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The Magic of Books, The Danger of Inner Rings, & The Power of Filing Systems

Resource: The Magic of the Book: Hermann Hesse on Why We Read and Always Will
Description: Reflections from a Herman Hesse Essay on the magic of books


Although reading strikes us as an ordinary skill, it’s a gift that offers us extraordinary power.

The act of reading is a spiritual act and it connects us to God.

Books will always exists, irrespective of the development of new forms of media, because reading and writing are processes that transcend time. The written work is not only holy and sacred, but it’s essential to our sense of history.

Books demonstrate their eternality by virtue of their ability to be forgotten for longs periods of time only to emerge during entirely different and distant periods.

The world doesn’t need more new books as much as it needs more readers who will appreciate and share the plethora of literary treasures already in existence.


“Among the many worlds that man did not receive as a gift from nature but created out of his own mind, the world of books is the greatest… Without the word, without the writing of books, there is no history, there is no concept of humanity. And if anyone wants to try to enclose in a small space, in a single house or a single room, the history of the human spirit and to make it his own, he can only do this in the form of a collection of books.” -Herman Hesse

“The question of what books do and what they are for is, of course, and abiding one. For Kafka, books were “the axe for the frozen sea within us”; for Carl Sagan, “proof that humans are capable of working magic”; for James Baldwin, a way to change our destiny; for Neil Gaiman, the vehicle for the deepest human truths; for Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska, our ultimate frontier of freedom.” – Maria Popova

“With all peoples the word and writing are holy and magical; naming and writing were originally magical operations, magical conquests of nature through the spirit, and everywhere the gift of writing was thought to be of divine origin. With most peoples, writing and reading were secret and holy arts reserved for the priesthood alone.” -Herman Hesse

“We need not fear a future elimination of the book. On the contrary, the more that certain needs for entertainment and education are satisfied through other inventions, the more the book will win back in dignity and authority. For even the most childish intoxication with progress will soon be forced to recognize that writing and books have a function that is eternal. It will become evident that formulation in words and the handing on of these formulations through writing are not only important aids but actually the only means by which humanity can have a history and a continuing consciousness of itself.” -Herman Hesse

“The laws of the spirit change just as little as those of nature and it is equally impossible to “discard” them. Priesthoods and astrologers’ guilds can be dissolved or deprived of their privileges. Discoveries or poetic inventions that formerly were secret possessions of the few can be made accessible to the many, who can even be forced to learn about these treasures. But all this goes on at the most superficial level and in reality nothing in the world of the spirit has changed since Luther translated the Bible and Gutenberg invented the printing press. The whole magic is still there, and the spirit is still the secret of a small hierarchically organized band of privileged persons, only now the band has become anonymous.” -Herman Hesse

“If today the ability to read is everyone’s portion, still only a few notice what a powerful talisman has thus been put into their hands. The child proud of his youthful knowledge of the alphabet first achieves for himself the reading of a verse or a saying, then the reading of a first little story, a fairy tale, and while those who have not been called seem to apply their reading ability to news reports or to the business sections of their newspapers, there are a few who remain constantly bewitched by the strange miracle of letters and words (which once, to be sure, were an enchantment and magic formula to everyone). From these few come the readers. They discover as children the few poems and stories … and instead of turning their backs on these things after acquiring the ability to read they press forward into the realm of books and discover step by step how vast, how various and blessed this world is!” -Herman Hesse

“Every true reader could, even if not one new book were published, spend decades and centuries studying on, fighting on, continuing to rejoice in the treasure of those already at hand.” -Herman Hesse

“The great and mysterious thing about this reading experience is this: the more discriminatingly, the more sensitively, and the more associatively we learn to read, the more clearly we see every thought and every poem in its uniqueness, its individuality, in its precise limitations and see that all beauty, all charm depend on this individuality and uniqueness — at the same time we come to realize ever more clearly how all these hundred thousand voices of nations strive toward the same goals, call upon the same gods by different names, dream the same wishes, suffer the same sorrows. Out of the thousandfold fabric of countless languages and books of several thousand years, in ecstatic instants there stares at the reader a marvelously noble and transcendent chimera: the countenance of humanity, charmed into unity from a thousand contradictory features.” -Herman Hesse

Resource: “The Inner Ring” by C.S. Lewis
Description: A lecture to college students by C.S. Lewis on the dangers of trying to become part of the “in-group.”


