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Many of you have asked similar questions about what it is we are doing here, so it makes sense to answer them in one place. If you have additional questions or suggestions, please let me know! 

Why this model? Where'd the idea come from? 

I love to read, and I wanted to talk about interesting books with interesting people who have similar bookish intuitions, so here we are. Strangers emerged from my own need for a better social environment. Call it what you want: club, initiative, community, whatever. Maybe we're a book club for people who don't like book clubs? But to me, it's not about the name or the tag line—I think of Strangers as a practice.

It's an environment where we can read and write across the curriculum, think deeply about the humanities, question our relationship with technology, and hopefully get a unique and informal education together. Beneath all that, I wanted to organize an environment around what Neil Postman describes as exposition:

Exposition is a mode of thought, a method of learning, and a means of expression. Almost all of the characteristics we associate with mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strongest possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response.

These are the principles I hope to embed in Strangers, so that this space is worthy of our time and attention. 

How do I know if this is for me?

  • You have a serious, established reading habit. You go out of your way to read and reflect on what you're reading about.
  • You value long form writing as a primary mode of discourse, and you would consider yourself an excellent written communicator. 
  • You are naturally drawn to the books on our reading list. For whatever reason, they resonate with you and you are interested to learn more. 

Is there a membership fee? 

No. The launch post for Strangers mentioned a $12/month fee. Initially, I thought a modest barrier to entry would act as a filter to discourage people who weren't serious. I removed the fee for a couple reasons: First, everything is monetized and productized these days. I want to create something with a different kind of value. Second, I am not the sole creator of said value. This place will rise or fall based on who is here. And third, it just felt right in the gut to remove the subscription. 

Will you add a fee in the future? 

No. Strangers will never be pay-to-play and there will be no surprise fees down the line.

What does it cost to run Strangers? 

Basecamp costs $1,000 a year and JSTOR costs about $200 for the year. 

Can I help pay for club costs? 

Thank you for offering! Let's talk in six months after we've built a foundation together. If you would like to contribute money in the future, we can work something out. 

How do you decide who joins? 

I just try to get a sense of whether or not someone will give a damn about what we do here. Typically, I bounce a few emails back and forth, consider the questions asked, and try to figure out if we have similar values. I'm doing my best to assess character in an attempt to find people who give more than they take. 

What level of commitment are you looking for?

The opposite of drive-by commitment. I'm looking for people who want to play the long game. If you have access to Basecamp, the expectation is that you reading, finishing books, and provoking discussion. If you are not doing those things, you probably will not have access to Basecamp. On that note, I'm sure some people will self-select out from the group after we get going. Strangers is not for everyone.

Who moderates discussions? 

My idea of moderation is personal accountability: speak your mind and remember that what you say and how you say it matters. Furthermore, I believe it's important to stick your neck out and share strong opinions. It's not always easy to do this online, at work, or even in our own peer groups without fear of retribution. 

Ours is a society that celebrates optimism and positivity—there is little room for criticism and cynical worldviews. Dissent is considered unhelpful, negative, and toxic. But I think unpopular opinions are useful. They help us to change our mind, to ask better questions, to expose our biases, and they help build trust with the people who matter most in our lives. So please say what you mean, but try not to be an ass. 

Why these books? 

The whole world is talking about how technology shapes our thoughts, actions, and environments. Our screens are saturated with articles that explore ways to manage our technological condition. Because we are eager to understand what's happening to us and around us, we read on, only to find ourselves skimming fortune cookie philosophy about "digital minimalism."

The Strangers reading list counteracts the soul-sapping content that dominates the web. More important, my hope is that many of the books on the list will give us ideas on how we can do what Wendell Berry advises us to do—escape our bondage from the machines. 

The Technological Society, Jacques Elull: 

The individual is in a dilemma: either he decides to safeguard his freedom of choice, chooses to use traditional, personal, moral, or empirical means, thereby entering into competition with a power against which there is no efficacious defense and before which he must suffer defeat; or he decides to accept technical necessity, in which case he will himself by the victor, but only by submitting irreparably to technical slavery. In effect he has no freedom of choice. 

