how to narrate transparently | virtual book

how to narrate transparently

#essays #writing #narration #point-of-view #norman-mailer #new-journalism Mentioned in how to tell a story, The Executioner's Song (1979), Infinite Jest (1996)

I read half of

The Executioner’s Song

The Executioner's Song (1979)

by Norman Mailer

#reviews #writing #books #true-crime #new-journalism #nonfiction-novel #norman-mailer Mentioned in how to narrate transparently

I picked up this book to learn about Norman Mailer’s writing style. He really is a very good chronicler. His writing is very clear, human, warm, and vivid. Shades of John Steinbeck. He does a great job of

writing from various perspectives

and of building from real life events a plot that feels inevitable. Foreshadowing exists in literature because it exists in life. There are hints and omens, but life is busy and complicated and ever-moving. Mistakes are decisions that the future spoils. This book conveys both of these things very well: the inevitability and the ambiguity of what will come.

– Norman Mailer’s gargantuan, Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction novel about Gary Gilmore – and figured I could put it down and move on. I knew how the story would end and had read enough of the book to appreciate Mailer as a writer. And yet, despite my skepticism of

the value of finishing books

how to ditch books

(Originally posted on

#essays #books #reading #time-management #decision-making #psychology Mentioned in how to read to learn, how to read slowly, how to narrate transparently, what I'm doing now

Starting a new book is exciting. It’s like putting on a brand new pair of shoes on a sunny morning, with no puddles in sight. Sadly, the novelty wears off. Then, there’s that uncomfortable feeling at the prospect of leaving the book unfinished. The same book that starts as an exciting little activity becomes a nagging reminder that you failed to reach a goal.

Nobody likes starting a book and failing to finish it. So much so, I suspect, that it discourages us from starting a new one, in fear of not reaching the end. After all, who signs up for a marathon that they don’t expect to finish? Even if you ran an impressive 20 miles, you wouldn’t get the exhilaration of crossing the finish line and the satisfaction of officially achieving a commendable, well-defined goal that other people recognize and admire.

But is reading a book really about reading every single page that someone put between two covers? On principle, I think people would agree reading is about getting exposed to ideas that inform and influence the way we think. Surely, then, we can be done with a book regardless of whether we read it from beginning to end. And if we’ve “finished” the book in this way, shouldn’t we walk away satisfied and guilt-free?

Break Your New Year’s Resolution

Setting a goal number of books to read can foster the habit of reading regularly, a habit we all admire and covet. However, it’s easy to get carried away with trying to make measurable progress at the expense of approaching your actual goal. If you get fixated on officially finishing a book, you might be forgetting why you wanted to read it in the first place. By ditching a book when you feel you’ve had enough of it, you’re staying true to the real reason you set that goal of reading some special number of books by Christmas time.

In Super Thinking: The Big Book of Mental Models by Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann, the authors tell a true story about a government that offered civilians bounty for killing rats in an effort to mitigate the local rat infestation. Specifically, they offered people money for each rat tail they brought in. They figured they could reliably track progress on the pest problem without having to handle the corpses. The plan backfired completely. Crafty entrepreneurs realized that they could capture a rat, cut off its tail, and then release it, so that it would live on to reproduce: more rats, more tails, more money. The pest problem worsened significantly.

But why all the gossip about rodents and dishonest bounty hunters? Well, Weinberg and McCann’s point is that metrics can be counterproductive. In the case of reading books, if you worry too much about how many books you’ve read front-to-back, you stray from your objective of learning and growing. Maybe you should change your metric or add a new one: the number of books checked out of the library, or the number of books you read for at least one hour. Anything that helps you make real progress and not counting rat tails.

Avoid the Sunk-Cost Fallacy

Books aren’t perfect. Many of them are good. Many others are just okay. Sometimes, you benefit by leaving a book unfinished and moving on to another instead of persevering through to the end, regardless of how far you’ve made it. In that case, by quitting the book, you’re overriding a psychological flaw and making a more rational choice.

