Writing about all that interests me. Culture, business, technology and stationery. Yeah, me neither. Want me to write blog posts for you? Check me out here: https://www.fiverr.com/fergusmckeown
News editor for Mogul News during the day.
Pens, especially fountain pens, mean so much more than their function. Take the Shaeffer 300 for example. Or, more precisely, my Shaeffer 300. I could give you a product breakdown, my trying-to-be-objective thoughts but then that wouldn’t really be telling you about it.
This pen is my oldest one. My parents gave it to me when I finished school. It was the pen I used when I first discovered the joy of writing with fountain pens. I could tell you that compared to some of the others I have got in the meantime, the Lamys, the Pilots, the Kawecos, it is a solid but unspectacular writer. It has a smoothness to it which is only interrupted by a tiny scratchiness which actually works to give you some nice feedback. The stiff nib doesn’t give much – there is little variation in line width.
There are definitely some drawbacks to it though. The body is made out of smooth resin broken up by chrome finishings. It is a classic cigar shape, cut at both ends as if you were to smoke it. The grip tapers toward the nib but is smooth. It can be uncomfortable to grip it for a long time as you do have to pinch it. It is top heavy when posted, though the cap does some nice give to the clip. It feels like it was designed to actually sit in a pocket.
But it looks grown-up. I got it when I thought I was a grown-up, though I had a lot of growing up to do. Over the years I have had – now over a decade – I have changed and developed. I developed a love for stationery in general and fountain pens in particular. Coming into my own I found out it wasn’t the best pen you could buy. Even for the £38.50 (at the time of writing) you can get it on Amazon for right now it is beaten handily by a Pilot Metropolitan for looks and action. Even now I find myself reaching for a TWBSI Eco or Kaweco Sport.
But the love for fountain pens isn’t rational. I will write a piece about why fountain pens are great writing tools but I didn’t get into them because they were the best writers. A bic, at the end of the day, records the same thing on the same paper. The cristal doesn’t need to be cleaned, it can be easily carried on a plane. You don’t mess up your hands every time it runs out of it. But a bic is ugly, it is just a pen.
A fountain pen can be so much more. It lasts. From graduation to going to university, getting your first job and moving countries. I would not have carried the same bic with me as I did my Shaeffer.
Fountain pens are a connection to the past. In how they enhance beautiful handwritten notes in the age of typing and the word processor. In how they last and stay with you. In how they change and remain the same.
Having a passion for fountain pens isn’t rational. It is not cheap. It is not neat. But the joy you get from using beautiful tools can not be replicated. Rationality is overrated.
So, I give my Shaeffer 300 a 5/5 and would recommend you look at a different pen before you pick one up.
The great books are those ones that we must read. They form the foundation of your appreciation of what great literature is. In the Western world, we have inherited centuries, millennia even, of literature. Some of this makes the cut. Some of this outlasts fads and fashions. It transcends the boundaries of time. This is the Western canon. All that’s good, and great, and true.
An educated person must tick several boxes. One of these, the most important, is to have read the great books.
Shakespeare, Kafka, Eliot, Woolf, Milton, Joyce all find themselves on this list of worthy literature. I’ve read some of them — but not all.
Does that disqualify me from talking about literature? Does that stop me from being able to enjoy the books I do read?
There is a problem with the canon. It is unwieldy. Collections of the traditional canon, for this I’m using the Great Books of the Western World as a guide, run to dozens of volumes (there are others out there, such as Harold Bloom’s list). Hundreds of books and plays. Once we learn to read, to really read, this pile is dumped in our laps. It comes with a sign: read this or else.
Collections of the canon cost around £1,000 on Amazon. It is expensive, intimidating, and even though it stretches to what must hundreds of thousands of pages, it includes both too much and not enough.
The idea of a canon emerged in the Western world. That original canon was not one we would recognise today. Medieval students studied the ancient masters. Cicero, Aristotle, Euclid, Sophocles and Thucydides made up their education. The contemporary and vernacular was at best second rate if not dismissed entirely.
That began to change in England in the late 17th century. It was the beginning of English global power and the emergence of the idea of the nation-state. That idea spawned another.
National culture and cultural identity were becoming increasingly noticeable. The educated middle class was emerging and growing, though without as much Latin or Greek as previous generations. They wanted to read something worthy and English.
Great essayists, the forerunners of blogs, were making their mark. The most famous of these was Richard Steele, who wrote and published The Spectatorand The Tatler. In The Spectator, Steele compared Milton’s Paradise Lost to the ancient epics.
