On May 18, I had 20 minutes to kill in The Last Bookstore in downtown L.A., and only two rules for what I could buy: (1) it needed to be a thin book that would fit in my now-99%-full backpack for my flight to Seattle that night, and (2) it had to be fiction.
I had no cell phone reception inside the store, and I walked the aisles, scanning the shelves, trying to be open to whatever.
I picked up [TITLE REDACTED], a paperback with a red and brown cover. Never heard of the book, never heard of the author, never heard of the publisher.
One blurb on the back was written by Werner Herzog, and another blurb read simply, “This book is trash.”
I flipped to the dedication page: “For everyone with a whale.”
First page of the book: A blurry photo of a small-town street corner, with the caption, “Welcome to Texas, fucker.”
It seemed promising.
I’ve been trying to do this more and more lately, going to used bookstores and trying to buy books I’ve never heard of. I walk the aisles, perusing books that other people have already read (or at least owned and sold to the used bookstore), and it feels like I’ve unplugged from the matrix.
There are no tables with “This month’s bestsellers,” no displays of new books paid for by a publisher’s marketing dollars. But there are usually some Staff Picks — books placed on the shelves by an actual human being.
I can’t see a book’s average rating, or how many Amazon reviews it has, and I feel like I’m back in the Red Oak Public Library in 1987, an 8-year-old wandering the shelves and picking out books guided only by my innocent curiosity.
When I started writing for outdoor magazines around 2010, I wanted to write feature-length narratives of trips I’d been on, in the style of Mark Jenkins and other writers I idolized in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The magazine world was changing by the time I got there, though, and I didn’t have the adventure experience or the writing chops to crank out 4,000 words of compelling prose. So the magazines I wrote for would give me the listicle assignments: “10 Must-Do Ridge Hikes” or “10 Easy Alpine Climbs.” I did them, and I got paid, and I was proud to see my name in a few national magazines.
But I never did all those hikes, or all of those climbs. I had done one or two, maximum, in each list, and then I’d research the shit out of the rest of them.
Nobody ever tracked me down on the internet to say, “Hey, I read your piece, and Hike #9 should not be on that list—I’ve actually done it, and it’s a real piece of shit.” But they could have.
It was a strange gig, basically making recommendations to people without any actual experience to back up the recommendations. Who said the things on my list were “the best”? I mean, I did, essentially, with the blessing of the editors I worked with, and whatever cachet the magazine had.
For all I know, somebody from Alabama could have planned their entire summer vacation around a multi-day traverse I recommended in Montana—in a place I’d never even seen in person.
I know why magazines (and websites) put together those lists. People—including myself—love lists. We want to have good experiences, but we don’t have time to thoroughly research where we should go on vacation, or try a new restaurant we know nothing about, or waste our time watching a movie that hasn’t been vetted by other movie-watchers.
Or … do we?
Nowadays, we have rating systems for everything: restaurants, movies, books, vacuum cleaners, trails, rock climbing routes, home improvement contractors, hotels, podcasts, smartphone apps, and a bajillion other things. We have a less-formal rating system for scenic vistas, but in the case of Horseshoe Bend, or Delicate Arch, Roy’s Peak in New Zealand, and hundreds of other Instagram-famous viewpoints, could hundreds of thousands of visitors be wrong?
If I want a day hike with beautiful scenery, I could try someplace I’ve never heard of, or I could go to another trail that’s obviously been proven to deliver for thousands of other people, and is, therefore, “the best.” I’m only going to be in this national park for two days, so shouldn’t I make the most of my time there by trying to have the most “high-quality” experience?
In my early 20s, I ate at quite a few restaurants with my friend Jayson, who LOVED food. (He still does, but in smaller quantities, and a more limited, albeit healthy palate, as I do — which is great but maybe not as fun.) Over dozens of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners out, I realized one thing was going to happen every time we ate together: No matter what I ordered, when the food arrived and we started eating, I was going to wish I had ordered what Jayson had ordered.
Was I bad at ordering off restaurant menus? No. He was good at enjoying food.
The difference was enthusiasm. He was going to have fun no matter what, unless the cooks really fucked up his food (which did happen at least once).