The sunk-cost fallacy, as defined in Thinking, Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman is:

The decision to invest additional resources in a losing account, when better investments are available.

We fall prey to this error when we stick stubbornly with a book just because of the time we’ve already sunk into it. If this book is no longer doing it for you, move on. There are millions of other books and many of them are better than this one. If you can cut your losses and push through the unpleasantness that comes with doing so, you’ve likely made the optimal choice.

Read Other Books

If you feel guilty about not finishing a book you’re currently reading, you probably won’t start a new book. And so, if the book you’re reading loses your interest, you’ll end up losing steam and maybe reading no book at all. Unless it is important to you to finish this specific book, why not move on and keep your momentum going? By leaving a book unfinished and feeling good about it, you allow yourself to start a new book with excitement instead of guilt.

You’re Not Absorbing Much Anymore

We’ve all finished reading a paragraph only to realize that we didn’t absorb much of the information at all. It can happen when we’re having trouble focusing, but it can also happen when you’ve lost interest. That’s okay. It might be time to move on. Life is long, you can come back to this book in some weeks, months, or even years if it’s a book you think is worth reading eventually. By moving on, you are valuing results above all else.

Sacrifice Depth for Breadth

If you learn to ditch books with confidence, you’ll cover more variety of material. I think this is true not only because you start the next book sooner, but also because you avoid the reading slump you’ll inevitably hit when you’ve committed to a book that you have no interest in reading. By moving on to another book, you’re covering more ground when it isn’t worth staying put and drilling down for more.

It’s Not Worth Your Time

You might benefit a lot from a book early on, but less so in later chapters. Perhaps you’ve effectively satisfied your curiosity, or maybe the book’s value is distributed unevenly across its sections. Regardless, you’re facing diminishing returns and the book might not be worth your time anymore. By ditching the book, you’re reacting intelligently to a waning profit.


If we choose to finish a book, let’s make that choice for a good reason, and not because leaving it unfinished feels like failure. Moreover, let’s relish the opportunity to make the smart, if counterintuitive, choice of bailing on a book when it isn’t worth the time. If we overcome the mental hurdles that stop us from ditching a book even when we are justified, we’ll be free to read more widely and engage more deeply.

, a few months on I found myself drawn back in. And in my second session with the book I noticed a technique that Mailer uses throughout it.

I don’t know if the technique has a name. A good name might be transparent narrator. Its purpose is to convey a character’s point of view without quoting them or otherwise indicating that you are speaking for them.

Here’s a passage from Mailer’s book, concerning Tamera, a cub reporter who began working on Gary’s story before it became world-famous:

Tamera had gone to work at 5 A.M. and spent six hours Xeroxing Gary’s letters. She knew some of the reporters were raising their eyebrows at how she protected the stuff, but Tamera didn’t want anyone reading over her shoulder, and making the sort of cynical nonchalant comments newspaper people could make. Still, nobody seemed that excited.

In fact, at the Friday afternoon meeting, the Executive Editor said, “I don’t think we’re interested in love letters.” Just brushed it off like that.

The narrator gives us a sense of Tamera’s personality and attitude towards the situation without quoting her or breaking the third person narrative. The narrator is not pretending to be Tamera, and yet we hear her through him, most clearly in the brief sentences that punctuate both paragraphs:

Still, nobody seemed that excited.

Just brushed it off like that.

These phrases are said by the narrator in Tamera’s voice. We feel like she is telling us her part of the story over a cup of coffee.

Mailer achieves this effect by embedding many little phrases along the away. Notice the casualness of this phrase:

reporters were raising their eyebrows at how she protected the stuff

The stuff, in particular.

Notice the casualness here too:

the sort of cynical nonchalant comments newspaper people could make

Newspaper people.

These are consistent, subtle choices that change how the reader perceives the story. This technique is crucial to keeping Mailer’s 1,000+ page book fresh. If the whole thing was written from his perspective, it would be much harder to get through. Instead, he narrates transparently, allowing us to hear the story from the perspective of the many people who lived it.