While he found some faults in the poem, he ranked it on the same level as Homer and Virgil. For a culture that had before appreciated only the venerable, the literature that had emerged from the enormous gap of time with its reputation still intact, to praise the (relatively) modern was a break. The fact that it was a Christian poem, as opposed to the paganism of the past, no doubt helped elevate it to forming the first part of the nascent English canon. Shakespeare, of course, was also added to this small list. The ancients still reigned but there was now the possibility of new entrants.
The canon grew over the centuries. More books were added. Names such as Pope, Swift, Sterne and Fielding joined the ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as a growing number of English speakers. Years past and the canon grew. It stretched beyond the British Isles to take in French, America, Russian and German writers.
Still, they all had something in common. They were all white men. In the more inclusive culture after the Second World War, that began to change. Slowly there were rebels, dissenting voices that said more voices should be added. Woolf, Murdoch, Walcott, McCullers, Baldwin, Naipaul, Tagore, Marquez got the recognition their writing deserved.
After reading some of these masters, their voice and experience add new ways of understanding, thinking about and appreciating the whole breadth of human life. The canon is now more representative of the world we live in. That is a good thing. But it stretches and strains to try and cover every aspect of life. It has attempted to become an exhaustive list, rather than a core.
The list is huge. No one can read all of it. No one can take in all of it (except for Harold Bloom). It has become a checklist, one that can never be completed, and that size means it is failing to do its job.
The Irish poet W. B. Yeats is definitely part of the canon. But it wasn’t until I had read some of his poems, most notably The Second Coming and Sailing to Byzantium, that I understood the influence he had. And what having a canon does for a culture.
I could see homages, little quotes, built into the titles and body of other works. Joan Didion’s collection of essays Slouching toward Bethlehem¸ steals its title from The Second Coming. Knowing that coloured my whole reading of that book.
Having a canon allows those books in it to act as the body language of literature. Not enough to be noticed all the time, but noticeable by its absence.
Slouching toward Bethlehem as a title told me enough to understand what Didion was trying to do with her work. It served as a three-word introduction to the collection. It was neat and elegant. It served its purpose perfectly.
The canon represents the critical and influential books of society. It provides the cultural foundation on which others can build. A canon is necessary, even just for university reading lists. Exploring the great works of the past allows people to build on it, enhances their reading of contemporary work, and allows people to talk with one another with a common understanding. A canon is needed.
The canon we have inherited is bloated. It tries to represent all our current culture rather than the main texts. To take even the field of literature and poetry, leaving alone film, music, and nonfiction, the time needed to get caught up, to even arrive at the conversation, is too much.
There are two ways of building a canon. You can make a reading list out of books that can’t, under any circumstances, be left out or you can create one based on what could be included, what is worthy to sit beside the other titles. We have been building our canon using the second definition. We should keep that. These are the masterpieces. But we should also make one using the first.
I don’t have the background to put that together. No one person does. It involves a conversation. Nor do I want it to be a project that returns the canon to its old unrepresentative roots. If nothing else, it wouldn’t be doing its job of allowing us to have a conversation.
A lot of discourse today revolves around oppression and exploitation. To talk about these things properly, we need Baldwin and Morrison. We need Rushdie and Naipaul.
The first book, though, will have to be the Bible. Even in an increasingly secular world, the Bible has informed so much of the cultural output of the past, of the language we use and how we think about morality. It is a given.
Selected works of Shakespeare are added to the list too. Not all of him, I don’t think reading Cymbeline adds much, but the significant plays. Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, should be enough to get people familiar with much of Shakespeare’s influence on our world.
Yeats, of course, would be part of it too. He allowed me to hear what Joan Didion was saying. Those three little words carried with the weight of allusion and influence. They spoke to me and made me listen with a true ear. That is the power of the canon.
Now it must regain that power. We must look at the canon we have constructed and see it is no longer fit for purpose. We must reduce it to something an inspired reader can get through. We must allow it to regain the power that it once had.
Thanks for reading, I’d love to hear what you think are the books that people have to read are, as well as if you disagree with any of my limited choices.
WeWork’s recently released IPO prospectus should have sent investors running. The office and hot desk rental company, after SoftBank pulled out of a $16bn investment, is looking to raise up to $3bn from the public market. It won’t be getting a dollar from me.
WeWork’s business model is simple. It leases property from landlords, does them up, and sells spaces to self-employed workers, start-ups and larger enterprises. It typically leases a location for 15 years and sells desk space on a monthly basis. It thinks that it should be worth $47bn.
