Book Notes: John Cage’s Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse)

Cage diaryJohn Cage is best known for his music, but his writings were also very important. He wrote theoretical articles and lectures, as well as a great deal of poetry, and a variety of uncategorizable works. One little-known written work of his was his Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), written between 1965 and 1982. (, Amazon UK)

This wasn’t a standard journal or diary, of course, as its tittle suggests. In it, Cage wrote about the world around him, and how things could be improved. He wrote about technology, art, and humanity. He often cites such thinkers as Buckminster Fuller and Marshal McCluhan, as well as some of his composer and artist friends and acquaintances, and authors like Thoreau, Joyce, and Wittgenstein.

The text is often fascinating, and is full of aphorisms that one can appreciate. Here are a few:

We learn nothing from the things we know.

We have only one mind (the one we share). Changing things radically, therefore, is simple. You just change that one mind.

Having everything we need, we’ll nevertheless spend restless nights awake with desire for pleasures we imagine that never take place.

Distractions? Interruptions? Welcome them. They give you the chance to know whether you’re disciplined. That way you needn’t bother about sitting cross-legged in the lotus position.

Information is what happens to us. That is, future happens before we experience it.

In keeping with Cage’s odd methods of composition, he wrote the diary using chance operations. As the publisher’s website says:

Originally typed on an IBM Selectric, Cage used chance operations to determine not only the word count and the application of various typefaces but also the number of letters per line, the patterns of indentation, and — in the case of Part Three published as a Great Bear Pamphlet by Something Else Press — color. The unusual visual variances on the page become almost musical as language takes on a physical and aural presence.

Parts of the diary were published in the past, in various collections or editions, but this is the first time the entire diary is published in one book. In addition, following the way Cage created one publication using different colored fonts, the publishers have used chance operations to determine which colors and typefaces should be used for each part of the text. Here’s an example of a two-page spread:

Cage diary pages

As you may expect, this is not a book for everyone. If you appreciate John Cage, you’ll find this a visually stunning approach to one of his lesser-known texts.

And, if you wish to hear him read his diary, you can listen to a five-hour recording he made in 1991, which makes liberal use of stereo effects (his voice sometimes on one channel, sometimes the other, and sometimes both).