Reading List Email Archive

April 21, 2011 — 2 Comments

A few people have asked for an archive of all the books I’ve recommended in my Reading List Email over the past two years. A dedicated friend and fan put it all together for me (and for you.) Enjoy, and if you’re not signed up for it yet, you can get the email here

 

October 28th, 2011

What It Is Like To Go To War by Karl Malantes

I was in Chaucer’s Bookstore in Santa Barbara and one of the employees recommended this book. I didn’t buy it then, but I got it on Amazon later. When I picked it up, it had a blurb on the back… from that bookstore. It was the first time I’d seen an author use that. Weirdness aside, this is a deeply philosophical and introspective book about our relationship to violence and our obedience to power and position. The other great books in this vein, My War Gone By, I Miss It So and War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, cover the same topics but they are not written by soldiers. Their ability to observe and articulate these themes is less impressive or elucidating since they are outsiders.

 

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

I hate recommending classic books from the not-so-distant past. It makes me feel like I’m the dude who brought up Inception to me at a party last week. There’s a window, and you can miss it. But this book is so good I’m going to make an exception–and let Tucker Max do the work for me. His text to me about it: “Have you read Ender’s Game? You should. It’s very much about our lives–how we have to save the world, because the adults aren’t coming to help us. You’ll love it, trust me. I just finished and bought the sequel.”

 

Books About Los Angeles

I watched the underground documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself this month and it put me on an LA kick. In terms of noir (books), I liked Double Indemnity and The Long Goodbye. Also, read LA Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City, which is non-fiction but still great. In terms of books about the history of the city, A History of Forgetting is spectacular. (City of Quartz is good too.) In terms of more modern fiction, Less than Zero and Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis (and of course, what is basically the non-fiction version: The Price of Experience by Randall Sullivan). LA is an important city to understand. It’s just as old as San Francisco, but where did it go wrong? It had its own version of the Lower East Side (seen LA Confidential? Bunker Hill). But where is it now? They tore it down. Who is “they?” It wasn’t simply some diabolical plot to destroy a city (sorry, Chinatown) but of such plots + apathy. The people who live there fundamentally do not understand their own heritage and thus they allowed it to be wrecked, often in the name of “improvement.”

 

On Grief

I reread Plutarch’s Consolation to his Wife and Seneca’s trilogy of Consolations. It can go unsaid why I felt the need to consult these works. It’s a theme in Greek and Roman literature–some say meant more for publication than actual consolation–but that doesn’t make them any less powerful. Seneca’s best is his essay to his mother, written after two of his children died and he had been sent into exile. Astoundingly, the letter is FROM him to HER, trying to make her feel better. Plutarch’s is to his wife after learning that their two year old daughter had died. He has a great line that I think applies to anyone who has tried to comfort someone who is grieving. When someone’s house is on fire, he says, we rush to throw water on it to put the fire out. Yet, when someone’s mind is on fire–when they are mad with grief–the neighbors bring fuel. They bring memories (and their own tears and emotions) and try to talk about the person and tell them how it’s all ok and all the other bullshit. What they don’t do is try to put the fire out.

 

Status Anxiety by Alain De Botton

A reader mailed me this book a while back. I thought it was good but not amazing when I read it, but now that a few months have passed I think of it fairly often. I ended up quoting it in my book and it turned me on to a handful of other writers I now like (and Gustave Dore’s awesome drawings of future cities in ruins from the 1800s). The book can be a bit dense at times and I think that is why I had trouble with it at first, but it is full of important digressions and memorable lessons. For instance, the purpose of tragedy in Greek society was to teach by example. The audience empathizes with the hero and sees how easily they themselves could have been wrecked if they fell into the same situation. But, de Botton asks, what of today’s media with its “lexicon of perverts, weirdos, failures and losers?” What can we learn from them? What is the purpose of watching that charade? Ostensibly Status Anxiety is about, well, status anxiety. In practice, it is a collection of interesting and helpful observations. It may one day be a classic.

September 27th, 2011

Hunger by Knut Hamsun and The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosiński

 

Two Neil Strauss recommendations that I eagerly ate up. It might be weird to group a book by a Nazi sympathizer with one by someone who was so victimized by them, but I found both books to be equally dark and moving first-person narratives. Both are about the conflicting drives for self-preservation and self-immolation inside all of us. What’s strange is how modern both feel–despite being published in 1890 and 1965, respectively. Hunger is about a writer who is starving himself. He cannot write because he is starving and cannot eat because writing is how he makes his living. It’s a vicious cycle and the book is a first-person descent into it. The Painted Bird is about a young gypsy boy given up by his parents in WWII, struggling to survive in a world that seeks to kill and hurt him. (The metaphor of the painted bird is about the old past time of catching a bird, painting it and then release it back to the flock–who promptly peck it to death because it is different) It is a disturbing portrait of humanity, one we are fortunate that the other sacrificed to give us (Kosiński killed himself in 1991).

 

The Moviegoer and Lancelot by Walker Percy

 

The Moviegoer is now one of my favorite books ever. The main character–who lives in New Orleans just a few blocks from my house–is so in love with the artificiality of movies that he has trouble living his actual life. He has all sorts of interesting theories about it. For example, seeing your neighborhood in a movie suddenly makes it seem more alive, more livable. He calls this “certification” and if you noticed, I caught myself experiencing the same thing when I read the book, which is based where I live. The Moviegoer–it is like a good Catcher in the Rye but for adults. Just a perfect book.

 

Lancelot is also awesome. It’s told from the perspective of a mental patient who has murdered his family and burnt down his Southern plantation, confessing to a priest or a psychologist… and you’re the psychologist in his cell (He’s basically speaking to you in the second person). It’s just fucking great–plus it is articulate social criticism of the ’60s and ’70s. Bonus read: Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter’s Son by William Alexander Percy. (Walker’s adopted father. Amazing.) Double bonus: Walker was best friends and grew up with Shelby Foote and all his books are great too)

 

Death Be Not Proud by John Gunther

 

I picked this up at a used book store prepared to throw it away if it wasn’t good. In my experience, the better the title of a book you’ve never heard of, the more likely it is to be disappointing. By that standard, I was willing to take a chance on Death Be Not Proud but fully expected to be disappointed. I wasn’t. Written in 1949 by the famous journalist John Gunther about his death of his son–a genius–at 17 from a brain tumor, DBNP is deeply moving and profound. As a young person who has accomplished a lot yet is fully aware how little those accomplishments mean, I connected with the boy who knows he will die too soon and struggles to do it with dignity and purpose. Midway through the book, Johnny writes what he calls the Unbeliever’s Prayer. It’s good enough to be from Epictetus or Montaigne–and he was fucking 16 when he wrote it. You can read it at the bottom of this article.

 

Fante: A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving by Dan Fante

 

I recommended John Fante’s books in the last email (seriously, read them) and since then a biography of Fante was released. Written by his son, who is also a writer, the book shows Fante’s darker side. I hinted at the consequences of that narrative, stuck-in-your-own-head fantasy world that runs through his books  earlier. Fante’s life is the embodiment of them. He was a drunk, a cheater, an abuser and an all-around asshole. His son turned out much the same–and the book is his turn at untangling that mess and trying to make sense of it (Or at least, tries more than his father ever did. I wouldn’t say the book is excellent, but it is good and I did enjoy it. There are parts where you question the significance of the story, as Dan Fante was a loser for most of his life but it mostly makes up for it with the stronger stuff. If you want to stick with more Fante fiction, I liked 1933 Was a Bad Year (great title).

 

Boo: The Life of the World’s Cutest Dog by JH Lee

 

Boo is the best. I’ve been his Facebook friend forever. Seriously though, this book is actually well done, and cool to have. It would have been nice if it was a bit bigger, but what can you expect from a book that will sell mostly at Urban Outfitters? Other favorites in this genre: All My Friends Are Dead, Everybody Poops, Pat the Zombie.

 

August 30th, 2011

 

Ask the Dust by John Fant (the entire Arturo Bandini series)

 

I found Ask the Dust through Neil Strauss, who considers it one of his favorite books. I read it in one day, LOVED it and ordered all the others. I read each of these in one day as well. Bandini, the subject of the series, is a wonderful example of someone whose actual life is ruined by the fantasies in his head–every second he spends stuck up there is one he wastes and spoils in real life. He’s too caught up and delusional to see that his problems are his fault, that he’s vicious because he can’t live up to the impossible expectations they create, and that he could have everything he wants if he calmed down and lived in reality for a second. But it works in the book because Fante is a beautiful writer and he portrays this neurosis–which also appears to be his own–so well. This is the series in order by my favorites: Ask the Dusk, Dreams from Bunker Hill, Wait Until Spring, Bandini and The Road to Los Angeles. (DO NOT watch the movie version of Ask to Dust, it is embarrassingly bad.) Of historical note: He tells a side of Los Angeles that most people don’t know existed, a side that for some inexcusable reason has been completely forgotten. Somehow I ended up reading it while I was in Los Angeles on business, staying at the LA Athletic Club which is on Olive St where the book takes place and was open during the time the book is set. (In fact, in one of the opening paragraphs the main character walks right by the club.) Side recommendation: Fante’s writing reminds me a lot of John Kennedy Toole’s Neon Bible.

 

My Lie: A True Story of False Memory by Meredith Moran

 

This is a very sensitive book on a very sensitive topic: that most recovered memories are not true. But the author approaches it with an empathy and self-awareness that I did not anticipate. I’ve said before that one of the things I respect most is when a person turns over a long-held belief. The flip side of that is that we often react vindictively toward the people who held the belief we once did, we lose our sense of understanding of them during our metamorphosis. Moran resists that temptation, even though few characters in her journey probably deserve it. If you end up liking this book or are interested in a broader take on the subject, then try Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.

 

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic by Professor X

 

The bubble in college education is something I know a little bit about. I got to college thinking that everyone there would love books and learning. For some reason I was convinced I was entering this intellectual paradise, when really it was the same group project bullshit and obnoxious questions that made me hate high school. So I can relate to the author of this book, who arrived to teach his first college English course and found the same disappointment, only from the other side of the lectern. If you felt what I felt, then read this. Or, if you’re looking for a compelling first person narrative about an interesting job, then…still read this.

 

It’s funny because most of the responses to this book have been negative. The professor who wrote it was made out to be a villain or lazy asshole. From my reading, I felt the opposite. X sounds like a excellent teacher, a real educator. I didn’t go to a great school but it was better than the schools he taught at, and I feel like I would have been lucky to get someone as dedicated and rigorous as him to guide me. My take on many of the students he paints in a sympathetic light–the night students going to community and junior colleges hoping to improve their career prospects–is not as sympathetic. I went to high school with these people; they put themselves in this position. I have heard their explanations, they are often self-serving and dishonest. Going to community college is often not the pragmatic choice Professor X makes it out to be but just another rationalization–”I’m going here for two years and then transferring to Berkeley” (no, you’re not)–another lie to delay buckling down and examining the decisions that brought them to this point. The type of impulses that have thwarted real progress their entire lives. That disagreement aside, the book is very good.

 

The Works of Edward Jay Epstein

 

I recommended one of EJE’s books here before but having recently had the opportunity to talk with him via email, I must do so again. He is in the process of turning his back catalog of articles and essays into Kindle Singles, which can be read on any e-reader. If you’ve read any of Epstein’s books on media or Hollywood this shouldn’t surprise you because he has always understood the economics of publishing and intellectual property better than almost anyone else. But first, a word on his books: The Big Picture is the first book I was told to read before I moved to Hollywood. News from Nowhere and Between Fact and Fiction are two of the most important books I came across in the research for the book I am writing now. I don’t think I could come up with an author whose thinking has been more influential to me in terms of my career. READ HIS STUFF. Now that you can digest them in $2.99 chunks there is definitely no excuse. (Start with the Killing Castro single, it’s my favorite)

 

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

 

Who doesn’t enjoy a nice true crime book? This one is really good. I don’t know why I never got around to reading it before. Some other favorites: Helter Skelter, Til’ Death Do Us Part, And the Sea Will Tell by Vincent Bugliosi. Public Enemies by Bryan Burrough. Shake the Devil Off by Ethan Brown.