It is, instead, likely to join the other big unicorns who launched their IPOs this year in stumbling to a much lower valuation. Think of Uber and Lyft.
Why won’t WeWorks model work?
They take on long-term obligations and only require short commitments from their members. They have $47bn in lease obligations, and that figure will only grow as they open more locations. They pump loads of money into their sites, making them fit for a hip, millennial freelancer or start-up. That’s where a lot of their losses come from, but that high up-front cost must be recouped over more than a decade. It would be risky in a stable, growing economy. Right now, we’re headed into the first recession for over a decade.
Will the coming recession hit WeWork hard?
The UK and Germany both announced that their economies were shrinking last week. The stock market took a considerable hit from the news. All around the globe, people are expecting a recession sooner rather than later. Trade wars, Brexit, and a mature business cycle all contribute to that feeling. Yield curves have inverted. Such an inversion has preceded every recession for the past fifty years. Only once have yields inverted without a recession happening.
The S&P 500 peaks within 3 to 22 months of a yield curve inversion. We could have two years before a downturn hits, but it may happen a lot quicker than that.
What is a yield curve inversion?
Government’s sell bonds to finance their running costs. These are very secure, not many countries default on their debt. But things are always more secure in the short term when we know more of the risks an economy might run into. This means that usually long-term bonds give better returns than short term ones as there is more risk involved. When a yield curve inverts, markets believe that short term risks are greater than the long-term ones and want to protect their money. In other words, bad times are coming sooner rather than later.
Recessions are bad for all parts of the economy, so why should you be more concerned about the effect one will have on WeWork in particular?
WeWork’s customers are mostly small teams, freelancers and the self-employed. Renting a hot desk in a WeWork location in London costs around £600 per month. When a recession hits, it hits those small businesses and freelancers hardest. An easy cost to cut is that hot desk. Someone is £600 richer and can just work from the kitchen table. Not as lovely as the kombucha, microbrew offerings of a WeWork, but you’ve got to save money. And it is a natural expense to get rid of. These memberships are done on a monthly rolling basis.
WeWork recognises this problem and has been trying to attract more enterprise customers. In their IPO prospectus, however, they have redefined what enterprise customers are, from businesses with 1,000 employees down to those with 500. Even then, they only make up 29% of WeWork’s business.
When the next recession hits, there will be a lot of space in WeWork locations.
Is WeWork overvalued?
The company’s sky-high valuation, around twenty-six times revenue, is based on its reputation. It brands itself as a tech company, in the same field as Facebook, Google or Amazon. ‘Technology’ is mentioned 93 times in their prospectus. But it isn’t a tech company. It rents office space. It might rent the most beautiful office space on the market, but it is still renting office space.
The brand of WeWork is doing a lot of heavy lifting. It calls customers ‘members’, its mission is to ‘elevate the world’s consciousness’, and it opens its IPO prospectus with the lofty declaration that ‘[w]e dedicate this to the energy of we — greater than any one of us but inside each of us’. That is a whole lot of bullshit. It rents office space.
IWG, which rents office space out, has revenues of over $3.25bn, much more than WeWork’s. Yet it is only valued less than $5bn. It doesn’t have the explosive growth of WeWork, but that growth is risky in risky economic circumstances.
Are there any signs of optimism?
In 2018 WeWork brought in $1.54bn. That’s nearly double the $764m it did in 2017. That’s stupendous growth and would auger well for a lot of companies. The losses, though, are on a similar trajectory. In 2017 it lost $900m, in 2018 that was $1.9bn. It costs WeWork $2 to make $1.
That could change in the future. High up-front costs recouped over decades unless a recession hits, can be sustainable. But even WeWork doesn’t think this is likely:
“We have a history of losses and, especially if we continue to grow at an accelerated rate, we may be unable to achieve profitability at a company level… for the foreseeable future.”
Adam Neuman, CEO and founder of WeWork, doesn’t even believe in the company. He has sold $700m of his stock already, and the prospectus even says ‘there can be no assurance that Adam will continue to work for us or serve our interests in any capacity’.
WeWork is a lousy bet. Its fundamentals are lacking, it’s facing a tight market, and it will be found out. Can a successful business be built of its model? Yes, but IWG has already done it. It’s not sexy or hip. But it works. The problem is that it has a value less than a tenth of WeWork’s.
When WeWork IPOs, it will be the early investors and backers who make money. The rest of us will soon be held WeWork shares that are plunging in value. Its backers have pumped the company up; now they’re ready to dump the stock before it falls.
