February 21st, 2010


Nettle tea, anyone?

As regular readers of this space no doubt will tell you, I am a big fan of ordering my books through Amazon.com ... while I realize this is unpopular in some circles (I certainly appreciate the experience of brick-and-mortar book stores, but on-line ordering is how I get most of my reading). One of the attractions of buying through Amazon (and B&N) is the reasonably low $25 threshold for free shipping, and one of the "sports" involved in this is seeing just how close to $25 one can get ... which is where Dover Thrift Editions come in so handy!

I picked up Songs of Milarepa (no author/translator is noted, aside from "H.C." in the preface) in order to make a $23-something order into a $25-something order, being a perfect example of how one of these books can both save me some money, and add to my education. Now, as long-time readers know, I've read, studied, and experienced (I've taken five Vajrayana initiations) a good deal of Tibetan Buddhism, so came to this book as a "filling in the gaps". While I was certainly familiar with Milarepa, I could not recall specifically delving into his writings, except in context of the teachings in general.

This is where I first encountered some difficulties here (and was interested in finding out who had done the translation and occasional commentary) ... I've read a lot of Tibetan material (in translation, of course), and am used to a certain "tone". Now, this book is a republication of a 1958 book, and the direct knowledge of Tibetan culture was somewhat rare at that time (not non-existent, but hardly what it's been in the past decades), so there may be a reason for this not "sounding right" ... in fact, the preface here starts out trying to make Milarepa "the St. Francis of Tibet", saying "there is the same lyricism, the same tender sympathy, the same earthiness, ... all nature was friend as well as chapbook", which (to my recall) is to try to push the Buddhist imagery of Milarepa into a wholly ill-fitting box, as his actual teachings are of non-attachment and the transitory nature of this existence!

Milarepa (his name comes from his personal name Mila, and "Repa", an honorific for "cotton clad", or a yogi who has mastered the Tummo exercises of "inner heat" and is thereby able to survive in snowy mountains with just a cotton robe) was a youth who had achieved a certain notoriety as a "black magician" before seeing the error of his ways, and becoming a student of Marpa, in the lineage of Naropa. Marpa was a very demanding task master, and Milarepa fled his yoke, only to return after some time with another teacher. Eventually Milarepa became the classic image of the hermit monk, subsisting on nettles in a high-mountain cave, although he did have students, including Gampopa who went on to found the Kagyu school.

Not knowing who translated this collection, I can't really speak to "where they were coming from", but it seems to me that this was done by a person who, while competent to read Tibetan, really didn't have an appreciation for the religion, and so was constantly trying to make Milarepa a "St. Francis". Frankly, there are parts here which almost sound like "boast" lyrics, which seems totally contrary to the spiritual focus of non-attachment, and all through the focus is often on the acts of individuals, rather than the inter-relations of levels of being and manifestation.

One very useful thing here, however, is the 15-point glossary in the back of the book, which gives concise thumbnails of assorted "doctrine points" from Tibetan Buddhism, from the classic "triple refuge" to the "ten virtues" and "the six doctrines of Naropa" ... a very handy "cheat sheet" to have if one is reading through Tibetan texts!

Obviously, had this book cost a lot, these concerns would make it less than attractive, however, the cover price of Songs of Milarepa is a paltry $2.00 ... and at that, one can appreciate it for what it is, and gladly take its Glossary in the bargain. Again, this is an ideal book to "keep in reserve" for when you need to nudge up an order into that "over $25" free-shipping promised land. I assume that this (being still in print, and all) would be available from your local brick-and-mortar book vendor, but I doubt they'd be particularly enthusiastic about special ordering it in at that price point!

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Building Trust ...

Maybe I've been “drinking the Kool-Aid” too much, or maybe it's just because (in my own job search) the areas of Social Media, “personal branding”, and their various quasi-PR cognates (“web content”, “reputation management” and all) seem to be where the opportunities are opening up. Whatever it is (and certainly regular readers of this space will have noted the trend), the genres of “job search” reading and “social media” reading have begun to significantly blur together in my mind.

