Thursday, July 06, 2006

Paul Graham on ...

...choosing good things to copy:

It can be hard to separate the things you like from the things you're impressed with. One trick is to ignore presentation. Whenever I see a painting impressively hung in a museum, I ask myself: how much would I pay for this if I found it at a garage sale, dirty and frameless, and with no idea who painted it? If you walk around a museum trying this experiment, you'll find you get some truly startling results. Don't ignore this data point just because it's an outlier.

Another way to figure out what you like is to look at what you enjoy as guilty pleasures. Many things people like, especially if they're young and ambitious, they like largely for the feeling of virtue in liking them. 99% of people reading Ulysses are thinking "I'm reading Ulysses" as they do it. A guilty pleasure is at least a pure one. What do you read when you don't feel up to being virtuous? What kind of book do you read and feel sad that there's only half of it left, instead of being impressed that you're half way through? That's what you really like.

Even when you find genuinely good things to copy, there's another pitfall to be avoided. Be careful to copy what makes them good, rather than their flaws. It's easy to be drawn into imitating flaws, because they're easier to see, and of course easier to copy too. For example, most painters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries used brownish colors. They were imitating the great painters of the Renaissance, whose paintings by that time were brown with dirt. Those paintings have since been cleaned, revealing brilliant colors; their imitators are of course still brown.