When I’m in a city I don’t visit often, at a restaurant I may never eat at again, or at least not more than a handful of times, I feel a bit of choice paralysis looking at the menu, wanting to order the exact right thing. The cortisol rises as my eyes dart around the text, maybe narrowing it down to two or three things, which maybe actually makes it worse. The server will come back to our table and we have to make a decision, but what’s the right decision?
Then I remember what I learned from Jayson: enthusiasm is the right decision.
There’s a theory in psychology called the hedonic treadmill, coined in 1971 by Philip Brickman and Donald T. Campbell. It essentially says that as a human being, pretty much no matter what happens to you, or what you choose to do, you always return to a baseline level of happiness.
For example, if you think a raise at work will make you happier, it will, for a little bit, but then you’ll return to your baseline. Same thing with a new car, or a different job.
Brickman and Campbell studied two groups: People who had won lots of money playing the lottery, and people who had been in accidents and become paraplegic or quadriplegic as a result. The lottery winners, of course, experienced an initial bump in happiness, and the accident victims experienced an initial drop in happiness, but they both returned to their baselines.
The hedonic treadmill theory has its critics and criticisms, and obviously isn’t a hard and fast rule that applies to every individual human experience. But the main point, for me, is that to a certain extent, we’re responsible for our own happiness. Or, as my high school pal, Robb, who is not a psychologist, said to me the summer of 2008 as I was getting divorced and couldn’t stop wondering if it was the right thing to do or not: “One way or another, buddy, it’ll work itself out.”
Robb was right.
I write a weekly newsletter in which I share six links to interesting/inspiring things I find on the internet, along with one short video. This requires me to find one good video every week, which means I watch several videos, or at least the first couple minutes of several videos. YouTube is great, but I don’t really understand how its algorithms work. It shows me a lot of videos that are just a degree away from the stuff I’ve already watched: new videos from creators who I already subscribe to; lots of trail running and cycling stuff; everything new or old someone with the last name Neistat has made. Many weeks, it feels a bit stale.
Then, a few weeks ago, I turned on my VPN, opened a different browser on Private Mode, and went to YouTube.com to see what turned up. Result: A lot of stuff I’d never watch, some stuff I was rather appalled by, and a lot of stuff I was very intrigued by — including an eight-minute video of a food truck vendor in Seoul making Korean Street Toast, with no music in the background, just the visuals and sounds of a master at work.
I watched the whole thing from start to finish, mesmerized.
For sure, some algorithm put that video in front of me, but it was not an algorithm designed to try to figure out what I liked — as it would have been if I’d been logged into YouTube.
I’ve listened to author Dave Eggers on the Ezra Klein Show talk about “the false comfort of data determinism,” in which everything we want to experience is reduced to a number that allows us to compare it to the next thing and make a decision we believe is right because, well, science:
“I think we have a hunger that I don’t think everybody saw coming, for that comfort that comes from ‘Oh, that’s a 62, this is a 41, your credit score is a 702, your SATs are a whatever, she’s a 6 at best …’ It used to be a pretty rare occurrence to see a human being, or something created by a human, reduced to a number. But now there is nothing that is not numerically assessed. It’s like, wisdom of the crowd, if you have 10,000 ratings on whatever site, it has to have some accumulated wisdom of all of these people—they must be right.”
Eggers has a much darker view of where all this is going in the future (or has already gone), and I can see where he’s coming from. But I wonder about the little decisions we make — or have numerically-assessed help in making — on a daily or weekly basis, and how maybe we’re actually having unoriginal, or even less fun, experiences because of all the data we choose to involve.
Like maybe the freedom to just shrug and say to yourself, “Well, this might be a shitty experience, but here we go” is the essence of adventure? Even if the adventure is “Let’s try that taco truck that’s always parked by the liquor store.”
But back to the thin book I picked up at The Last Bookstore — was it any good?
I don’t like to make qualitative statements about art, but I’d say that particular book is probably not for everyone. The structure was certainly unique, and it was one of the more unhinged novels I’ve read in a while, and I’m not sure I ever really got what the author was trying to say.
But at least it felt like I was choosing to try something on my own whims, instead of having it fed to me by someone who assumed they knew what I wanted. It wasn’t my best discovery ever, but it was still my discovery.