As you probably know, I've been penning the Chicago Tribune's “Chicago Now” blogging site's The Job Stalker blog for the past few months, and have brought in reviews from my LiveJournal accounts into there, paired with brief author interviews, for a feature that I've been trying to run on a weekly basis. Initially I was “re-using content” with reviews that I'd previously written here, then I had a few appropriate books come in via the LibraryThing “early reviewers” program, then I had a couple of authors (or friends of authors) contact me, but this is the first time that I've actually queried a publisher to obtain a book … so, for the benefit of the FTC: I was sent a free copy of this book by its publisher so that I would be able to read it in order to write a review. So don't fine me, OK?

Anyway, in the Twitter-centric world in which I've been living over the past year, Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith is a fairly “big deal”, with Brogan's blog ranked #3 on the AdAge “Power150”. It has been fascinating to follow Chris' activities around the book, from anticipating its release last fall, through the seemingly non-stop travel that he does to promote it. However, as I was specifically interested in Trust Agents as “content” for The Job Stalker it did occur to me, when I sat down to write this review, that for most people this is not a “job-search book” … or at least they're not likely to realize that it is at this point. As those of you who have been following along at home as I looked at books by McGowan, Seiden, Schawbel, Vaynerchuk, et al. I'm beginning to see that the “personal brand” may well be the core element of the Job of the future, so these may be more on target than they seem at first glance.

Of the books I've read in this niche, Trust Agents is, perhaps, the most philosophical … not a particular call to action, not a “manual”, nor some dire warning of cultural change, this offers up a lot of the background rationale why one should re-invent oneself for these new realities. This is not to say the book isn't instructive, flipping through the various bookmarks I'd stuck in, I found that nearly all were for “action points” (from suggestions for setting up a web “listening station” to various services, systems, and programs one might consider using for achieving assorted tasks) rather than quotes.

There was one bit that I did want to pass along (largely for my The Job Stalker audience), where the “job” issue is addressed:

Being a trust agent requires a mix of strategies and skills that also serve other careers well. Thus, if you want to view what you've learned from this book in a different way, consider applying your new knowledge to your career at large. … Though this book was written as a business book about using the web, the skills of a trust agent can be applied to many endeavors. If you think about it, this is another chance to make your own game. Perhaps you'll learn how to adapt your trust agent skills to other roles offline and have similar success.
So, just what is a “trust agent”? At one point they describe it like Malcolm Gladwel's “connectors” (of the “connectors”, “mavens” and “salespersons” of The Tipping Point), people who seem to know everybody, far exceeding the sorts of limits implied by Robin Dunbar (where humans seem to have a capacity of maintaining “authentic relationships” with only about 150 persons – the “Dunbar number”). The book walks through various elements of becoming this, from Make Your Own Game, in which you're encouraged to re-define how or what you do; One Of Us, on how to become an authentic part of a community; The Archimedes Effect, how to leverage your skills, connections, and existing structures (like the web); Agent Zero, how to establish and support a network; Human Artist, developing the people skills that will give you the advantage; to Build an Army, obtaining leadership skills to make your efforts expand well beyond your own actions. Again, this is not a “how to” book as much as it is a “why do” book, with guidance, but not dictates, provided.

One thing I found very interesting here is that it was very good at anticipating my questions ... there were two or three points when I was thinking “but what about this”, only to turn the page to find that “this” being addressed! I read a whole lot of books, and this is the first time I can recall noting this sort of “finger on the pulse” of a book's readers. I'd also like to share a story about Chris … as I've noted, I've been following him on Twitter for quite while, and he's written a lot about the genesis and expansion of the book. One thing that I'd never heard an author do (and, remember, I ran a publishing house for ten years) is that when he's "cooling his heels" in an airport terminal, he'll offer the various book vendors to sign all the copies they have of the book … which is a brilliant gesture, benefiting the book, the retailer, and the customer, with nearly no effort on his part … that's applying “leverage”.

Needless to say, I very much enjoyed reading Trust Agents and thank Wiley for sending me a copy. In situations where I've gotten a free book, I feel a bit churlish talking about the pricing, but this is available widely, from your local book monger to Amazon and B&N … and those are likely your best options at the moment (Amazon has it at 34% off of cover), as the book is still popular enough that the “used” guys don't have it at much more of a discount that the retail channels. If you're interested in how to be more integrated into the new “trust economy”, this is definitely something you should consider reading.

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