A new section misses the magic of exploring a bookshop
There is something magical about walking to a bookshop with no idea what you will walk out with. This whole vista of knowledge is open to you. The sum of learning. Coming across something you had no idea you wanted to learn about and then holding and having the keys to a new kingdom in your hands. More magical still is coming across a completely new field, new topic, new section.
In a Waterstones recently I became aware of a new section. Not history, not science, not linguistics, not anything like that. I could instead become a neophyte of ‘Smart Thinking’. This ‘new’ genre of popular non-fiction was populated by books with titles that read like your university friend’s drunken idea for a really great book. All constructed in the same way. Pithy title; explanatory and long-winded subtitle. The Path: A New Way to Think About Everything, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking or The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.
They draw you in.
The label ‘Smart Thinking’ turns me off. It takes this wondrous experience of being able to forge your own path through the garden of human learning and thought into something which is just there to be consumed. Not enjoyed or personally cherished. Instead, it makes the individual and private act of passionate learning into a performative act. Here are the books you need to read to be an interesting dinner party guest. The world is broken down into its tiny, irreducible parts and interpreted in a way that means that only economics (Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything), or anything else, can truly explain the world. It puts forth no argument, it tolerates no compromise. It reduces these books, all great individually I know, into an exercise in branding. I loathe it because it works so well on me.
The individual quality of these books is ignored. It simplifies our messy world into a neat and easy collection. It is the TED talk ethos repurposed for marketing. ‘Smart Thinking’ is positioning. It positions certain books so obviously as being the only section you need bother to spend your time exploring. It robs you, me at least, of that magical feeling of exploration. It reduces your scope for serendipitous discovery. Fiction isn’t broken down into the ‘Happy Endings’ or the ‘Worthwhile Literature’ section. Yes, you do have tables with recent prize winners or shortlistees laid out. But is this the same as attaching a big sticker to the books saying ‘This is the one you need to read’ or that this is the book you need to post about on Instagram. Sip a trendy coffee in a sun-drenched, filtered café and watch as the likes and comments flood in.
Buy me for no other reason but to be seen to buy me.
Our lives were always a conversation between our private selves and our public personas. Neither was the genuine article. There was a handsome balance between the two. As we construct and constantly reinterpret our identities, private reflection always gave us a chance to monitor and evaluate how we presented ourselves. But the private and the public have nearly and neatly collapsed into one another. Smart Thinking drives us toward a purpose beyond just enjoying the nerdy aspects of our private selves. It forces us to justify those aspects to a wider audience. We lose the ability to discover for ourselves. Our purchases and passions are instead for an audience.
Smart Thinking is not a genre. It’s not a topic. It is not a guide toward discovery but a simple signpost beckoning you to the already accepted — a clarion imploring to join the zeitgeist. The books in the Smart Thinking section have their place. But Smart Thinking is not that place. I have read, enjoyed and found great value in many of them. They don’t belong together. They belong in the hinterlands. Under the History, the Science, the Politics banners. They are only positioned together as a short cut to an acceptable, Instagramable moment where you prove your credentials for a crowd that really doesn’t care. It takes the private joy of reading and turns into a public performance. One that needs as its justification the acceptance of the audience.
The joy of learning is discovering the unexpected. It is the sudden flash of understanding. The first spark starts with the realisation something is missing from your understanding of the world. It grips you suddenly as a learning lust. A title, a spine, a hint of a world beyond your current understanding all spark it. To walk into a place where that can all happen but then be confronted with the ‘Smart Thinking’ books section softens that feeling. Smart Thinking strikes me as a way out of indulging your foibles and fancies. It reduces the spontaneous urge to a corporately compiled list of titles emailed out every first Thursday of the month.
I still buy books from the Smart Thinking section. I tell myself that it is not because of the marketing bullshit, but what do I know? I don’t like Smart Thinking. I don’t like it because it works so well on me.
Writer’s Desk is here for everything you could ever want to know about the world of writing and editing, and using the most beautiful stationery.
From the realm of paper and the best cheap fountain pens (and I’ve got a few of those) to the most insightful writing and style guides you will get a jump start on things I’ve had to spend years gathering myself.
We’ll go beyond Strunk and White and a half chewed Bic.
And it’s not just longhand stuff here. I do actually use a computer for a lot of writing and editing. The best word processors, the most useful desktop publishing programs and where to publish your work will get their time in the lime light.
So, ink your pen, smooth down the page – we’ve got a lot to get through.