Digital Divide No. 10: Behind the Curtain

Last week I asked for some feedback on potential topics for the Digital Divide Newsletter, and a few of you asked me to go “behind the veil” and talk a bit about how I work, my review process, and, perhaps most interesting of all, my workspace. 

My office/study is a point of pride. Up until we moved into our most recent house, we never had enough space for me to have a “real office.” In every other place we'd previously lived, I’d always found myself hunched over a small writing desk tucked into the corner of a bedroom somewhere, and for a while that was good enough. But as I moved along in my career, and found myself working from home more and more, and then when I started my little online adventure into blogging and "newslettering," I needed something more. Not necessarily a lot of space, but *a space* that was mine, that was set somewhat apart from the main living area of the house, and that was relatively quiet. Tired of having an unusable guest room littered with legal briefs and law books, not to mention a gazillion bottles of fountain pen ink, pencils, and half-finished pen reviews, my wife couldn’t have been happier to to add “spare room over the garage” to the new-house shopping list. 

So that’s where I am now, as I write this. Sitting in a room above my garage in a 70’s-style overstuffed leather chair with my feet propped up on a $9.99 Target ottoman, surrounded by cobbled-together hand-me-down furniture and bookshelves crammed to the gills with secondhand books, vinyl records, and, yes, pens and a gazillion Field Notes and bottles of fountain pen ink. Not exactly the minimalist zen-inspired paradise you see on Pinterest.

There are a lot of internet pundits and commentators out there looking to tell you what your ideal workspace *should* be, and for some reason this always seems to be a near-empty room with a white desk with a Mac sitting on it (or, if you’re going the uber-minimalist route, an iPad that can simultaneously replace both your computer and your books). The common line seems to be that in order to "focus," you need to remove "things that could visually distract you" from your work area, which of course requires removing any and all analog things like books, pens, paper, etc. That’s not me, and despite going through periods where I for some reason felt intense pressure to conform to that tech and gadget-driven ideal of minimalism, I’ve made peace with the idea that it's just not going to happen, and it probably shouldn't given my personality and interests. 

I’m currently reading David Sax’s book The Revenge of Analog, and one of the points he argues is that “analog” things such as paper books, vinyl records, film cameras, and notebooks are experiencing a resurgence because they offer a tactile, sensory, and emotional experience that digital lacks. I agree with this - I react in a viscerally different way to sitting down and trying to work in my "modern" office downtown (which leans more towards the "computer + desk in empty room" end of the spectrum), than I do to working in my home study, surrounded by my physical notes and curated collection of reference books. True, part of this is likely just the comfort of being at home, but what makes home comfortable? What you choose to surround yourself with. And it's not just limited to home. For example, if I were to work remotely outside the house, I'm much more relaxed and productive in a public library than I would be in a sleek, "modern" co-working space or a coffee shop. To me, books give off a completely different vibe than computers. Sure, I might wander the stacks periodically to take a break and collect my thoughts, but I don't think of this potential for "distraction" as necessarily a bad thing. (Plus, regardless of how "minimal" my work environment may be, all I need to distract myself is a phone or a computer.)  

That's not to say that you shouldn't make some effort to curate your workspace with an eye to the essential, and if the empty-room thing helps you focus, then by all means do what works for you. But if analog things make you happy, then embrace what I call the "comfortable clutter." So far, I’ve been pretty good about not falling into the classic trap of “if you have the space, you necessarily will fill it with junk you don’t need.” For my office, I’ve tried to fill it with things that make me happy and don’t simply take up space: books, records, and pens. These are all things that I use regularly, though I usually do a once-a-year purge in which I sell, gift, or donate unused items, which typically keeps any hoarder tendencies in check. 

Further Reading

  1. The Oppressive Gospel of Minimalism (via NYTimes Magazine). 
  2. Marie Kondo and the Privilege of Clutter (via The Atlantic). I've not read the Kondo book because, honestly, I don't feel "oppressed" by items I own, much of which she would likely consider "clutter." 
  3. This Column Will Change Your Life: The 'Cult of Less' (via The Guardian). Maybe it's more about being happy with what you've got and what you're comfortable with then constantly striving to "optimize" your setup? 
  4. Stunning Home Libraries That Are a Book Lover's Dream (via Architectural Digest). We can all dream, can't we?
  5. McNally Jackson Goods For the Study. If you're ever in New York City, check out this store, which features a well-curated collection of office/library/study goods. I've never actually purchased anything from here, since it's extremely expensive, but it's a lot of fun to look.
  6. The Library, Studies, and Writing Rooms of 15 Famous Men (via Art of Manliness). Though we may differ a bit politically, my office can tend to get a bit towards the Buckley end of the spectrum from time to time.  
  7. How to Build a Personal Library (via David Alves).