Reading Notebook #5: Life Patterns & Something Out There


From “The Secret Cycle” by Nick Paumgarten, in The New Yorker (October 12, 2009)

And yet patterns exist, and we slowly discover them. Seasons, migrations, moons: the template is there. Consciously or unconsciously, most people accept certain components of cycle theory. We seek and see patterns in things. It is the way our minds work, presumably for the purpose of survival. …

Bill Erman, a market-timing analyst in Nashville, … noted that termites build their perfect mounds, and bees their perfect hives, and spiders their perfect webs, all around the world, without, presumably, being conscious of why or why they are doing. “Mankind is unconsciously constructing a geometrically perfect market,” Erman said. We can’t help building our own beehives in the air. The charts are our termite mounds. …

Starting in 1735, the Hudson’s Bay Company kept track of the number of lynx pelts collected in Canada each year. The number rose and fell, precipitously, in a distinct cycle of 9.6 years. As it happened, this cycle was synchronous not only with the variable abundance of other indigenous fauna, such as snowshoe rabbits and Atlantic salmon, but also with the cycles of seemingly unrelated phenomena, such as heart-disease rates in New England and chinch-bug populations in Illinois. Dewey reasoned that all this had to be either a coincidence or the work, as he put it, of “Something Out There.” He favored the latter.

Photo credit: Philipp Klinger

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Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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