 

July 21st, 2011

North Towards Home (And Other Boyhood Memoirs) by Willie Morris

I have never liked Catcher in the Rye. Perhaps it is not the book that is at fault but the undeserved reaction it gets. There are so many better boyhood memoirs (or books about boyhood alienation, whatever you want to call them), the best being This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. It’s not only based on someone’s actual life, but it speaks more deeply to the truth of the experience and it has a resolution. Wolff’s character becomes a man–as must we all–unlike Salinger, who conveniently ends the book before he has to deal with any of the themes he’s created. Wolff also wrote two more books in this frame (essentially sequels) that I recommend. Read Old School first, and if you like that then try In Pharoah’s Army.

 

Recently I read Willie Morris’ North Towards Home and liked it. Morris, clearly an exceptional boy, is a wonderful storyteller and documents unusual times. He seemed to be right on the edge of so many cultural shifts–he was raised in the South right before the Civil Rights Movement, went to college in Texas, studied politics at the height of Lyndon Johnson’s transition from Congressional to executive power and finally moved to New York City to work as an editor at Harper’s with some of the generation’s finest writers. I personally liked the first half of the book better (mostly about his younger years) but the whole thing is worth reading.

 

Finally, I must recommend Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window. Totto Chan is one of Seth Robert’s favorite books and though not technically about boyhood I think it speaks to the same themes. The book has sold something like 5 million copies in Japan which is insane. Totto-Chan is a special figure in modern Japanese culture–she is a celebrity on par with Oprah or Ellen, with a magazine, news show and exalted position to boot. The book describes a childhood in pre-WWII Japan as a poorly misunderstood girl who obviously suffered from attention disorders and excess energy. It wasn’t until she met a special school principal–unlike any I have ever heard of–who finally GOT her. And I mean understood and cared about and unconditionally supported her in a way that both inspires me and makes me deeply jealous. If only all of us could be so lucky…

 

All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

This is the kind of fiction I like, with a strong moral and message, and bent towards standing against power. It’s obviously a very famous book so I don’t need to sell it too much here. It is the fictional account of a Huey Long-type demagogue in the 1930s, told from the perspective of one of his fixers–a sort of disenchanted but entangled observer not unlike those of Budd Schulberg’s novels or The Great Gatsby.  If you enjoy this book and want to explore a real-life embodiment of it (other than the Ken Burns’ documentary on Huey Long) then I would definitely recommend The Power Broker by Robert Caro. It is incredibly long, but as one of the first books someone gave me when I moved to Hollywood, it holds a special sway over me. Like Huey Long and Willie Stark, Robert Moses was a man who got power, loved power and was transformed by power. We can learn from him–mostly what not to be and who not to become.

 

The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron

The memoir of Frederick Douglass is a favorite of mine, so I’m not sure why it took me so long to get to this. Confessions is a mix of the historical record–Nat Turner did dictate a jail house confession–combined with the fiction of William Styron. It tells the story of the only major slave uprising in America, a story that has been roundly ignored by historians in favor of John Brown. It’s arguably because Turner was stranger, harder to read and came about 30 years before the Civil War (too close and too far at the same time). If you like it, Toussaint Louverture is another figure to read about.

 

The Civil War by Shelby Foote and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon

Having read and enjoyed Shelby Foote’s novel Shiloh (which I highly recommend), I was motivated to attempt his magnum opus, the one million-plus word trilogy The Civil War. The books are surprisingly readable, come in a bright box set and are great for flipping through. if you have any background with the Civil War, I suggest reading the introduction and then skipping around and reading about the battles or figures you’re interested in. For me, that included William T. Sherman, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Jefferson Davis, Vicksburg and a few others. Foote is the master of the anecdote so these books make for great conversational resources and are quite memorable.

 

I cannot recommend this trilogy, however, without a nod to the greatest definitive history set: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In college I convinced my parents I needed the books (which I could not afford) for a class even though I didn’t. Since then, I have returned to them often. I have a found memory of sitting in Los Angeles’ art deco Union Station while reading Volume 1, utterly lost in the world of ancient Rome. Gibbon’s vivid descriptions of the contests in the coliseum, prefaced first by the idyllic rule of Antoninus and Aurelius, outshine anything put forth by the contemporary writers of Rome who actually lived it. I can’t stress how strongly your bookshelf deserves this set.

 

June 20th, 2011

Crazy: Notes On and Off the Couch by Rob Dobrinski PhD

I’ve known Dr. Rob (Shrinktalk.net) for a long time so this is not exactly an unbiased review. I will attempt to balance out my bias by admitting that I don’t often read the stuff on his site. It’s actually why I think I liked the book so much and why you probably will too. His styles seem to work so much better when read in a narrative, when consumed in “book mode” as opposed to “blog mode.” Maybe it’s that there are fewer distractions in a book, or maybe it’s that we’re more tolerant of meandering and length in a book than online. Whatever it is, Crazy really works as a book. And that’s not something I would have expected because books of essays are rarely my thing. This is so much more than that. You can also tell that Rob is not only a hell of a therapist, but an introspective, kind and empathic person. I wish my therapists had been half as good as he appears to me–if they were able to see inside their patients as Dr. Rob does does with his and to know as clearly their role as a professional, as a doctor and as a person. If you like Dr. Rob, read the book. If you kind of like Dr. Rob but rarely read his site, definitely get the book. And if you like the both of us, read this interview he did with me.

 

A Southern Detour

 

My reading about the South began with Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America, by John M. Barry. It is by far the best and far away the least constrained to simply the South or the flood of 1927. It one of those books that is so meticulously researched and so masterly written that it is at once a book guaranteed to be a success (it was) and so much more educational than a book of its popularity would suggest. I would compare it to books like Caro’s The Power Broker or even Burrough’s Public Enemies. Having read this book and followed the parallel events of the Mississippi flooding of this year, I’m working out a road trip to follow the river up from New Orleans to Cairo, and from there to Chicago. Similarly well-researched but perhaps less general is The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square, by Ned Sublette. It has excellent chapters on the history of music in New Orleans and of black culture. It follows the city’s roots from undesirable and dangerous penal colony (the first women there were deported prostitutes) all the way through the modern day Indian tribes of Mardi Gras. Very well-written and interesting. Of course, there is no better book when it comes to New Orleans than John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. I was delighted then to read Managing Ignatius by Jerry Strahan, the manager of Lucky Dogs (the iconic hotdog vending company the book is based on) for over 20 years. It turns out that before he took over managing the shop, he was a Ph.D. student under Stephen Ambrose and happens to be a wonderful writer. It’s a short read and does not disappoint.

Two of my favorite books on the New Orleans of today are Letters from New Orleans by Rob Walker (of Buying In and marketing fame) and Shake the Devil Off by Ethan Brown (of the excellent book Queens Reigns Supreme). The first is a series of letters, previously published on Slate.com, by Walker about his life in pre-Katrina New Orleans; the second is about a sensational murder case where an Iraq War veteran killed, dismembered and cooked the corpse of his girlfriend in New Orleans before jumping off the roof of the Omni Hotel downtown. Lastly, loosely related to New Orleans is The Correspondance of Shelby Foote & Walker Percy, two descendants of the main characters of Rising Tide who went on to become famous authors in their own right. I’m a big Shelby fan (having seen him in the famous Civil War documentary) and will recommend his other books down the road.

 

The Disenchanted by Budd Schulberg and The Crack Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Two of my favorite authors taking their turn at the same epic tragedy? Yes, please. Both books are about the fall of F. Scott Fitzgerald, one from the first person perspective and the other from the eyes of a friend watching his hero fall to pieces–just like Gatsby. It doesn’t get any better than that. Schulberg’s book is fiction, but like so many of his books, so rooted in experience and research that it feels real. Fitzgerald’s is a collection of essays, many of which are off-topic, but they had to be–a person cannot look so directly and honestly on their own broken soul without turning away at times. Fitzgerald’s crack-up has always been illustrative to me and it’s something I’ve thought a lot about. I call it the Second Act Fallacy, and you pity and feel for a man with so much talent and wisdom who was unable to apply it to himself. Schulberg, of course, is the excellent writer behind What Makes Sammy Run? and The Harder They Fall, both must-reads. I don’t read much fiction but I love his stuff because it matters. His belief was, “It’s the writer’s responsibility to stand up against that power. The writers are really almost the only ones, except for very honest politicians, who can make any dent on the system.” Every word he wrote was driven by that understanding. Read them all.

 

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

In an earlier email, I recommended the biography of Hadrian by Anthony Everett. If you read that or are pursuing the study of stoicism like me, this book of fiction by a French author is very good. It is again fiction, written from the perspective of Hadrian in the form of a long letter to Marcus Aurelius, who would eventually succeed him as emperor. Hadrian is near death and Marcus is too young to take the throne (so his father Antonius would rule in transition) and the book is a reflection on the life and responsibilities of a powerful man. If you read the Everett book first, you’ll be able to see how historically accurate this book is, but even if it wasn’t it would still be profoundly moving and worth having. In fact, I almost wish it was more firmly in one camp or the other, as I found so many passages I’d like to use for things but am not quite sure how to categorize them. Of course, if you like this book or this style, it does have a more scholarly sibling. The Letters of Marcus Aurelius and his mentor and rhetoric teacher Marcus Cornelius Fronto survived and are interesting to flip through.

May 4th, 2011
Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American by BH Liddell Hart

This book was dense and at times I wasn’t sure I was going to make it all the way through, but having done so I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. Hart’s portrait of William T Sherman is so vivid and inspiring and informative that I almost feel like I have lost something not having known this of him my whole life. There is obviously the hated legend of Sherman as the man who ravaged and burned the South (which strangely enough was not most strongly felt by the actual Southerners who experienced his “wrath”). This myth belies his strategic genius, his mastery of terrain and his deep understanding of statesmanship and politics. For instance, the severity of his campaign through Atlanta and then up through Charleston was driven not just by an aim to end the South’s will to fight, but to prevent it from devolving into a guerilla resistance after the inevitable Northern victory. (Jesse James and his band of bank robbers are examples of what this could have been). There is a stunningly profound quote from Hart in the book that I’ll paraphrase here but I’ve put it on my wall to think more about: Sherman’s success was rooted in his grasp that the way to success is strategically along the line of least expectation and tactically along the line of least resistance. Buy this book, struggle through it and you’ll be a better person for it. (And if you like, or the Civil War, James McPherson’s This Mighty Scourge is the next book to read.)

 

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant

Holy shit this book is good. Just holy shit. Even if it was just the main narrative–the chase to kill a man-eating Tiger in Siberia in post-communist Russia–it would be worth reading, but it is so much more than that. The author explains the Russian psyche, the psyche of man vs predator, the psyches of primitive peoples and animals, in such a masterful way that you’re shocked to find 1) that he knows this, and 2) that he fit it all into this readable and relatively short book. You may have heard about the story in the news: a tiger starts killing people in Russia and a team is sent to kill it. When he leaps at the leader of the team, the man’s rifle goes into his mouth and down his throat all the way to the stock. The autopsy later revealed that the tiger had been shot something like a dozen times during its life and lived. Like I was saying, there are all sorts of well-selected threads from evolutionary psychology and biology in this book. Books like these are a self-educator’s dream because you can pick and choose which ones you want to follow next–trusting safely that the author has pointed you in an interesting and valuable direction. But that’s  just the meta-stuff that is a bonus with this book, and it’s worth pointing out only because the rest of the book is just so fucking interesting and exciting. Also, while we’re on the subject, a related and (I think) underrated movie worth watching is The Ghost and the Darkness with Val Kilmer, about the Tsavo maneaters.