The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills: 

The very shaping of history now outpaces the ability of men to orient themselves in accordance with cherished values. Even when they do not panic men often sense that older ways off feeling and thinking have collapsed and that newer beginnings are ambiguous to the point of stasis. Is it any wonder that ordinary men feel they cannot cope with the larger worlds with which they are so suddenly confronted? That they cannot understand the meaning of their epoch for their own lives? That—in defense of selfhood—they become morally insensible, trying to remain altogether private men?

Is it any wonder that they come to be possessed by a sense of the trap? It is not only information that they need—in this Age of Fact, information often dominates their attention and overwhelms their capacities to assimilate it. It is not only the skills of reason that they need—although their struggles to acquire these often exhaust their limited moral energy. What they need, and what they feel they need, is a quality of mind that will help them to use information to develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and what may be happening within themselves. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman: 

But it is much later in the game now, and ignorance of the score is inexcusable. To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple.

The Industrialization of the Mind, Hans Magnus Enzensberger: 

The mind-making industry is a product of the last hundred years. It has developed at such a pace, and assumed such varied forms, that it has outgrown our understanding and our control. Our current discussion of the "media" seems to suffer from severe theoretical limitations. Newsprint, films, television, and public relations tend to be evaluated separately, in terms of their specific technologies, conditions, and possibilities. Every new branch of the industry starts off a new group of theories. Hardly anyone seems to be aware of the phenomenon as a whole: the industrialization of the human mind. This is a process that cannot be understood by a mere examination of its machinery. 

The mind industry's main business and concern is not to sell its product: it is to "sell" the existing order, to perpetuate the prevailing pattern of man's domination by man, no matter who runs the society, and by what means. Its main task is to expand and train our consciousness—in order to exploit it. That this state of affairs is readily accepted and voluntarily endured by the majority is the greatest achievement of the mind industry. 

Let us try to draw the line between intellectual integrity and defeatism. To opt out of the mind industry, to refuse any dealings with it, may well turn out to be a reactionary course. There is no hermitage left for those whose job is to speak out and to seek innovation. Retreat from the media will not even save the intellectual's precious soul from corruption. It might be a better idea to enter the dangerous game, to take and calculate our risks. Instead of innocence, we need determination. We must know very precisely the monster we are dealing with, and we must be continually on our guard to resist the overt or subtle pressures that are brought to bear on us. 

The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt: 

Never has our future been more unpredictable, never have we depended so much on political forces that cannot be trusted to follow the rules of common sense and self-interest—forces that look like sheer insanity, if judged by the standards of other centuries. It is as though mankind had divided itself between those who believe in human omnipotence (who think that everything is possible if one knows how to organize masses for it) and those for whom powerlessness has become the major experience of their lives.

Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich: 

Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting. Most people learn best by being "with it," yet school makes them identify their personal, cognitive growth with elaborate planning and manipulation. 

Here we are, strangers in a meaningful setting, trying to understand what we are dealing with. 

How do we pick books to read?

For the first few months, you're stuck with my reading preferences until I can test assumptions and figure out the best way to navigate the reading list. After that, we'll put lightweight process in place for selecting books. 

Do we buy our own books? 

Yes. Whether you prefer paperback or hardcover, digital text or audio, new or used, it's your choice. There is one exception: If you're a new member, your first book is on me. Send me a ping in Basecamp and I'll send you a link to redeem an Amazon gift card. Double check the ISBN number listed in the book project before you buy.

Do we read together? 

Negative. This is not a guided reading group. Nobody will read to you or for you. 

How will you keep people accountable? 


Why Basecamp? Why not forum software? 

Basecamp is a trustworthy company. I can't say the same for most forum providers out there. Feature wise, Basecamp is simple and uncomplicated. I don't have to worry about hosting, managing plugins, customizing a theme, setting up roles, you get the idea. 

As for the message board, you have to embrace a little friction to carry on discussion, which is a good thing. There are no click-to-quote buttons or threaded replies, and the bare bones editor prevents people from using layers of needless formatting. Strangers is not a traditional online group, so I didn't want to use a traditional forum solution. 

What does the future look like for Strangers? 

You tell me. I have no growth model or lofty expectations. I don't foresee us ever having a logo or mission statement. But I've always wanted to print business cards with tasteful thickness and subtle off-white coloring. Maybe I'll send everyone a box of cards to leave at a coffee shop or a library next time we are looking for members.

Last updated on January 24, 2020