Money, Acting, and Buffets

How to find books to read. Having a job you hate

There’s a sentence in an article of mine that gets highlighted more than any other. It’s from an article I wrote a few months ago about Amazon, and although I don’t find this sentence particularly remarkable, every few days a message pops into my inbox from Medium telling me someone else has highlighted it.

“I get this sinking feeling,” it says, “because finding things on Amazon, when you don’t know the exact product you want, is hard. I struggle to get a sense of which items are good, which are overpriced, and which are drop-shipped from AliExpress to fund someone’s Tim Ferris-esque four-day workweek.”

At first, I thought people were highlighting it out of recognition. Yes, they were thinking, I, too, experience this on Amazon. But now, I’m starting to wonder. The highlights focus on that one phrase: drop-shipped from Ali Express to fund a Tim Ferris=esque four-day workweek. Could it be that people are highlighting this not because it chimes with their experience, but because they like the sound of drop-shipping crap and want in on that? Could it be they’re highlighting it, not because they think it’s a problem, but as a reminder to start doing it too?

I don’t know. It’s impossible to say. You don’t get to interview everyone who reads what you write to find out what they got from it and check they understood it. This is a relief to me as a reader, but a disappointment to me as a writer.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways people earn a living. From Tim Ferris’s stories of people who make money from selling berets to Americans. To the people who make a lifetime’s money by buying Gamestop shares (and of course, those who lose it all). I have my own, modest, version of this: a bot I wrote a few years ago to buy and sell Bitcoin. When I started messing around with it, it wasn’t about the money, it was about fiddling with new technology and APIs. As far as side hustles go, it was more at the stamp collecting end of things than Uber-driving. But after a while, as the numbers went up, it started to become about the money. I worried I’d lose what BitBot had made (as I have done, several times now).

How strange, that making thousands of pounds brings stress and worry, whereas making only pennies brings unalloyed delight.

There’s a story a friend told me ages ago. Coming back from France on Eurostar he was upgraded to first-class due to an administrative mix-up, and seated next to someone who turned out to be the eighth richest man in Europe. The man was, he told my friend, extremely hungry, but when the snack trolley came past with a sigh he let it go on. “If I have a snack now,” he said sadly, “I won’t want to eat when I get back. My chef has stayed late especially to cook me a meal, and he’ll be annoyed if I don’t eat it.” His wealth was more burden than joy. My friend chomped his bag of nuts.

None of this is to say that poverty is better than wealth. It is always nicer to have enough money than not enough. And yet money finds to pollute happiness.

On Medium, I have an article in Debugger about my bitcoin bot, and a piece about the overlap between writing and coding. A new month also brings an episode of Bad Reads, the podcast I host with Icon Books Commissioning Editor, Kiera Jamison. This month we talk about the joy and struggles of finding books to read. It occurs to me, after recording this, that a lot of reading is actually hunting for books. But perhaps this is true for all hobbies. You have to like not just the hobby itself, but all the adjacent activities: reading reviews, going to bookshops, browsing bookshelves at friends’ houses, and in the background of Zoom calls. Can you really like reading if you don’t like the smell of books?


I recently read The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. It’s a beautiful collection of essays. Many of the essays have unusual creative structures that become part of the essay themselves. One tells the story of a time she was assaulted, structured around the storytelling beats from Vladimir Propp’s catalog of folklore morphology. In the titular essay (originally published in The Believer, and available to read there), she describes her time as a medical actor, employed to pretend to have conditions for student doctors to practice diagnosing.

Medical acting works like this: You get a script and a paper gown. You get $13.50 an hour. Our scripts are ten to twelve pages long. They outline what’s wrong with us—not just what hurts but how to express it. They tell us how much to give away, and when. We are supposed to unfurl the answers according to specific protocol. The scripts dig deep into our fictive lives: the ages of our children and the diseases of our parents, the names of our husbands’ real estate and graphic design firms, the amount of weight we’ve lost in the past year, the amount of alcohol we drink each week.

This is a career I didn’t know existed. It sounds like something someone in a Wes Anderson movie would do. Jamison’s whole collection is fascinating not just because of the unusual situations she writes about, but the compelling and creative way she describes them.

By Joel Golby In the Guardian, a fun piece about Buffets:

My theory with breakfast buffets, more than any other buffet at any other time, is that they reveal the deepest and darkest crevices of you, your true and real nature. Take my usual breakfast buffet order, for example. I linger near the fruit salads, the platters of melon, the pile of ice studded with single-serve yogurts, and maybe take a small bowl of granola with arctic milk (I do not eat porridge from breakfast buffets, because porridge from breakfast buffets has the consistency and, I imagine, flavour, of the limp and grey snot of the medically dying). I’ll sit and eat this healthy meal with a thimble-sized glass of juice. After a beat, I’ll get up and just eat an entire fry-up. And a small plate of four miniature croissants. Then, often as a sort of pudding course, just some continental-style slices of ham and cheese, arranged plainly on a plate. Some compulsion will drive my body to do two things: drink four or five cups of coffee, Just Because It’s There; and, also, steal a small napkin of snacks to “enjoy later”.

As the kids say: I feel seen.

It’s a journey, not just through funny descriptions of buffets, but coronavirus and funerals as well. The whole piece is charged with wit and insight.

In Human Parts, a piece by Gabrielle Moss about her time working at a magazine that “catered to 23-year-old women who are sexually active but also still care about Disney princesses.”

I thought the attention and the good girls and the being normal would clean me, fix me, launder my soul. I thought the cheese plates, or the regional public radio appearances, or the emails saying that something I wrote was “brave,” would fix something, anything. If having a bad job had made me a loser, then having a great job had to make me something else. I know, I know. It was like I had never watched a single movie about media in my entire life!

In particular, she writes well about the “blandening” of sentiment that advertising and mass readership creates:

You have to qualify everything, so in the end, it all just means nothing. That’s why I spent three years defanging my every thought and couching every opinion in a million qualifiers — so that we don’t have to deal with an angry letter-writing campaign.

The piece is extremely funny, but it makes a deeper point too about jobs and media.

Until next time,