 

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes and the Greatest Race the World has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall

I have a bad habit where I put off reading a book if I hear it recommended too many times. It stems from being underwhelmed by the flavor of the week long read (normally The New Yorker) or whatever blogs seem to be passing around and splooging all over. In the case of Born to Run, I made a mistake and I wish I’d read it soon. No question it had plenty of the cringe-worthy moments I was reticent about, but it’s worth reading anyway. Like The Tiger book, there is a shocking amount of applicable and interesting evolutionary science in here, and from what I know it’s all pretty legit. For a non-fiction book about running, it’s very readable and interesting enough to keep you going even if you are not a runner. This is also its weakness; you can tell the writer’s background as a magazine writer resigns him to a sort of pull-quote mentality and all the other obnoxious tricks that magazines employ. The idea that we evolved to run long distance (as opposed to only sprinting when fleeing predators) is something that I don’t think has been properly accounted for in paleo-communities. Persistance hunting, for example, is something he discusses well in this book. That Taleb and others advocate only walking and never distance running has not sat well with me–they’ve never felt the accomplishment of slowly seeing your endurance grow; the rhythm your feet, lungs, music and heartbeat fall into on a long run; the commitment it takes to hit a goal day in and day out. This book is about those things and how deeply rooted they are in us. And how, ironically, the industry that surrounds running has done its best to destroy and undermine those feelings.

 

My Life and Battles by Jack Johnson, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (documentary) by Ken Burns, Hurricane: The Lift of Rubin Carter, Fighter by James S. Hirsch

I recommended the first book in 2009, but I’m going to do it again with a bit more context and some companion books. Black boxers featured pretty prominently in the research I did for Robert Greene’s book The 50th Law, and those lessons have stuck with me more than most. If you liked them as well, then Jack Johnson’s memoir, the Ken Burn’s documentary about him and the biography of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (also a good movie) are the next steps. The Johnson book is lost and translated book that came out of a series of pieces Johnson wrote for a French newspaper in 1911. It’s not very long but it is full of really interesting strategies and anecdotes. For example, early boxers used to hire “scientists”–essentially anatomy experts who looked at their form and told them where to do damage on the body – and this was always something poor blacks were excluded from. Johnson taught himself instead by purposely prolonging fights – sort of distancing himself from his own head and observing the fight as though he was a bystander. He tried to look at boxing like a business, putting his likes and dislikes of any situation aside, so he could be objective. The documentary is more about the man and the country than it is about the strategies but it so well done that you have to watch it. You can stream it on Netflix. Johnson was such a fascinating and uniquely American character. He so outmatched his opponents that he’d applaud them in the ring when they finally hit him, he’d taunt their managers and the crowd. The only way the heavyweight champion would fight him would be in the basement of a bar for $2,500 where no one could watch. “I ain’t a cellar fighter,” Johnson said and walked away. He eventually destroyed the champion in front of 20,000 people. Johnson was so good, challenged so many assumptions about black people and lived so freely as a man, that it was almost inevitable that the system would come after him for it. The Burn’s documentary is about that dark moment. Hurricane Carter’s biography is also about a man who refused to be anything but himself–even in prison. There are great parallels to his personal struggles to maintain the sovereignty of self amidst awful circumstances and the lessons of Stoicism. My favorite: how he refused to sue the government after his wrongful conviction was overturned because it’d be saying that they’d taken something from him, that he was still dependent on them which even after decades in prison he refused to resign himself to accepting.

 

Letters of Seneca Volume I, Volume II and Volume III by Seneca (Loeb)

The Penguin Classics version, Letters of a Stoic, is one of my favorite books. I’ve recommended it on my site for a long time and I know many of you have read it. I wrongly assumed that the text was complete or are least contained all of the correspondence worth reading. Turns out there are nearly 175 letters and they are ALL equally profound. If you enjoyed the truncated version, I would pick these up. The Loeb versions are a bit dated translation wise but still very readable and they look good on a shelf. You can also read them

free: I, II, III

April 4, 2011

The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout

I think when we’re young or inexperienced with people we assume that we’re all relatively similar. Some may be slightly better people, some may be slightly worse people. What we don’t inherently assume is that some are so quantitatively different as to almost have a different mind. So it is with sociopaths–it’s not that they’re a little bit more competitive than you or a little bit more ruthless, they are an utterly different monster. If you need an example, this article is classic case of a sociopath. Conscience-less individuals are shockingly common (4% of the entire population) and this book is about spotting and understanding them. You realize that there are going to be some people in your life you do not get tangled up with, you cut them out quickly and you walk away. And it is more than worth any false positives if you avoid just one of them. It’s a good book, it’s short and it’s written for a mass audience without being stupid. Glad I did and I still think about it a lot.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

Just a beautifully written book. Someone recommended it to me after I wrote this. I don’t do marathons (or triathlons) but I agree with and believe in so much of what this guy is talking about. He treats running as both an activity and as a metaphor–as a place to literally execute his commitment to improvement and hard work in the form of a little bit further or a little bit faster. Because if you can do it there, when no one is watching and it doesn’t count, than you can sure do it for the rest of your life. This is actually something Tim Ferriss has been talking about, which is that you need some sort of physically activity in your life so that it function as a steady drip of excellence: your company may be having financial troubles but you just beat your mile time or maxed our your deadlift. This book is kind of a diary of one man (a enormously successful novelist) who has done and is doing that. It’s got good examples of how to talk to your body–rather, how to kick it around–and how to motivate yourself and appreciate solitude. Again, it’s very short but very poetic and worth reading.

Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer by Fred Kaplan

An exploration of the effects of being articulate, well-spoken and obsessed with learning is especially relevant after watching Obama use those three traits to take the presidency (and then lose his mandate by forgetting them). It’s the author’s point that Lincoln’s log cabin story has obscured how impressive a writer and speaker he really was. More importantly, we forget that with the exception of Theodore Roosevelt we’ve never really had a president before with equal deftness in reading, writing and speaking. Normally they are good at one and abysmal at the others. There’s a part in the book where he takes one of Lincoln’s speeches and lays it out into a poem. It’s just one example but an incredible way to make the book’s central point: that Lincoln’s understanding of the English language and the power of persuasion were so impressive that we’re not even aware that he was using them.

Friday Night Lights by H.G Bissinger

I LOVE this show. I don’t know why it took me so long to get into it but I finally watched all the episodes on Netflix, so then I had to read the book. Of course, the book is a classic for a reason. The book is much less inspiring and heartwarming than the show. The coaches don’t actually care about the kids (whereas on the show Eric Taylor is maybe the greatest father figure character I’ve ever seen. Seriously he’s like the definition of what a father should be), there are no strong women, the town is more sad than quaint, and the players are all racist and awful. I think the players are a great example of the narrative fallacy. How so many of them are wrecked afterwards; having been turned into great high school players through sheer will and intensity, when the music stops and the enthusiasm moves on to the next generation, they fall apart. Instead of realizing the power of the myth and the narrative, they buy into it and take it for granted, only to be shocked by the plummeting fall back to earth when they graduate. It’s actually impressive to me that they were able to get such a great show (and I assume movie) out of book because although it’s spectacularly written, the best characters on the show are just not in it. They were made up whole cloth. I don’t want to get into it and overstate it but I wonder if in 100 years this book (which was written by a newspaper editor in Philadelphia who quit to live in Midland for a year to write it) will be considered as sociologically important as Tocqueville or Griffin’s Black Like Me or any of the other non-fiction, immersive studies of completely unique parts of America.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

This is one of the most important books about cities ever written. It’s what helps you understand why cities work, why they don’t work, what makes a neighborhood, what destroys neighborhoods and how almost everything city planners and governments think matters, doesn’t. Seth Roberts is probably the biggest Jane Jacobs fan there is. He’s what she calls an insider-outsider (insider in terms of understanding, outsider in terms of career) She was an activist and a student who understood the system but wasn’t wedded to it or dependent on it for a living. It was this unique position that gave her the freedom and the perspective to explain the concept of American cities (and what’s killing them) in a way that no one had ever done before. I also think that a lot of Jacobs’ ideas about diversity, mixed uses, isolation, wealth and government can be applied to other parts of our lives. The way she gets to the core of neighborhood, passing up the easy or obvious signs that others are mistakenly distracted with, is impressive. There is a great Malcolm Gladwell article where he tries to use some of her ideas to dissect office culture–it’s a good start and example about other canvases for her ideas.

Questions to think about:

1) Why are there so few good books about why athletics [exercise] are meaningful and important? The Murakami book is the first one I think I’ve ever liked.

2) Having read Jacob’s book can you escape the conclusion that 99% off architects, city planners and government officials fundamentally lack a basic understanding of how cities work? How is that fucking possible?

3) Analyzing Lincoln “as a writer” is an interesting device. What other public figures could be seen, more illustratively, through a different lens?

 

February 21st, 2011

Memoirs of Heinrich Schliemann: A documentary portrait drawn from his autobiographical writings, letters, and excavation reports by Heinrich Schliemann

Schliemann is an almost unbelievable figure. From next to nothing, he repeatedly made his fortune as a commodities trader through unswerving self-confidence, in places like St. Petersburg, Indiana, California and Paris. Then through a blind faith that the epic poetry of Homer was literal fact, he discovered the lost city of Troy. And then Priam’s Treasure at Mycenae. And then at Tiryns. Just try to imagine someone of his level of wealth today–a tech millionaire, perhaps–doing anything that cool after they made their fortune. He was also a language polymath and a scholar. Schliemann’s accomplishments in archeology and in classical studies are just an amazing example of the powers of hustling when channeled into an field where there aren’t typically many other hustlers. He just blew the science wide open. When I first heard that his autobiography was worth reading, I figured it would have just been another standard 19th century memoir. The book I chanced upon getting was much different. One-half of it is writings from Schliemann, the other analysis from a very astute, very fair biographer. Leo Deuel has not only done an amazing job excerpting Schliemann’s published works but he’s also filled this book with letters, notes and even telegrams the man sent. The selection of photos is great too but the black and white does not do the treasures much justice (try Wikipedia). The reason I like Schliemann so much is because he is someone I wouldn’t want to be anything like, yet I realize his personality is the type that’s necessary to move certain mountains. His petty ear for criticism, his restlessness, his grandiosity, I don’t want any part of that. But you have to respect what the man did, especially considering he packed more into the latter half of his retirement than most of professionals did their entire lives… in business and in archeology.

Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi by George H Devol

This title caught my eye by total chance at the UNLV library while I was walking through. I ended up buying it on Amazon when I got back home. Very glad I did (although I hear the free Kindle version is just as good). This is not so much a book narrative his life as it is a collection of anecdotes and stories from that life, broken up in one- to two-page sections. What a life. Duval ran away from home as a young boy and worked on a ship. There he learned how to deal cards, and also how to cheat. The thing they say about cons, at least 19th and early-20th century cons, is that they never worked on an honest mark. Almost all of them depended on presenting low-hanging but illegal fruit in front of a greedy man and then parting him from his money while he grabbed at it. (Read The Big Con if interested.) One of Duval’s most successful cons was to conspicuously mark a card in his deck and deal until he knew the victim had spotted the pattern. He’d wait until the man placed a huge bet, certain to win with his inside knowledge, and then deal him a losing hand. Duval seems to have been the embodiment of Roosevelt’s expression about walking softly and carrying a big stick. He’d always give some of the winnings back if it was all the loser had in the world, or if he’d bet his wife’s jewelry and lost, Duval would send it back to her stateroom later that night. But if they wouldn’t take their turn of the cards with some dignity he had no problem fighting or drawing his pistol (which he called Betsy Jane but never used). In fact, his favorite weapon was his head, and the book must detail 20 instances where he wins a fight with a solid headbutt. There is a lot of great history in here since he experienced the South both pre-, during and post-Civil war (Duval was actually imprisoned by the occupying Union forces for nearly a year). My only criticism is that after about 150 pages the stories all seem to blur together. You can only hear about an overconfident guy falling for a trick and then fighting about the money he lost so many times. But if you read it sporadically or non-linearly, it’s an excellent book to have.