In any organization or order, there are two distinct kinds of systems or hierarchies: The exoteric one where the protocols and positions are clearly and consistently defined, recognized, and enforced (ie. A sergeant always outranks a soldier, a restaurant manager has greater authority than a recently hired cook, etc) and the esoteric one where the rules and roles are determined by unwritten, informal, and intangible factors (ie A common church parishioner who is great friends with the pastor may have greater influence or protection than an ordained clergyman.) This latter system or hierarchy is what Lewis refers to as “The Inner Ring.”

The existence of inner rings is inescapable. While some degree of effort and manipulation might be involved in determining who gets to be an insider, the formation or emergence of inner rings are the inevitable outcome of a basic fact about human interaction: alliances, allegiances, and affinities will always come into existence in ways that can’t be captured, contained, or constrained by the existing system.

The mere existence of inner rings is value-neutral. They exist and this is neither good or evil. The desire to become part of an inner ring, however, is not only a desire that can never truly be satisfied, but it is one of the main desires that makes people do bad things. You can’t try to get inside of an inner ring without becoming a scoundrel in the process. Obsession with inner rings always lead to a compromise of character.

Pursuing membership in an inner ring in no guarantee of success. Many people are transformed into lifelong servants through this preoccupation.

When you are young and first enter the professional world, it seems to be full of inner rings and the allure of being part of an esoteric order is compelling. If you don’t make a conscious effort to resist this urge, it will compromise you.

Most human behavior is driven by a lust for the inner ring. This can be stated conversely by saying most human behavior is driven by a fear of being an outsider. If you don’t conquer your fear of being an outsider, you’ll aways be an outsider (even if you gain admittance into someone’s inner ring).

The invitation to become a sellout, what Lewis calls an “inner ringer”, doesn’t come in an obvious way. It beckons you in the trivial moments and thus one must be vigilant in guarding against it.

Desire what your heart finds desirable for it’s own sake, not for the sake of being part of an exclusive or elite group.

Don’t mistake prestigious groups for inner rings. Some inner rings are defined by their prestige, but there are also non-glamorous inner rings. Many people fall prey to the trap of inner rings that are defined by a self-righteous contempt for prestige. it’s still an inner ring.

When you focus on the work itself — the joy, the challenges of mastery, and the opportunities for self-actualization it brings — you become part of a different kind of inner ring. But this inner ring is defined by exclusivity and elitism. It’s defined by the spontaneous order of the unites those who exercised the courage to be individuals.


“I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.”

“In the passage I have just read from Tolstoi, the young second lieutenant Boris Dubretskoi discovers that there exist in the army two different systems or hierarchies. The one is printed in some little red book and anyone can easily read it up. It also remains constant. A general is always superior to a colonel and a colonel to a captain. The other is not printed anywhere. Nor is it even a formally organized secret society with officers and rules which you would be told after you had been admitted. You are never formally and explicitly admitted by anyone. You discover gradually, in almost indefinable ways, that it exists and that you are outside it; and then later, perhaps, that you are inside it. There are what correspond to passwords, but they too are spontaneous and informal. A particular slang, the use of particular nicknames, an allusive manner of conversation, are the marks. But it is not constant. It is not easy, even at a given moment, to say who is inside and who is outside. Some people are obviously in and some are obviously out, but there are always several on the border-line. And if you come back to the same Divisional Headquarters, or Brigade Headquarters, or the same regiment or even the same company, after six weeks’ absence, you may find this second hierarchy quite altered. There are no formal admissions or expulsions.”

“I must now make a distinction. I am not going to say that the existence of Inner Rings is an evil. It is certainly unavoidable. There must be confidential discussions: and it is not only not a bad thing, it is (in itself) a good thing, that personal friendship should grow up between those who work together. And it is perhaps impossible that the official hierarchy of any organization should quite coincide with its actual workings. If the wisest and most energetic people invariably held the highest posts, it might coincide; since they often do not, there must be people in high positions who are really deadweights and people in lower positions who are more important than their rank and seniority would lead you to suppose. In that way the second, unwritten system is bound to grow up. It is necessary; and perhaps it is not a necessary evil. But the desire which draws us into Inner Rings is another matter. A thing may be morally neutral and yet the desire for that thing may be dangerous. As Byron has said: “Sweet is a legacy, and passing sweet. The unexpected death of some old lady. ” The painless death of a pious relative at an advanced age is not an evil. But an earnest desire for her death on the part of her heirs is not reckoned a proper feeling, and the law frowns on even the gentlest attempt to expedite her departure. Let Inner Rings be an unavoidable and even an innocent feature of life, though certainly not a beautiful one: but what of our longing to enter them, our anguish when we are excluded, and the kind of pleasure we feel when we get in?”

