Beginners The joy and transformative power of lifelong learning

Tom Vanderbilt

Book - 2021

"Why do so many of us stop learning new skills as adults? Are we afraid to fail? Have we forgotten the sheer pleasure of being a beginner? Or is it simply a fact that you can't teach an old dog new tricks? Inspired by his young daughter's insatiable need to know how to do almost everything, and stymied by his own rut of mid-career competence, Tom Vanderbilt begins a year of learning purely for the sake of learning. He tackles five main skills (and picks up a few more along the way), choosing them for their difficulty to master and their distinct lack of career marketability--chess, singing, surfing, drawing, and juggling." --

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2nd Floor 153.15/Vanderbilt Due Jun 13, 2023
New York : Alfred A. Knopf 2021.
Main Author
Tom Vanderbilt (author)
First edition
Item Description
"This is a Borzoi book" -- Title page verso.
Physical Description
x, 299 pages ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 264-299).
  • Prologue The Opening Gambit
  • Chapter 1. A Beginner's Guide to Being a Beginner
  • Chapter 2. Learning How to Learn What Infants Can Teach Us About Being Good Beginners
  • Chapter 3. Unlearning to Sing
  • Chapter 4. I Don't Know What I'm Doing, But I'm Doing It Anyway The Virtues of Learning on the Fly with a Group
  • Chapter 5. Surfing the U-Shaped Wave The Agony and the Ecstasy of the Advanced Beginner
  • Chapter 6. How We Learn to do Things
  • Chapter 7. Meditation with Benefits How Drawing Changed the Way i Saw the World, and Myself
  • Chapter 8. The Apprentice or, What I Learned
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
Review by Booklist Review

In relentlessly cheerful style, author Vanderbilt (You May Also Like, 2016) encourages readers to take up learning as a lifelong sport. Using personal examples, he shares the embarrassments, barriers, breakthroughs, and sublime satisfaction of tackling midlife learning adventures: chess, snowboarding, surfing, juggling, singing, and drawing. Alongside entertaining anecdotes, he explores the neurological, psychological, physical, and cognitive benefits connected with facing new challenges as adults, puzzles that force mature brains to work in new ways. He brings in elements of human development and socialization, identifies various pitfalls that can befuddle adult learners, and offers reasonable, practical advice. Vanderbilt shares how he and his five-year-old daughter started learning chess at the same time; she soon surpassed him. His daughter makes repeated appearances throughout the book, and is often the inspiration for Vanderbilt's fledgling attempts at some new endeavor. He observes that infants and children learn because they have to, in order to survive. Adults need to realize that their learning should never stop, no matter what age. Having a cheerleader like Vanderbilt makes this task a little easier.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Journalist Vanderbilt (Traffic) chronicles his attempts to gain new skills in this charming celebration of lifelong learning. While encouraging his daughter to explore new interests, Vanderbilt writes, he was inspired to pursue his own journey of skill acquisition--not for professionalization or utility, but merely for the joy of it. He entertainingly recounts his struggles and triumphs in various pursuits--chess, singing, surfing, drawing, juggling, and making jewelry--in which he achieved no grand successes, but merely the satisfaction of "modest competency." Noting that dilettante originally meant "one who exhibits delight," Vanderbilt encourages readers to put aside the fear of making mistakes and looking like an amateur. While readers may wonder about the author's unusually abundant amount of spare time, he makes a persuasive case for the benefits--cognitive, physical, emotional, and social--of being a beginner. This enjoyable reminder to embrace the "small acts of reinvention, at any age, that can make life seem magical" will appeal to those who enjoyed Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. (Jan.)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A middle-aged journalist engages his childlike curiosity--and argues that you should, too. A cynic might call the idea for this book gimmicky, complete with ready-made marketing ideas (imagine click-bait articles about 10 new things to try this year). But as he did in Traffic and You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice, Vanderbilt brings heft to the enterprise, which is very much in the A.J. Jacobs vein. He expresses seemingly genuine curiosity in his various new hobbies, spending considerable time learning to surf, sing, draw, juggle, and play chess. It's clear that the author isn't mailing it in, and he displays the engaging style that has characterized his magazine articles in Wired, Slate, Popular Science, and elsewhere. He composes lucid prose and explains concepts--foremost, this is a book about learning--with relative ease, and his thesis is practical and worthwhile. As Vanderbilt demonstrates, learning novel skills has benefits aside from the skills being acquired. In our utilitarian culture, there's value in learning new things--even if they are not directly applicable to your job or don't directly help with a DIY home improvement project, and even if you're not young. Taking up wholly new pursuits, not to become an expert but rather to activate the otherwise dormant "beginner's mind," has myriad benefits. The sections of the book that elucidate those benefits are compelling, but sections in which we "watch" the novice practice singing and the like--in some cases, lengthy play-by-play passages--won't appeal to everyone. (The chapter on drawing is perhaps the most appealing.) Ultimately, these deep dives support Vanderbilt's convincing argument that new is good. The text is a useful "handbook for the clueless, a first-aid kit for the crushed ego, a survival guide for coping with this most painful, most poignant stage: the awkward, self-conscious, exhilarating dawning of the novice." A solid beginner's guide to beginning. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