Four Reasonable Men: Marcus Aurelius, John Stuart Mill, Ernest Renan, Henry Sidgwick by Brand Blanshard

I’ve read a ton on Marcus Aurelius. Quite a bit on John Stuart Mill. Nothing on Ernest Renan or Henry Sidgwick. The back cover has a quote from the New York Time’s Book Review comparing Blanshard’s writing style to the purr of a classic Rolls Royce. I didn’t really know what to make of that but it turned out to be eerily appropriate. For the men I already knew about, this was an astute and provocative analysis of their lives and work. For the men I did not, it was an accessible introduction to two extraordinary but obscure philosophers. It would seem weird if you only knew a little to see these four men grouped together–an emperor, a child prodigy, an almost-priest/historian of Jesus, and a college professor. This misses Blanshard’s practical but critical criteria. Each of them, throughout their long and illustrious careers, were driven by a profound and truly rare sense of reasonableness. From Aurelius’s humility and groundedness to Mill’s championing of women’s rights almost a hundred years before feminism. What I like about it is that it is a rather attainable characteristic to write a series of biographies about–there is no lauding of Napoleon’s strategic brilliance or Frederick Douglass’s inhuman perseverance and fortitude. It is just that these men were thoughtful, open-minded, honest and restrained. This is something we can all do a little bit better. And they are examples of the heights of personal and academic success that can accompany making it a life’s pursuit. Well-written, well-curated, definitely read.

Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality by Elias Aboujaoude

Books of this ilk almost exclusively blow, which I guess makes how good this one is even more impressive. The premise of Virtually You is that the costs of the internet are felt away from the computer, far enough away that often we fail to recognize the link. It’s a pretty straightforward book–he pinpoints five negative psychological forces enabled by the web and each gets a chapter: Grandiosity, Narcissism, Darkness, Regression, and Impulsivity. The point isn’t that these things happen online, it’s that they happen online in ways they could not happen in real life. It’s more difficult to pretend to be someone else in person, selfishness is questioned or ostracized, anti-social behavior isn’t tolerated and compulsions for sex or material things are tempered by actual physical constraints. There’s a well-trod and tired psychology trope for the web: people create alter-egos online so they can vicariously live through them. Well, what if 15 years into widespread internet usage, that isn’t true anymore? What if who people pretend to be online changes who they are offline, and what if the electronic medium inherently encourages certain types of dysfunctional, unhealthy behavior? The latter part is definitely true. There are people who develop compulsive shopping addictions online but have no problem controlling themselves in stores. Or poker addicts who don’t have the slightest desire to go a casino. And the former, in my experience, is increasingly more true. Does the aggressive and short tone we can take in emails bleed over into our personal interactions? I think so. I’ve long since grown exhausted with books of internet and technological cheerleading. The web won. Now it’s time for books like this to help us make sense of what that victory truly means and how we can live productive, healthy lives within it.

Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor by Anthony Everitt

I’ve read (and recommended) all 3 of Everitt’s major biographies now. I would say his most recent, Hadrian, is probably the best and (strangely) his most famous, Cicero, to be the worst. Augustus is definitely closer to Everitt at his best than his worst. I like these books because although I do my best to read the original scholarship (Suetonius, Tacitus, Dio), it’s hard when you’re outside of an enmeshed classroom experience to get a sense of the whole. Especially when you read those authors sporadically or only in pieces. Everitt’s books do a wonderful job not only basing themselves on those original sources, but then turning them into a coherent, comprehensible and entertaining narrative. They allow you to get a sense of the personalities and the context with which to understand the greater significance of the history. If we are to be self-taught, we must use every advantage we can find, regardless of whether they are a little uncouth, embarrassing or even considered cheating. If a movie will help me understand the book I am reading, or if reading the reviews and spoilers before the book makes the subject matter clearer of it, I’ll fucking do it in two seconds. Fortunately, Everitt’s books aren’t nearly in that category because they’re meticulously researched and well-written, but they do help with that all that. If you liked the others I recommended from him, try this one. Augustus (Octavian, the heir of Julius Caesar) is a fascinating subject.

Some questions:

1) What traits does the web enable in regards to the narrative fallacy? How can we guard ourselves against it?

2) If you were going to do round II of Four Reasonable Men, who would you include? A dark horse nominee: General Russel L. Honoré

3) I loved the organization of 40 Years A Gambler, why can’t more authors use this scatter approach? Any other good examples?

 

January 17th, 2011

Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man’s Quest to Preserve the World’s Great Animals by Jay Kirk

My chase for interesting animal anecdotes has taken me to some weird books (like one that was so expensive I stole it from a library), but Kingdom Under Glass is one that I think most people would enjoy. It’s about Carl Akeley, an early 20th century adventurer, inventor, friend of Teddy Roosevelt and, strangely, the world’s greatest taxidermist (he actually taxidermied Jumbo the Elephant.) The book is so fucking well-written and meticulously researched that it almost feels patronizing to talk about it — like I’m trying to compensate for it being boring or something by talking about the writing. But it really is just fucking good. Somehow the author managed to track down some incredibly obscure side stories that turned out to be fascinating. My favorite: Teddy Roosevelt shooting and gutting an elephant to prepare it for skinning. After they went to sleep, Roosevelt sensed something and returned to the carcass to find a hyena, which had crawled inside and been trapped by the rigor mortis. He later shot the hyena through the dead elephant. Back to the weird books I mentioned earlier. Through this book, I found that Ackley’s wife wrote a 250-page biography about her pet monkey in 1928. They think it may be one of the first books written from the perspective of an animal. Of course, I immediately bought it and loved it. You might too, if you can find it. It’s called J.T Jr: The Biography of An African Monkey. There’s also another pretty good book called Forbidden Creatures: Inside the World of Animal Smuggling and Exotic Pets, which I read recently and is worth picking up.

The Present Alone is Our Happiness: Interviews with Pierre Hadot by Jeannine Carlier

Pierre Hadot is maybe one of the smartest people I’ve ever read. This is my third book of his. I wouldn’t start with it though. So if you haven’t read Philosophy as a Way of Life or The Inner Citadel, ignore everything else I’ve ever recommended and get them both. Hadot’s point has been this: the concept of philosophy as an overarching system that explains our words is a fundamental misinterpretation of what ancient philosophers did and set out to do. Yet it’s through this lens that we attempt to decipher Aristotle or Plato and the like. It’s how we can say foolish things like, “Epicureanism is full of contradictions.” The reality is that almost all of philosophy was articulated through dialog or correspondence, through human beings interacting with each other to address the basic problems of everyday life. Instead of trying to explain and systemize the world, philosophy has been about the practical pursuit of the good life (being free from fear, anxiety, unnecessary pain, being happy, excelling). Philosophy as a Way of Life is essentially a book about the wisdom these men cumulatively acquired and how we can use the same exercises in our struggles. The Inner Citadel is mostly about Marcus Aurelius and the stoic concept of the self as a fortress. This book is a series of interviews with Hadot. A better way to describe it would be watching a master at work. See if you can’t sprint to keep up with him by reading it–doing it for just a few pages is worth the whole thing.

Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz

I should have liked this more than I did. Having sat on it a bit, I kept going back to thinking how much I like the author (this a great article she did). The book’s a bit long at times and redundant, and I don’t think it’s organized well, but it’s the right kind of book. There’s actually a saying in the Hadot book — that real philosophical dialog sets out to form rather than inform. That’s what this book does. Most of these psychology books try to teach you a bunch of stuff. They talk about this study and these fallacies and how you must listen to them convince you that your way of thinking about the world is wrong. Schulz, I think, would just be happy if you left with a flicker of doubt. She adds a couple new pikes that might catch and snag you before you barrel down the road of wrongness. It’s a rare approach for an author, one worth rewarding.

The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century by Thomas X. Hammes

I’d meant to read this in 2007, right after Brave New War (recommended previously). I wish I had because the examples would been more current and I would have been better able to understand everything that’s happened in the last three years. If you have basic education in military history and tactics, this is a good next step. The first half is a good review of the past, and the second half is a great primer on the present and the future. BNW is an explanation of how decentralized groups utilize force in their war against the state. TSATS is an explanation of what 4th Generation Warfare is, why those groups are using it and how the states they fight are deliberately refusing to acknowledge that it’s happening. Why? Because of the sunk costs involved in becoming experts at 3GW, and because fighting against a decentralized group means making decisions that removes power from their own hands (and think about how many bureaucracies have voted to deregulate themselves). One problem with the knowledge in these books: you realize that having it inherently precludes you from most discussions about politics and foreign policy, say, are you for the Iraq troop surge or against it. Such debates are framed in a way that both sides of the issue are already wrong since they fundamentally ignore the new realities of warfare. But you shouldn’t read for those conversations anyway — read because war, like pornography, tends to presage trends that will shape our daily life before they’ve trickled down to civilian society.

The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman by Timothy Ferriss

I can totally understand why someone might be reluctant to pick up Tim’s new book. That aversion to follow-ups is normally right. This time, fuck it, because the book is really good. Get it, flip through the stuff that’s relevant to you, you’ll thank me if you were on the fence and this pushes you over the edge.

Some questions or things to keep in mind:

1) Some of the greatest philosophers (Socrates, Cato, etc) didn’t write anything. With this more liberal definition in mind, who else would you consider a philosopher?

2) Form, not to inform. Judge books and authors by this standard.

3) Consider that 4GW is the network vs the state. What is 5GW? Networks vs networks? Individuals vs the state? Individuals vs the network?

4) My main criticism of Tim’s book is his use of the narrative fallacy/the soundtrack delusion. See if you can spot it in the 4HB.

December 13th, 2010

The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Political Aphorisms by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I would have said it’s incredibly unlikely that someone could put together a book of aphorisms during their lifetime that would be worth reading. It’s probably fitting that Taleb could beat those odds. This book is theme around the myth of Procrustes–an ancient figure who would stretch or maim overnight guests so they could fit into his bed (instead of, you know, fitting the bed to them). It’s kind of ironic that Taleb, coiner of the Narrative Fallacy, would put an overarching theme in a collection of saying, but if it works, it works. My favorite it probably his line about preoccupation with productivity being the obstacle to a poetic or robust life. He also has one that reminds me of the lyrics to Little Boxes. If you like books of aphorisms, try the sayings of Publius Syrus (which I recommended here),  La Rochefoucauldand of course, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

A Sense of Where You Are: Bill Bradley at Princeton by John McPhee

I can’t exactly say how I came to hear the two of them recommend this book, but when Robert Greene and Paul Graham both say something is good, I don’t need to be told a third time. The title comes from a Bill Bradley quote about his hook shot, about how after enough of them his feel for the game was so good that he didn’t need to look to see where he was on the court. He just knew. I guess it’s probably a bit of the selection bias, but it’s fascinating to me to read a biography of someone before they became who they ultimately became. In a way, it gives you a much more honest picture of what made them successful and a lot less opportunities to create that heroic narrative or sense of destiny. Having read most of the research behind Gladwell’s Outliers I’m surprised I haven’t seen more use of Bradley as an example since he is undoubtedly proof of the concept of deliberative, expert practice.

The Satires by Juvenal

I have trouble staying interested in most plays or poems so I thought this was going to be difficult to read, but it was not (tip: read the Wikipedia summary for each Satire first, then read it in the book). Peter Green (Penguin) is my favorite translator of classics so definitely read his version. His line “Don’t you want to cram whole notebooks with scribbled invective” felt very relatable to what’s going on in my own life right now. Juvenal, who is known mostly for his sexual innuendo and anger, felt surprisingly Stoic to me. In fact, in one Satire he has what I feel is the best explanation of the difference between Stoics, Cynics and Epicureans–the Stoics and the Cynics have just a shirt between them. (See if you can figure out what he means.)

Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism by W. Joseph Campbell

I read this book about six months ago and thought it was OK. It was only after I began to read a bit on this history of journalism and its role in US history that I began to see how pervasive these myths are. For instance, some of the most seminal books on media (The Media Monopoly by Ben Bagdikian which was the basis for much of Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent for instance) contain myths like Hearst’s “you furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war” basis of theses. Others include Edward Morrow taking down McCarthy, the NYT suppressing the Bay of Pigs and “We lost Cronkite, we lost Middle America,” all of which are not only stock anecdotes but in fact, the bedrock of most media criticism. Authors use them like filmmakers use well-known songs in nostalgia movies: instant, inarguable mood setters. But they are not true.

Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche by Ethan Waters

This is just a well-written book. Not only is it provocative and illustrating, but it is a textbook for non-fiction psychology in this day and age. The basic premise is that “mental health” is a lot less universal than we’d like to believe, which is problematic since American drug companies and psychologists are actively exporting Western diagnoses abroad. Eating disorders, for example, manifested themselves in entirely different forms in Japan until the later 1980s. After a few well-publicized scandals that relied heavily on Western research, the presenting cases completely changed. The theory behind the book is that most of our modern psychological problems (from “hysteria” to eating disorders to PTSD to multiple personality disorder) have at their roots a deep, unbearable distress that the patients cannot communicate to the people around them. As certain disorders make it into the public consciousness as examples of distress, the patients finally have an outlet for this inexpressible pain and are able to signal, meaningfully, that they need help. The problem with assuming all cultures are like ours is to not only does one eliminate the local and relative signals that have worked in other countries for centuries, but one also removes any chance of studying the difference and generalities of these conditions. Having homogenized eating disorders in the US and Japan, we have that much less data to use in treating the obvious and real pain these women have. Anyway, I’m getting close to describing the whole book, which is a shame because it is so well-done that it must be read.

Some questions to keep in mind:

1) Why do books of aphorisms seem to teach us more than big thick books packed with footnotes? Why are there so few of them?

2) We can accept now that disorders like hysteria were products of their time. Why can’t we entertain that at least some of the disorders we take so seriously now will turn out the same way?

3) Same goes for media myths. The overblown coverage of Katrina is already one, but which of today’s stories will become false foundations for arguments a generation from now?

4) Other books about people who later became famous?

 

November 8th, 2010

The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects by Giorgio Vasari

If you enjoyed my recommendations of Plutarch and Montaigne, you could think of this book as the third leg to that stool. It’s a collection of biographies written not only to tell the subject’s stories, but to use them as vehicles for moral and philosophical lessons. These types of books have always been my favorite sources of wisdom. Some of the anecdotes will feel familiar; for instance, the story of Michelangelo pantomiming alterations to the statue of David to please a patron in The 48 Laws of Power is from Vasari. I also used the line about how the only “light” that matters is the one in the piazza. Interestingly, Vasari was a contemporary and friend of many of the artists he wrote about, which makes his biographies a little less susceptible to embellishments from Plutarch and other writers who tell stories about the ancients. In my opinion, you don’t need to read the entire book from cover to cover, it’s just a good resource. My favorites were the biographies of Titian, Michelangelo, and Da Vinci.

The Power Tactics of Jesus Christ and Other Essays by Jay Haley

If you’ve ever been in therapy or know someone who has, there is all sorts of great advice in here to help make the therapeutic process short, direct and goal-oriented. Which is helpful because if therapy is not those things for you, it’s really not worth doing, now is it? Haley has an amazing essay called The Art of Being a Failure as a Therapist where he attempts to look at the ways therapy might not be therapy, the idea being that if something can’t be falsified it isn’t scientific. Naturally, Haley is applying this test to his job, and we benefit from his conclusions, but we’d be even better off if we tried this in our own fields. If you can’t say how you can fail at your job then it isn’t much of a job. The essay about Jesus Christ is very insightful, but what separates this book from most books of essays is that the title essay is not the best one. In fact, it’s such a rarity that as a general rule I think you’re safe to stay away from any interestingly titled book of essays since it will inevitably be one good piece packaged together with a bunch of crap.

Facing Codependence: What It Is, Where It Comes from, How It Sabotages Our Lives by Pia Mellody

Let me preface this recommendation by saying that it is one of the worst edited and poorly arranged books I’ve ever read. That said, it’s sold more than 400,000 copies entirely through word of mouth to an audience that doesn’t read a lot of books: addicts. My long running theory is that we are all addicts, and that the majority of our problems come from not understanding why we feel compelled to do things and our inability to evaluate our track record after engaging in those behaviors. This book looks at the seemingly innocuous events of our childhoods that turn out to have sweeping effects on our decision-making skills and our desires and aversions. She talks about boundaries, which I think are hugely undervalued. Strangely, the book is more about the things I just mentioned and about living a healthy life than it is about codependency.

The Brass Check: A Study of American Journalism by Upton Sinclair

You probably don’t know this, but in 1920 Upton Sinclair self-published arguably the first ever structural criticism of the corrupt and broken press system in America. Not only did he self-publish it–at the height of his fame no less–but he refused to copyright it, hoping to pass through the complete media blacklist a book like this faced. It went on to sell more than 150,000 copies its first year. Take that, Cory Doctorow! Though the book has been almost entirely forgotten by history, it’s not only fascinating but a timeless perspective. Sinclair deeply understood the economic incentives of early 20th century journalism and thus could predict and analyze the manipulative effect it had on The Truth. Today, those incentives and pressures are different but they warp our information in a similar way. In almost every substantial charge he leveled against the yellow press, you could, today, sub in blogs and the cable news cycle and be even more correct. In fact, the reason that most newspapers could escape this criticism is that over the last 50 years they have instituted many of the important changes he asked for.

The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves by Andrew Potter

Potter’s first book A Nation of Rebels dismantled the notion that greedy corporations push “cool” on society and the endless cycle of consumerism that inevitably results in chasing it. Instead, he said, it was people like Naomi Klein and Adbusters who, in their ceaseless desire to be different, “real” or “authentic” drive the arms race which they then turn around and blame on faceless capitalists. In The Authenticity Hoax he begins with the conceit that this premise has been irrevocably proven (I think this is justified considering the utter dominance of these types of people in culture and the now cliched disdain of Wal-Mart, malls, SUVs et al.) and tries to convince us to step away from the hype machine of Authenticity. Think: organic, digital minimalism, traveling, Hope, paleolithic diets, and all the other concepts we’ve bought into not as “cool” but as meaningful statements about who we are as people. Because, he says, at least the former was obviously superficial. The latter is much more pernicious, and ironically, more full of shit. Long story short: if you’re thinking about quitting your job to travel the world or have tried The Great American Apparel Diet, read this book before you completely lose your bearings on reality.

War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges and My War Gone By, I Miss It So by Anthony Loyd

I’ve read many books about war, but aside from those that deal with strategy and tactics, these are two of the best. Loyd’s book looks at war through the eyes of an addict and Hedges’ from the perspective of a disillusioned journalist. Both, I think, make compelling cases against the narrative fallacy (and what I call the soundtrack delusion)–or how we imbue glory and significance to fragmented and undeserving events. A word of warning: while both these books are well-written–poetic even–no writer could ever live up to the expectations set by that pair of titles. If you go in thinking they could, you won’t be able to appreciate how important and insightful they truly are. After reading these, you might try Lt Dave Grossman’s On Killing.

Some questions to keep in mind:

1) Does your notion of “abuse” change when you realize that it can be both dis-empowering and empowering? For instance, a single mother making her son the “man of the house.” It feels good but it’s also an entirely inappropriate set of responsibilities to drop on a child. Think about abuse outside the context of what is overtly or physically harmful and then think about your childhood.

2) Is the authenticity hoax part and parcel of some of our most sacred signals–volunteering, vegetarianism, sustainability–of “being a good person?”

3) Falsification. Can you falsify your beliefs, skills, theories? Try to actively apply this test to what you see and what you do.

4) Will ebooks finally kill off “collections of essays?” I hope so. Even Paul Graham’s wasn’t that great.

October 7th, 2010

The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability by Lierre Keith

Tim Ferriss (highly) recommended this book to me. I’ve always felt that there is nothing more impressive than seeing someone turn over a long held belief in light of new evidence. That’s essentially the premise of this book–a 20+ year vegan finds it impossible to keep denying that meat is a natural part of the human diet and that it’s certainly more “natural” than the heavily processed grains and crops that vegans eat. Her solution is sustainable farming and agriculture, harkening back to the dawn of domesticated animals. She’s a bit crazy (interspersed with her predictions about factory farming are calls for “the revolution” and rants about patriarchy and too many citations of Wikipedia articles). I’ve rolled back my grain and carb consumption since I read this and felt shockingly better. I like to judge books by the questions that stick with you after. One of hers: hunter gatherers work somewhere around 15-20 hours a week to acquire food and did so for hundreds of thousands of years. So what makes a society turn to agriculture–where they work 40+ (really unlimited) hours to get less nourishing food? Her answer, after looking at the examples of other species who get high on things in their natural environment, is that carbohydrates are a drug we began addicted to. Still mulling it over. This book was a nice counterweight to Eating Animals by Jonathan Foer from my last email.

Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization by John Robb

I first read this book in 2007 as research for Robert Greene’s address to a class at West Point and it’s stuck with me and stood up better than almost all the books I’ve read on technology since then. Brave New War is an examination of Fourth Generation Warfare, or the war of networked groups against states. Think: Al-Queda vs US. Mujahadeen vs Russia. Anonymous vs Scientology. Bloggers vs brands/companies/celebrities. In retrospect, a handful of Robb’s predictions turned out to be a bit overstated but the essential premise of the book has been proven correct hundreds of times since its publication date. Both the book and his blog on the subject have turned out to be incredibly helpful to me both in understanding current events and in my actual professional life. It’s a short, straightforward read (unlike most war books) and 100% has to be on your shelf.

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell

I got an early copy of this book for a project I am working on. It is spectacular. The book was a bestseller in the UK and was featured in a 6 part series in The Guardian. The format of the book is a bit unusual, instead of chapters it is made up of 20 Montaigne style essays that discuss the man from a variety of different perspectives. I’m very into Montaigne at the moment, as he is an interesting counter to the Stoics and to the Epicureans. More accurately, he is a combination of the two plus about a thousand other schools of thought and that is why he is so interesting. I would recommending reading some of his essays first, my favorites are To Philosophize is to Learn How to Die and On Experience and On the Cannibals. If you like them and this book, I found a short but helpful biography of Montaine by Peter Burke that focused on putting him in historical context.

Within the Context of No Context by George WS Trow

Unquestionably my favorite book of the year. At the end of the book, Trow tells this anecdote about his father who wore a fedora to and from the office each day, just as his father had before him. It was a sign of professionalism, of masculinity and of America. He understood that one special day, when he was old enough, Trow would get one himself. But that never happened, in fact, you couldn’t be compelled to wear one now–unless you were doing it ironically. This was a metaphor for what our culture has done to traditions (and not traditions like Religion but ones like truth, meaning, the Classics, ambition). It threw them out and the exist now only as jokes or values to allude to in commercials. I liked that Trow didn’t bother with some unlikely solution to his cultural criticism which lesser writers often pretend are plausible. His point was that shit is bad, real bad and there’s not much that can be done about it. Fun fact about Trow, he resigned from The New Yorker in the early 90s after learning that Roseanne Barr was being brought in as a guest editor for a comedy issue. If you want to get a sense of what Trow’s book is about before you read it, my piece on Abandoned Shells was influenced from studying the book.

Education of a Felon: A Memoir by Edward Bunker

Something I always keep in mind about books by criminals: their sociopathic tendencies are what allowed them to be successful in their world. I find myself convinced by their explanations and at the end set all that aside somewhat. The idea I think is that they are seducing you the same way they seduced the variety of necessary people during their life of crime–from lawyers to judges to victims and also themselves. My feeling is that if you leave the book particularly convinced or supportive of their worldview, you’ve probably taken a wrong turn somewhere. Empathize but don’t commit. That being said there are a bunch of really interesting anecdotes in the book about Los Angeles (particularly if you enjoyed LA Confidential). At one point Bunker visits a friend of a friend who happens to be Marion Davies, at what I think is a house that just went on sale for $38 million dollars. The writer went on to make a few different movies which I haven’t seen but intend to. If you enjoyed my recommendation of Alvin Karpis’s autobiography then you’ll like this book as well.