“I have no right to make assumptions about the degree to which any of you may already be compromised. I must not assume that you have ever first neglected, and finally shaken off, friends whom you really loved and who might have lasted you a lifetime, in order to court the friendship of those who appeared to you more important, more esoteric. I must not ask whether you have ever derived actual pleasure from the loneliness and humiliation of the outsiders after you yourself were in: whether you have talked to fellow members of the Ring in the presence of outsiders simply in order that the outsiders might envy; whether the means whereby, in your days of probation, you propitiated the Inner Ring, were always wholly admirable. I will ask only one question-and it is, of course, a rhetorical question which expects no answer. In the whole of your life as you now remember it, has the desire to be on the right side of that invisible line ever prompted you to any act or word on which, in the cold small hours of a wakeful night, you can look back with satisfaction? If so, your case is more fortunate than most.”

“My main purpose in this address is simply to convince you that this desire is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action. It is one of the factors which go to make up the world as we know it-this whole pell-mell of struggle, competition, confusion, graft, disappointment, and advertisement, and if it is one of the permanent mainsprings then you may be quite sure of this. Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care. That will be the natural thing-the life that will come to you of its own accord. Any other kind of life, if you lead it, will be the result of conscious and continuous effort. If you do nothing about it, if you drift with the stream, you will in fact be an “inner ringer.” I don’t say you’ll be a successful one; that’s as may be. But whether by pining and moping outside Rings that you can never enter, or by passing triumphantly further and further in-one way or the other you will be that kind of man. I have already made it fairly clear that I think it better for you not to be that kind of man.”

“Of all the passions the passion for the Inner Ring is most skilful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

“As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion: if you succeed there will be nothing left. Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.”

“The circle cannot have from within the charm it had from outside. By the very act of admitting you it has lost its magic.”

“If you want to be made free of a certain circle for some wholesome reason-if, say, you want to join a musical society because you really like music-then there is a possibility of satisfaction. You may find yourself playing in a quartet and you may enjoy it. But if all you want is to be in the know, your pleasure will be short-lived. The circle cannot have from within the charm it had from outside. By the very act of admitting you it has lost its magic. Once the first novelty is worn off the members of this circle will be no more interesting than your old friends. Why should they be? You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humor or learning or wit or any of the things that can be really enjoyed. You merely wanted to be “in.” And that is a pleasure that cannot last. As soon as your new associates have been staled to you by custom, you will be looking for another Ring. The rainbow’s end will still be ahead of you. The old Ring will now be only the drab background for your endeavor to enter the new one.”

“The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow. If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it. This group of craftsmen will by no means coincide with the Inner Ring or the Important People or the People in the Know. It will not shape that professional policy or work up that professional influence which fights for the profession as a whole against the public: nor will it lead to those periodic scandals and crises which the Inner Ring produces. But it will do those things which that profession exists to do and will in the long run be responsible for all the respect which that profession in fact enjoys and which the speeches and advertisements cannot maintain. And if in your spare time you consort simply with the people you like, you will again find that you have come unawares to a real inside: that you are indeed snug and safe at the center of something which, seen from without, would look exactly like an Inner Ring. But the difference is that its secrecy is accidental, and its exclusiveness a by-product, and no one was led thither by the lure of the esoteric: for it is only four or five people who like one another meeting to do things that they like. This is friendship. Aristotle placed it among the virtues. It causes perhaps half of all the happiness in the world, and no Inner Ring can ever have it.”

Resource: Resource: Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen (Book)
Description: Getting Started


Even if your workflow system is mostly digitized, make sure you have a physical capturing and filing system for the things that can’t be handled online.

A General referencing system is essential for those things that need to be kept, but that have no specific file.

When you don’t capture and file your stuff, it makes you not want to do the work related to that stuff. Much of our lack of motivation is due to the sense of being overwhelmed that comes from not having put things into their proper place. When things are not in their proper place, they accumulate into an “amorphous blob of undoability.”

Your tools won’t make you productive. It’s how you implement them. A hammer can’t make you a builder, but every good builder must have a hammer in his/her toolbox.

