 10 minutes.  This stack, unlike most of my others, doesn’t grow but once a year – instead, it revolves.  Most mornings, I take the book off the top of the stack, open it randomly, and read the first unread article I find; when I’m done, the book moves to the bottom of the stack.  I never know what I’ll get; in the past week, I’ve read articles about the erosion of black holes, whether artificial “intelligence” is even possible, and the continued relevance of the doctrine of mutually assured destruction.  It’s unlikely that on any random morning any of these topics would be current in any of the news outlets I use – but with the Edge books as part of my morning routine, it’s common that these topics stay on my mind long after the article is read, and broaden my view of the world – and beyond.

Not a bad deal for $12 a year, and 5 minutes a day.

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