Some questions to keep in mind:

1) So a vegan diet is more humane or natural, but sit down and eat a bunch of pasta or bread in one sitting. If it’s so much ‘better’ for us, why do you feel sick and stuffed afterwards? Is it more humane and natural to feed other animals food they never evolved to eat, like how we force feed cows corn instead of grass?

2) Can you ever win a war where the enemy can inflict millions of dollars on you while spending just a few dollars themselves to do it? And you have to spend millions of dollars to inflict a few dollars worth of damage to them?

3) Think about abandoned shells. Is your degree a shell or does it still mean something? What about the word “entrepreneur?”

 

July 5th, 2010

The Moral Sayings of Publius Syrus: A Roman Slave by Publius Syrus

One of the most profound observations about stoicism is that of its two greatest philosophers, one was an Emperor (Marcus) and the other was a slave (Epictetus). Syrus would belong in the latter category, winning freedom and fame like Epictetus through the strength of his wisdom and ideas. One of my favorites: that “avarice is the source of its owns sorrows.” It explained what I tried to grapple with personally a few months back. Like the Stoic exercises most of the his meditations return to the same themes, trying to twist and turn over the matter until it’s been seen from every angle. I bought the book after Nassim Taleb mentioned it in an interview and am glad I did. My (print) copy was actually one of the new books digitized Google Books from the University of Michigan Library. However, books like these are hard to read linearly, since the exhortations tend to blur together after too many in a row. I like to read the whole thing cover to cover, marking the ones that catch my immediate attention and then when I return back to them later they are like relay points into the text. It ought to take several tours before you’ve been able to get to all the pages with a fresh mind. Filed under “life”.

The Africa House: The True Story of an English Gentleman and His African Dream by  Christina Lamb

I tracked this book down after seeing a picture of Shiwa House, an abandoned English country estate in the heart of Northern Africa on some website. It turns out that it was built between the two world wars by Sir Gordon Stewart Brown on a declining inheritance that went unusually far in the wreckage of British imperialism. This twenty-room mansion stood self-sufficient with modern amenities and its owner spent his days hunting rhinoceros and reading the classics in Latin from a fully stocked library. Of course this fantasy came at a great cost, he lost his family and most of his fortune in the process and when he died it was almost immediately left to be reclaimed by the continent. What I always take from these books is how we moralists sit back and judge the consequences of these driven or compelled men, tsking at Hearst for his preposterous visions of some West Coast Castle and yet we have no problem admiring or enjoying the results of their labors.The fact of the matter is that many great things come from their dispute against reality. Perhaps it is not my path, but I have some empathy for it.

The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America by Daniel Boorstin and Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman

If there was one book I wish I could force into more people’s hands it would be The Image by Daniel Boorstin. In 1960, before talk radio, before Fox News or blogs, he wrote a scathing indictment of the deliberately false reality molded around us by our media culture. Consider Tiger Woods announcing after he left sex rehab that he would be calling a press conference to take questions from the media – something better described as a staged media event to alert the world to a staged media spectacle in response to tabloid stories that threatened his image. And the public gladly played its role in the farce. Boorstin calls it “unreality” (I have some other examples here).

The spiritual sequel to The Image is Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman wants us to realize that there is something inherently inferior about the information we consume through visual media. Forget television designed for entertainment – which is at least honest – and focus in something like a news segment. As far as its creators are concerned, the worst thing that it could possibly do is inspire or provoke you, two horrible emotions that risk you getting up and leaving your living room and missing the imminently scheduled set of commercials. The result is the unreality we find ourselves in, one where no one can recall the last time they actually DID anything with the information they were given from the television. You realize that the last thing we have to fear is a malicious Orwellian news industry, because what we have is so much worse: culture incentivized to be as shallow, fabricated and captivating as possible, at the expense of what is actually real or true or meaningful.

Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road by Neil Peart

The best description of this book is one I saw in a review or blurb I saw a few years ago, which compared Peart’s motorcycle journey through North America after the loss of his wife and daughter to Teddy Roosevelt’s trip West – “Black care,” Roosevelt wrote, “rarely sites behind a rider whose pace is fast enough” – after the simultaneous death of his wife and of his mother. Peart, probably the greatest drummer who ever lived, wrote the books as a series of journals as he attempted to make sense of a life and career that collapsed in the span of 18 months. He rode from Montreal to Alaska, down and through the Southwest and then across into Mexico and into Belize – something like 50,000 miles in less than two years, nursing his ‘wet baby soul’ back to health. I’ve always been a fan of the album that came from this period (he eventually rejoined Rush who had disbanded in the wake of the tragedy) since I heard it in high school.

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

I think most people know they have a problem with how our food gets to us (if not concerns with whether it’s ethical to eaten certain kinds of it at all). But we do our best to push it from the front of our minds – we know about but never watch those horrific slaughterhouse abuse videos, we roll up the window when we pass massive pig and cattle farms – because we’d rather not deal with consequences of examining those feelings. Foer’s book on factory farming and the larger issue of eating meat took me almost a month to make sense of my choices after reading. When I finished thinking, I gave up eating factory-farmed meat entirely. The only meat I consume comes from Frank Reese’s heritage turkeys and chickens (featured in the book) and Niman Ranch (you can also track down Niman’s new farm, BN Ranch but I haven’t yet). I think what I liked about Foer is his ability to articulate the nuance of an issue but still be blunt and honest enough to dismiss those details as irrelevant in the face of larger issues. To me, that issue is whether you can be aware and proud of the decisions you make about something like food or eating meat. And then it’s important that you move on and address and improve another area of your life.

Some questions to keep in mind:

1) When you’re watching television, ask yourself: Could I do anything this with this information?

2) Are the conveniences of factory farming really that important to you? Are you fine with the costs too?

3) How awesome is the song Tom Sawyer?

 

January 31st, 2010

The Tacit Dimension by Michael Polanyi

Polanyi’s premise is that we know more than we can tell. Think about the face of someone you know well. Try to describe it. You probably can’t. But if the police were to subject you to their technique of using photo albums to identify the different features of the face, you’d likely end up with a workable approximation. This is tacit knowledge and we rely on it more often than we admit. Scientists, he says, are not only not explicitly aware of the experiments that came before them, but they take them for granted during their own. We think of scientists as explorers of the unknown, but in reality they often have an idea of where they going even on totally new ground. They have vague notion of what they wish to discover – a tacit understanding – and able to recognize it as it is confirmed. Polayni’s work was influential to Thomas Kuhn, who wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I had trouble reading Kuhn about a year ago and had to stop. After I read Polayni, I was able try again and slowly make my way through the whole thing. I feel better for having read both books and can now see their implications on a regular basis. In my recommendation to read them, I would suggest following a similar order.

The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals: The Lost History of Europe’s Animal Trials by E.P Evans

This book is a mindfuck. Pigs being stung up on the gallows or tied to the rack; Birds banished from churches; Locusts being tied in absentia; for such crimes as child-murder, shitting on priests, theft, buggery. On the one hand it’s easy to dismiss these examples as crazy people from ancient history. But on the other, think about a recent case where a woman was cleaning the cage of her pet bear which then attacked and killed her. A neighbor came upon the scene, returned to his home for a rifle and shot and killed the bear. Why? Certainly the bear was not the one behaving abnormally in this situation. It’s no more likely to kill humans in the future – before and after it was just as likely to kill: very. So why punish it? The author (who wrote the book in 1909) posits that the Church, who was responsible for trying many of these cases, wasn’t as dumb as we think. In fact, in a world of seemingly random consequences, poverty and strife, the Church exploited an opportunity to  create a causal relationship that it was the only translator. Of course animals could deliberately commit heinous crimes against humans, turn to us and we’ll help you make sense of them. And people did (and still do). Very fascinating, albeit incredibly obscure book.

On Sparta by Plutarch

Spartan sayings are something that have been a part of Western culture since its inception. Most people, whether they know it or not, have used a few of them. There’s even a Spartan saying to explain Spartan sayings. It goes something like this: why are Spartan sayings so short? Spartan swords are short too, but they reach their enemy all the same. As Plutarch notes in the book, the relationship between brevity and value runs through Spartan life. Lycurgus weighted the highest currency with least heavy coinage and the heaviest was worth the least. Something to think about. The book starts with profiles of some of the greatest Spartans – similar to Plutarch’s Lives – and then the second half is a collection of quotes or anecdotes broken down by who they are attributed to. It’s a great source of reference if you ever need an example or a story for something. The quotes from Spartan women are good as well.

The Book of My Life: De Vita Propria Liber by Gerolamo Cardano

Cardano, the famous doctor and mathematician, claims in his first sentence that his memoir is based on the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which was just undergoing its own rediscovery during the Renaissance. It’s really not – it’s much closer to Montaigne or even a self-aware modern tell-all. It takes for granted that we’d be familiar with all his exploits (even though many, besides his book about gambling have been lost) and the controversy that surrounds him (the biggest of which he ignores). Aside from that, Cardano is disturbingly honest. He gives an amazing portrait of what his genius and skill as a physician. This is one of the few things he wrote that was ever translated to English and even then is long in the public domain. An interesting connection to a book from last month, Cardano claims he had a premonition about the fall of Cyprus.

Some questions to keep in mind:

1) Meno’s paradox – Can you really search for the solution to a problem? If you know what you’re looking for then there is no problem and if you don’t, you’ll never know when you find it.

2) It’s funny how we whitewash out what we don’t understand from the past. Try to think about a Church could support Michelangelo and the criminal prosecution of a sow for murder. What the fuck?

3) Why is it that movies and writers seem to be the only ones who want to exploit the Spartans? I can’t figure out why they don’t pop up in political speeches and punditry more often.

December 31st, 2009

Chief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation by Grant McCracken

Books are always better when you find unexpectedly find yourself in the acknowledgments. That being said, Chief Culture Officer is very good. Grant McCracken is one of a handful of business writers and bloggers who a) has a deep understanding and love for the topics he covers, b) writes about them in an inspiring and unexpected way, and c) isn’t a tool. I take a special joy in obscure allusions or connections and I get the feeling that Grant does, too. I really think someone who had previously been completely ignorant about current business thinking could pick up this book and, if they diligently followed every thread and read every book Grant mentioned, leave with a complete understanding. I felt like Grant cited half the books I’ve read in the last few years. My only criticism is that he regularly got distracted inside of his own book and never finished the stories he started – what happened to the hidden sneaker shop? Someone tell me.

Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us about Humanity by G. A. Bradshaw

If you look at some of the commonly known trivia about animals – that elephants grieve and occasionally bury their dead, that chimps can speak sign language, that some species of monkeys display exhibit traits like fairness or cognitive dissonance – it’s shocking to see how much it conflicts with currently used preservation tactics. For instance, take the culling of a herd of elephants through relocation or hunting. We all sit and watch National Geographic specials that marvel at their social structure, their abilities to communicate with each other and form relationships and then simply assume that these efforts have zero repercussions. The book’s premise is that these species suffer trauma much in the same way that people do. It mentions a herd of elephants in Africa where two rogue teenage males deliberately killed dozens of rhinoceros without explanation – this, they say, is no different than the gang violence we see in inner cities, cities racked by the same dislocation, disappearing resources and exploitation. Whether you agree with it or not, there is something to be said for books that turn over entire lines of thinking. I especially like books that take logic and findings from unrelated fields and apply them in interesting and provocative ways. This book does just that.