Have a home base office space to serve as your control cockpit even if you work remotely.

Have your own organization space. Don’t share. It brings confusion and ruins simplicity.

Make your system fun to use.

The more often you use your system, the more you will want to use it because it will be simple and streamlined.


“You’ll need to choose a physical location to serve as your central cockpit of control. …You must have a dedicated, individual, self-contained workspace—at home, at work, and even in transit. ”

“A functional workspace is critical. If you don’t already have a dedicated workspace and in-tray, get them now. That goes for students, homemakers, and retirees, too. Everyone must have a physical locus of control from which to deal with everything else. ”

“Don’t skimp on workspace at home. As you’ll discover through this process, it’s critical that you have at least a satellite home system identical to the one in your office. Many people I’ve worked with have been somewhat embarrassed by the degree of chaos that reigns in their homes, in contrast to their offices at work; they’ve gotten tremendous value from giving themselves permission to establish the same setup in both places. If you’re like many of them, you’ll find that a weekend spent setting up a home workstation can make a revolutionary change in your ability to organize your life. ”

“Many people lose opportunities to be productive because they’re not equipped to take advantage of the odd moments and windows of time that open up as they move from one place to another, or when they’re in off-site environments. The combination of a good processing style, the right tools, and good interconnected systems at home and at work can make traveling a highly leveraged way to get certain kinds of work done. ”

“Without a good capturing, clarifying, and organizing methodology in place, with the appropriate applications and tools structured to handle it as it happens, the new world of global mobile access will be underutilized, if not a source of unproductive distraction and stress itself. ”

“You need to use your system—not continually have to re-create it. ”

“There must be zero resistance to using the systems we have. Having to continually reinvent our in-tray, our filing system, and how and where we process our stuff (“Where’s a darn Post-it, and a stapler?!”) can only be a source of incessant distraction. ”

“You can work virtually anywhere if you have a clean, compact system and know how to process your stuff rapidly and portably. ”

“Note that good tools don’t necessarily have to be expensive. Often, on the low-tech side, the more “executive” something looks, the more dysfunctional it really is. ”

“You’ll use plain paper for the initial collection process. Believe it or not, putting one thought on one full-size sheet of paper can have enormous value. Most people will wind up processing their notes into some sort of list organizer, but by having initial thoughts separated into discrete placeholders (versus on one amorphous list), it makes it easier to wrestle it to closure later, in the processing and organizing steps. In any case, it’s important to have plenty of letter-size writing paper or tablets around to make capturing ad hoc input easy. ”

“Moment-to-moment collecting, thinking, processing, and organizing are challenging enough; always ensure that you have the tools to make them as easy as possible. ”

“Once you know how to process your stuff and what to organize, you really just need to create and manage lists. ”

“One of the best tricks for enhancing your productivity is having organizing tools you love to use. ”

“If your reference system is not under control, it creates a blockage in your workflow that causes amorphous content to back up into your world. ”

“Keep in mind, though, that the tool you use will not give you stress-free productivity. That is something you create by implementing the GTD method. The structure you incorporate will be extremely important in how you express and implement the process, but it is not a substitute for it. A great hammer doesn’t make a great carpenter; but a great carpenter will always want to have a great hammer. When considering whether to get and use any organizing tool, and if so, which one, keep in mind that all you really need to do is manage lists. You’ve got to be able to create a list on the run and review it easily and as regularly as you need to. Once you know what to put on the lists and how to use them, the medium really doesn’t matter. Just go for simplicity, speed, and fun. ”

“You will resist the whole process of capturing information if your reference systems are not fast, functional, and fun. ”

“the lack of a good general-reference system can be one of the greatest obstacles to implementing a personal management system, and for most of the executives I have coached, it represents one of the biggest opportunities for improvement. It’s not because the content is so important or strategic—it’s rather that, unmanaged, it inordinately clouds physical and mental space. Random nonactionable but potentially relevant material, unprocessed and unorganized, produces a debilitating psychological noise. More important, it produces a block in the “flow” part of workflow, and things tend to back up into the area like we see with clogged plumbing. ”

“To capture what you experience and sort it out . . . you must set up a file. . . . Whenever you feel strongly about events or ideas you must try not to let them pass from your mind, but instead to formulate them for your files and in so doing draw out their implications, show yourself how foolish these feelings or ideas are, or how they might be articulated into productive shape.” —C. Wright Mills

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