PROLOGUE THE OPENING GAMBIT One Sunday morning in a crowded room in New York City, I sat down to a chessboard with my heartbeat elevated and my stomach on the boil. My opponent and I shook hands, as is the custom. Apart from stating our names, which we duly jotted in our notation pads, we exchanged no words. While I set the time on the clock--twenty- five minutes for each player--he methodically centered each piece on its square. Nonchalantly, as if to appear faintly bored, I did the same. I tried to arrange my pieces even more symmetrically, as if seizing some minute advantage (a ploy undermined by momentary panic that I'd incorrectly placed the bishop and knight). An expectant hush fell about the room as we waited for the tournament director to give the start signal. As we sat, I tried to size my opponent up. He idly rolled a pencil between his fingers. His eyes drifted to the neighboring tables. I peered at him with what I hoped looked like remorseless pity. I was trying to project as much feral menace as one could while sitting in a library chair. I wanted to channel a feeling that had been described to me by Dylan Loeb McClain, the former chess columnist for The New York Times, when, in 1995, he'd played the then world champion, Garry Kasparov, in an exhibition game. "I didn't feel like he wanted to beat me," McClain said. "I felt like he wanted to reach across the board and strangle me." He intuited that Kasparov, hunched like an angry bear and channeling "unbelievable psychic ferocity," would not be happy gaining some minor positional advantage, or even simply winning. Something "more personal, more disturbing" seemed to be driving him. This is a common sensation in the world of chess. "I like the moment when I break a man's ego," the mercurial champion Bobby Fischer once put it. I looked again at my opponent. Could I, through tactical finesse and the withering power of my merciless gaze, slowly dismantle the core of his being? Just then, a woman appeared at his side, bearing a small carton of chocolate milk. She kissed him on the head, said, "Good luck," and flashed me an owlish smile. Ryan, my opponent, was eight years old. With admirable composure, and an occasional sniffle, he dispatched me somewhere after the thirtieth move. I congratulated him, and as I went to inform the tournament director of the result, I saw him in the hallway, ego intact, proudly relaying the news to his mother. Ryan and I were among those gathered for a Sunday morning "Rated Beginner Open" at New York City's Marshall Chess Club. Occupying several floors of a historic town house on one of Greenwich Village's most handsome blocks, the Marshall is a delightful anachronism, a relic of the days when any number of chess teams, collegiate and otherwise, battled across the region, their exploits recorded in the sports sections of newspapers. That it exists here today, nestled amid some of the most expensive real estate in the country, is only thanks to a plot twist worthy of Dickens. In 1931, at the height of the Depression, a group of wealthy benefactors, chess enthusiasts all, bought the building on behalf of the club's namesake, Frank Marshall. A grandmaster and U.S. champion who'd once operated an oceanfront chess emporium in Atlantic City--where he sometimes played passersby for money--Marshall had for decades piloted his eponymous club through a number of iconic Manhattan locales, from Keens Chophouse to the Chelsea Hotel. The Marshall now had a home for life. The place has lost a bit of its old-school luster--there are no longer jacketed waiters to serve coffee or tea--but playing chess at the Marshall today, you still feel you're in some Gilded Age temple to the Game of Kings. History envelops you: busts of famous grandmasters; vintage photographs of team champions; the very table that Magnus Carlsen, the current world champion, sweated over as he defended his title against Sergey Karjakin in 2016. The Marshall is no museum, though. Entering the place on a weekend, during a big tournament, is like walking into a human-powered data center: rows and rows of processors, silently calculating, thrumming with intensity, generating heat and a persistent tang of nervous perspiration. The Sunday Beginners tournament was strictly small stakes, for players rated under 1200, or having no rating at all. Most grandmasters have ratings above 2500; I had the newbie rating of 100. My day had started promisingly. Against my first opponent, John, a gray-haired man with the look and quiet gravity of a scholar, I'd initially fallen behind on "material," as pieces are called in chess. As the game drew on, he tried to press his advantage. And yet I kept fighting, finding inventive obstacles to his victory. To each of these he would respond with a small, tired sigh. I could feel his discomfort, and with each sigh I seemed to grow in strength. Then, with my own king nearly surrounded, I spotted the chance for a checkmate. I just needed him to not see it. There is an old expression in chess that the winner is the player who makes the next-to-last mistake. And indeed, my opponent played offense when he needed to be playing defense, moving a pawn toward what he assumed was my demise. As I slid my rook into position, trapping his king along the "A file" (the first vertical row on a chessboard), a slow, queasy realization spread across his face. My next opponent, Eric, was a serviceman on leave from Afghanistan, where he spent a lot of downtime playing online chess. He knew he'd be coming through New York on a visit stateside and had dedicated time for a Marshall pilgrimage. He looked a bit like the actor Woody Harrelson: buzz cut, grizzled, with a thousand-yard stare. Our match was tense and close fought, until he captured one of my rooks with a bishop pin. After I resigned, he looked relieved and said I had played much better than my rating would indicate--the first words he had uttered. That morning's grouping, everyone from U.S. Army Rangers to AARP members to fidgety kids, was typical of the Marshall's Beginners tournament. The age range at the Marshall must have spanned six decades, but we were all, in the eyes of chess, beginners. There is a wonderful purity to chess's rating system, which renders distinctions like age largely irrelevant. Chess is one of the few skilled endeavors in which children can acquire a proficiency on par with adults--or above. There are twelve-year-olds who will innocently skin you alive. There was one child in the Sunday tournament at the Marshall in whom I had a particular interest: my own daughter. We weren't paired against each other--though that moment would come--and we took very different paths that morning. She placed near the top and collected a check for eighty-four dollars, money that was immediately plowed into Beanie Babies and glitter putty at the corner toy shop. And as I heard her gleefully report to her grandparents on the phone, later that day, "My dad finished, like, fortieth." Out of fifty-one. What had I gotten myself into? Excerpted from Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning by Tom Vanderbilt All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.