Googled: The End of the World As We Know It by Ken Auletta

Maybe the best book I’ve read about Google and tech culture. It has made me think – despite many who are using it to herald the decline of Google – to further invest in the company. This article about the book is quite good – I think it’s interesting how rarely writers call these businessmen out on their conflicts of interest or accurately contextualize their position. It bothers me how little real knowledge most of these tech writers have about the companies they cover. Auletta seems to think that Google’s engineering culture is problematic because it leads to PR blunders or angers competitors. The problem is really that an engineer is almost an alien compared to most people – people who think emotionally or practically instead of systematically.  Robert has a very good chapter about this, about knowing your audience and feeling connected to it. A product like Google Wave solves a problem that no has complained about and its launch makes sense only to someone who takes communities and groups for granted. This is what an engineering culture does to you – it deprives you of common sense and of a direct kinship with the people whom you’re trying to serve.

Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World by Roger Crowley

Very good book. I’m interested in further exploring the Middle Ages, if anyone has recommendations. The thing that jumped out at me: the Knights of Saint John are such a mind-blowing concept. A group of nationless soldiers who, empowered by some Christian or Godly imperative, took an island in the Mediterranean to fortify and live on. Their only real mission was to exist, and with that end in mind had essentially no limits on the means with which they could accomplish it. They chose piracy. I mean, think about it: what if a group of Minutemen took some land on the coast of Somalia and funded their economy by ravaging passing oil tankers? How insane is that?

Samuel Bronfman: The Life and Times of Seagram’s Mr. Sam by Michael R Marrus

Long out of print. Samuel Bronfman is one of the classic Jewish hustlers (so is Dov Charney). There is a lot to learn in this book, especially from Bronfman’s insistence on vertical integration, quality and design. In a way, early on he was very much the sort of Chief Culture Officer that Grant talks about. He knew that aspiration is a powerful thing and weaved powerful imagery into every facet of his products. Look at the names of some of the Seagram brands – Crown Royal, Chivas Regal, Crown Seven and so on. Even the packaging and bottles – think of the purple cloak on a bottle of Crown Royal. The author makes some connection to Bronfman’s heritage as a Canadian Jew, which there is probably some merit to. Coincidentally, Bronfman’s grandson is the CEO of Warner Brothers Records. And another interesting connection, there was initially a different chapter planned for The 50th Law (it eventually became the Fearless Leadership chapter) that I thought Bronfman would be good for, but it never came to be.

Some questions to keep in mind:

1) A keen sense of understanding of the market and other people: Is it possible to acquire without self-awareness? Companies that are successful now but clearly lack both traits: how does that bode for their future?

2) How convenient is it that we humanize exotic animals when we want something from them and then convince ourselves of their unthinking, unconscious animal nature when we want to do something harmful to them?

3) Consider how many absurd things we gloss over in history of Christianity. The Knights of Saint John are one. I’m also reading about the Christian prosecution of animals like locusts and pigs in criminal courts.

November 5th, 2009

The Strategy Paradox by Michael E. Raynor

The Strategy Paradox is one of the first books I ever wrote about for my site. I read it when I was a sophomore in college, which really feels like forever ago, though it wasn’t. Of all the books I’ve read since then, it is one of the few I have come back to again and again. The paradox at the center of the book is best expressed through the analogy of investing in stocks. To truly profit when a company’s stock goes up, you need to have bought a lot of it, allocated significant resources towards the hope that it will rise. In doing so you’ve also just put yourself at risk; if it goes down, you have the most to lose. The Strategy Paradox works along the same lines. A strategy requires total commitment, and of course total commitment makes it difficult to adapt, to change or to shift.

Raynor has all sorts of interesting examples of companies which we’ve written off as being bad strategists, when really they were the opposite. Their commitment to success generated their failure – their aim was good but the winds shifted. And before you argue that this is a cop-out, remember that Clausewitz said we ought to judge a general’s battle plan based on its possibility for succeeding, not always whether or not it actually did. I remember this book being very dense when I first read it, but over time the message has become clearer and clearer to me. It’s something I am glad to have in the back of my mind.

A World Lit Only By Fire by William Manchester

I am preparing to work my way through the Middle Ages and I felt like this book would be a good start. When I teach myself a subject, I like to start with something basic. For example, if you wanted to do a lot of reading about Ancient Greece, you could watch the movie Troy before you started. You’d learn the names and the pronunciations and then later, while you read, you could associate the allusions made in the later works to images and living characters, rather than sparse memories of your middle school journey through Homer. It’s not the most glamorous or scholarly way, but who cares? Aside from those benefits, this book is fucking interesting. Manchester does a wonderful job explaining the humanity of each age, you’re left with a grasp on how the people alive back then felt about something, rather than some historians’ consensus on an event. You can’t really ask for more from a book.

Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son by George Horace Lorimer

This book is the preserved correspondence between Old Gorgon Graham, a self-made millionaire in Chicago, and his son who is coming of age and entering the family business. The letters date back to the 1890s but feel like they could have been written in any era. They are surprisingly stoic. Honest. Genuine. Packed with good advice. Normally these types of books are unreadably boring and personal. My version has only Graham’s letters and none from his son so there is only one voice, one perspective to follow. It gives the book a sense of narrative and flow that most books of letters lack (for which they suffer). One of my favorite parts is where Graham suggests that history should be taught backwards because most people never make it up to the present. I had a history teacher do this for one class in high school and it’s still the only formal education I’ve had on some of those subjects. I’ve since had plenty of time to go back and get caught up with what happened in the few thousand years prior. The book is in the public domain – I’ve never even heard it mentioned outside of Joseph Epstein’s Ambition (which is also good) – but is by far my favorite book of the year.

My Wicked, Wicked Ways by Errol Flynn

What fascinates me about this generation of Hollywood is not how similar it is to what we know now, but how widely different the world was. To put it in contrast with the books I’ve previously spoken about here, at the height of Flynn’s career, Alvin Karpis was locked away in Alcatraz, still an international celebrity for robbing banks with John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde, and not long before, William Seabrook had eaten human flesh in Africa and committed himself to a mental asylum because there was no formal treatment for alcoholism. Yet Flynn is not far removed from today’s popular culture. People he mentions in his memoirs have children who are still very much important actors and artists whose work we enjoy today. His movies are still played on television. Some normal family probably lives in his house in Los Angeles.

My other favorite part of the memoir genre, even ones like this which purport to be self-critical, are the massive events that go unexamined. Early in the book, Flynn mentions throwing a puppy in a lit fireplace like it was some normal childhood occurrence. In fact, the death and destruction and pain he leaves behind him everywhere is not something you explain with a self-deprecating title. And we wonder how these men die broken, alone and addicted.

The 50th Law by Robert Greene and 50 Cent. If you didn’t read it from my last recommendation, this ebook version I worked up might change your mind.

 

October 10th, 2009

Inside of a Dog: What Dog’s See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz

I was only halfway through this book when I left it on an airplane and lost it. It took me a week to get a new copy, at which point I had completely forgotten most of the notes I had made in the first few chapters. If you can avoid this problem you should read it, and do so continuously because it has a flow that serves it well. The book is about dogs and the study of dogs but in the scientific rather than the ownership sense. This means she did real experiments, is a real expert and isn’t just passing along personal observations. At the same time, she uses anecdotes from her dog to illustrate and explain her findings. The result is a nice mix between one of those unreadable books from a college professor and something you’d see on Oprah. The author is well-read in other fields, a skill she uses to tie in a bunch of interesting tangents. She spends a bit of time talking about flicker-fusion rates which are worth learning about. She also uses the concept of umwelt – an organism’s understanding of the environment around it – which is an interesting exercise in empathy. If you’ve read Cesar Milan’s book(which I like) this is a good companion.

Murder Trials: In Defense of Sextus Roscius of Ameria and In Defense of Aulus Cluentius Habitus by Cicero

What makes Cicero’s courtroom strategies so impressive is the fact that he never bothers to dispute the evidence against his clients. In both the defenses of Roscius and Cluentius, he doesn’t even use a single witness. He doesn’t offer contradictory evidence or waste much time with alibis. Instead, he focuses his entire arguments on the most critical part of the case – motive. In both trials he successfully creates such compelling versions of the events that all remaining details became irrelevant to a jury who believes there was no motive. His speeches are fantastic illustrations of a whole swath of Robert’s strategies in the WAR book: Control the Dynamic, Weave a Seamless Blend of Fact and Fiction, Take the Line of Least Expectation and so on. Cicero’s work is filled with so many applicable examples and fables and syllogisms and his name still carries such weight that I really leave each of his books with a ton of material I use for other things. This is one of those books. You should read it.

Animal Underworld: Inside America’s Black Market for Rare and Exotic Species by Alan Green

The main problem with this book is that it was written by a reporter and so it reads like a 300 page newspaper article. These types of books tend to be best written with some narrative or single story that ties each of the chapters together. That being said, the content of the book is pretty shocking. The best way to describe it is in terms of a controversy that is making its way through the art world. University libraries and non-profit museums who have been bequeathed paintings by rich donors are having financial trouble and selling  works that were given to them out of generosity and a desire for the public to have access to the pieces. The children of the donors are finding out after the fact that the pieces are ending up back in private hands or that the museum is making millions of dollars in profit off their donation. Well, zoos do the same thing but worse. Baby giraffes and gorillas sell tickets and bring in visitors their first few years of life but as they mature they become liabilities and weaker draws. Zoos donate (launder) them to animal “sanctuaries” who sell them for canned hunts or to private owners. Or the state will seize a tiger from some freak’s apartment in Harlem and give it to what they think is a rescue organization only to check back a year later and find no trace of it. In fact, there is a newspaper called Animal Finders Guide that I get where you can actually buy these animals – everything from tigers, bears, lions, apes – that have been laundered through private dealers and auctions and can’t be traced.

It is a weird subject to be into but there is something there. All the books I’ve read on it have been interesting but never completely the whole story. For instance, authors like this one make a special point to criticize roadside animal attractions or exotic exhibits in malls or schools. The evidence they use is how the animal must feel, how it’s twisted or barbaric. They never look at why people seem to be attracted to it – why we’ve been doing this to bears and tigers and elephants since before the Romans. What is it that draws people to captive, wild animals? Is there something to be said for this experience? That a child in in 15th century Medici Florence or a Tiger Truck Stop in Louisiana both felt the same awe and fear and surprise. I think there is and I wish someone (maybe me) would figure it out.

Theory of War: A Novel by Joan Brady

There isn’t much to say about this other than it is long out of print, incredibly strange and one of the best pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. Calling it fiction is a bit of an insult though because it is based on this woman’s actual family history and it feels so fucking real that you get lost in it. I don’t even need to tell you about it. Here is part of the author’s note:

“My grandfather was a slave. This isn’t an uncommon claim for an American to make if the American is black. But I’m not black. I’m white. My grandfather was white, too. And he wasn’t sold into slavery not in some barbaric third-world country: he was sold in the United States of America.”

This book is the pet favorite of someone I know and they’ve wanted to turn it into a movie forever. It would be a fantastic one because the story is almost as good as Gladiator.

Lives of the Later Caesars by Anonymous

Read the bios of Trajan through Commodus. Undoubtedly Marcus Aurelius‘ is best. What you see most profoundly in the people who came immediately before and after him is how much he improved their lives for the better. How humility and enthusiasm and respect are contagious. How they shine a bright light that either illuminates people who transmit it and exposes those that don’t by their contrast.

What’s weird about the book is that each of the biographies are attributed to a different author but scholars are fairly certain that it is all the work of a single anonymous individual in the fourth century. Normally the dispute is over whether the person existed at all or like in the case of Homer, whether many authors are being combined into one. As usual, I trust and liked Penguin’s translation.

 

September 17th, 2009

Hustling by Gail Sheehy

I don’t even remember how I chanced upon this one. It was written in 1971 about prostitution in America, specifically addressing what life hustling sex for money is like. If you’re following along from the last newsletter, it is an example of real, phronetic social science. Sheehy takes the subjects as they are, looks at what they’re actions mean for the rest of us and never lets her own disposition color the work. She is critical and honest, a surprisingly rare feat in books like this. Too often the writers are too sympathetic to the women involved and glamorize the behavior, or they’re too high on their moral horse to add anything but judgment and hypocrisy. Anyway, good and worth reading. There are some anecdotes in here about New York City in the 70s that make for good conversation.

The 50th Law by Robert Greene and 50 Cent

Since I worked on this book it took me 3 or 4 tries before I could really lose myself in it and actually read it. My bias aside, it is very, very good. It almost feels a bit extemporaneous; the book flows well because it’s centered on a single theme that it refines further with each chapter. Robert used much less of 50′s bio than I thought he would and it has the effect of making the book very simple and to the point. The three best laws are Chapter 2 – Make Everything Your Own, Chapter 3 – Turn Shit into Sugar and Chapter 8 – Respect the Process: Mastery. They rely most heavily on the great black boxers, who I enjoyed researching and learning about. The publisher has tried to describe this book as more philosophical than Robert’s other books, which I think is wrong or at least, a problem with the definition of the word. In fact, this book is much more practical than the 48 Laws or the War book. It has direct applications to your life, and not just in the sense of maneuvering around a bad worker, but literally the way in which you live your life. It’s not a business book either and it’s lame to hear it described that way.

The Wauchula Woods Accord by Charles Siebert

What a fucking writer. I’ve read a lot of books about exotic animals throughout history and this is the most thoughtful, well-written and interesting. It has a narrative for a change, which is nice. It’s a book about our relationship with animals and our growing understanding of their psychology and personalities, told through the events of a night the author spent with a chimp in the woods of Florida. Why, he asks, are we so drawn to portraying certain species as the opposite of what they are – chimps as comical man-children, elephants as kindly old women? How is this any different than the Roman’s absurd caricatures of sex hungry apes or their belief that elephants could live to be 300 years old? Speaking of Robert’s concept of mastery, I loved this book because the author says so fucking much in so few pages, without footnotes or research papers or lecturing.

The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of his Life–His Own by David Carr

Cognitive Dissonance ruins most memoirs. You can sort of hear the author rationalizing their actions to you, or in other cases, so they’re oblivious to the meaning of their own behavior that it renders the rest of their insights worthless. Memoirs about drug addiction or trauma are particularly bad, because it’s difficult for people to deeply, and self-critically view how bad things were. The memoir of a crack-addict father of twins turned staff writer for the New York Times should be one of those kinds of books. This one isn’t. In fact, it’s a testament to how good a book can be without falling prey to the narrative fallacy. The first few chapters explain what I’m talking about well and I won’t waste time trying to translate it here. As a bit of a sad ending, I know someone that saw him drinking recently which sort of puts a disappointing conclusion on the whole thing but who knows, it can always turn around. Finally, there is this really good line in the book that he cribbed from a 12 step group that is something like “The answer to life is learning how to live” – very similar to something from Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning.

My Life and Battles by Jack Johnson

If you end up liking The 50th Law, Jack Johnson’s memoir is the next step. This is the lost and translated book that came out of a series of pieces Johnson wrote for a French newspaper in 1911. It’s not very long but it is full of really interesting strategies and anecdotes. For example, early boxers used to hire “scientists” – essentially anatomy experts who looked at their form and told them where to do damage on the body – and this was always something poor blacks were excluded from. Johnson taught himself instead by purposely prolonging fights – sort of distancing himself from his own head and observing the fight as though he was a bystander. He tried to look at boxing like a business, putting his likes and dislikes of any situation aside, so he could be objective. It’s a philosophy that hustlers seem to understand well, the concept of You, Inc, because they never had any other option. Necessity required self-employment. With Johnson though, you want to keep in mind that for all he built and achieved, he lost more. Obviously, he couldn’t control the racial problems of the time but he very intentionally played with the fire that ultimately burned him. Not saying it isn’t sad, it’s just what happened.

 

August 24th, 2009

 

The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America and The Collapse of the Common Good: How America’s Lawsuit Culture Undermines our Freedom by Philip K. Howard

Both these books are good. Old, but good. Most of these polemic culture criticism books don’t stand up long after their publications, but these two do. Howard’s premise is that we’ve slowly give up our right to say “You know what? That’s just fucking dumb.” And when you rob people of that ability, they become helpless, self-destructive and greedy. Bureaucracy does this, a lawsuit culture does this, ruthless capitalism does this. It would be interesting to read these again in light of the debate on heath care, because it’s a nuance that’s missed in all the retarded politics. Are conservatives being disingenuous and stupid about all this? Certainly. But there is something to be said about centralization of any kind – private and pubic. It kills common sense and the common good.

The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man by David Maurer

Stories about con men and criminals are good to use as anecdotes and metaphors. The Big Con does this well and if that was all it did it would be worth having. What I didn’t realize is that Maurer’s book is the definitive academic piece on early 20th-century crime. As in, he also wrote an entire book on the linguistics of the underworld (which is interesting to think about considering how commonly we use their phrases – grift, rag, con, the fix, blowing him off) and wrote the Britannica article for “slang.” You would probably be well served to explore a few of the biographies of the characters in the book, although the 48 Laws of Power does a good job with some of the highlights. The one thing to take away: con men exploited the desire of wealthy people to get something for nothing and their willingness to break the rules to do so. Avoid that weakness, even if we don’t have to worry about roving bands of con men as much anymore.

Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Ails and How It Can Succeed Again by Bent Fyvbjerg

This is a shockingly honest and self-critical book about sociology. If you took a women’s studies or humanities class in college, you could be excused for thinking that the entire field is dominated by intellectually dishonest hacks. If you’d read much on your own by the time you got to the classroom like I had, you probably also found it difficult to contain yourself throughout the lectures. Fyvbjerg hopes to change that. See, the social sciences have a strange relationship with the scientific method. They want the respect that comes with the findings but none of the rigor that goes along with adhering to its rules.

Aristotle wrote of three types of knowledge: epistme (scientific), techne(technical know-how) and phronesis (understanding and ethics). Instead of trying to shoehorn the study of people into epistme, Fyvbjerg asks social scientists to embrace phronesis. He wants them to abandon the idea that you can distill an infinite amount of human variables into some predictive theory and focus on asking a few simple questions about the subjects they study. “Where are we going?” “Who benefits and who loses?” “Is this desirable?” I’ve written about phronesis before, and I described it as sort of a practical, intuitive understanding. MSSM is saying that we deserve social scientists who practice this kind of expert knowledge, rather than pseudo-scientists looking for confirmation of their political beliefs.

I have one criticism of this book. It’s written in exactly the kind of dense, academic style that he’s supposedly trying to get us to give up. As a result, it often feels like it exists in some Ivy League vacuum, rather than the real, gritty world that social sciences live in. It’s the wrong tone for a book of this kind of importance and its influence has suffered accordingly. If you can push through it, you realize that you can skip whole sections and pages without missing anything. This is bad for him but good for you. Definitely read this.

Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney

I read a book called Man Gone Down last week and it reminded me of how rare great novels are and how big the difference is between almost hitting it and truly hitting it. Bright Lights, Big City hits it, Man Gone Down comes close. It’s maybe the only thing I’ve ever read in the 2nd person and liked, it’s short and it has the one critical thing the great American novel is supposed to have – a clear, moral lesson. I particularly enjoyed a passage in the book where the narrator tries to tell his dying mother, as best he can, what it’s like to be him. How he feels isolated, carries this doubt that deep down, he’s always been behind and will never catch up. She looks at him and says “Don’t you think that everyone feels a little like that?” You can probably read Man Gone Down, too, but know that it is no Invisible Man. I liked Dick Gregory’s Nigger much better.

The Man Who Lost Everything by Paul Kuttner

Taleb once wrote about how he is constantly looking for business books about people who failed at business but can never find any. I’ve been looking too and thought I may have found one in this book. Turns out that it’s not only fiction, but is some ’70s erotic murder mystery, but I couldn’t tell because there was no Amazon description. Surprisingly it was good and I stayed up until 3 in the morning to finish it. Has some interesting sex scenes and a nice twist that would make a good Law and Order episode. The title looks good on your shelf and the some of the things this guy says to his mistress while they’re arguing are ridiculous. Finally, speaking of men who lost everything, there is a book about a guy who fell hard and found himself working at Starbucks at age 60 that is surprisingly good.

 

#N August 4th, 2009

On the Rock: Twenty-Five Years in Alcatraz : The Prison Story of Alvin Karpis as told to Robert Livesey

If you were pulled in by Public Enemies – which I think is one of the best pieces of non-fiction I’ve read – the next step is to learn about Alvin Karpis. Karpis, who was given decent coverage in Burrough’s book, easily beats out Dillinger in terms of reading material. He was the only public enemy of the era to escape a FBI massacre and he ended up doing 25 years at Alcatraz. There, he met the Birdman, watched Al Copone slowly die of syphilis, aided in the only successful prisoner escape and taught a creepy kid named Charlie Manson how to play the guitar. You can’t read about these guys’ lives without getting the sense that so much of what we know about history is ridiculously skewed towards what’s relatable and ‘feels good.’ It’s difficult to wrap your head around the fact that in the middle of the 20th century the only way the government could keep people from escaping from prison was to put them on a rocky island in the middle of the ocean. Or that the United States was such a small and crazy place that a bank robber like Alvin Karpis would have played poker in Missouri with a backwoods Senator named Harry Truman. And though this all seems like it happened a long time ago, you have to remember that Karpis served his time, lived for a decade on the outside off the proceeds of his bestselling book and didn’t die until 1979.

Addiction: A Disorder of Choice by Gene Heyman

The study of addiction is complicated by a number of problems. Like sociology, it tends to be dominated by people with strong personal or political positions that ultimately prevent it from being as objective as it should be. For instance, it is not uncommon for addicts to go straight from recovery to working in rehab clinics or doing social work. While this is great for them, it inherently alters the lens with which they look at the subject, making many reluctant to accept findings from outside their own experience.

This book is important to read because it goes an entirely different route. Starting with census data, Heyman looked at people who fit the diagnosis of addiction and tracked what happened to each addiction as the person aged. What he found was shocking. Without treatment, the majority of all “addicts” quit by the time they turn 40. As part of these findings, he noticed that drug abuse responds to economic and personal incentives. Having responsibilities, getting pregnant, the threat of being fired: these were extremely effective motivators in driving people to immediately cease drug use. The author’s point is obvious: How can addiction be a chronic brain disease if most people kick it without the help of medicine or programs? More importantly, we know nothing about these people because no one studies them. Instead, our knowledge of addiction is limited to people who are in treatment, likely a heavily distorted representation of the population.

Tyler Cowen’s criticism of this book is that Heyman often overstates his claims, and he’s right. The book is written in the style of a self-justifying academic paper and this is probably the reason you haven’t heard of it. It’s the second book I’ve read on addiction (the other being The End of My Addiction) where the author’s attitude hurt the impact of what should have otherwise been a landmark book. That being said, it’s important to read books that are critical of the status quo in a given field. It’s an easy way to play devil’s advocate in conversation and sound more educated on a topic than you might actually be.

On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

As a general rule, avoid any translation of a classic work that comes up with its own new title. It normally means that the author is trying to appeal to contemporary readers more than the spirit of the original work. They’d rather have some catchy name than describe it as the anthology it actually is. This was the reason I was skeptical of reading On the Shortness of Life since Seneca wrote no such collection (it’s the title of one of his essays) but I was thankfully proven wrong. Although there are some instances where the author is pandering, it is for the most part accurate and reads much like Letters from a Stoic. However, there aren’t any footnotes, an introduction or a conclusion, important parts of a classic work that you only miss when they’re gone. The first essay is probably the best. See: Seneca’s concept of slavery. That we would never let someone steal our money or property, but we give them free reign to take our time from us. If you’re in a hurry, skip the consolation to his mother and finish the third essay about tranquility. See: having faith in your position, as peace is the assuredness that you’re going in the right direction.

Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin

A good example of what I’m talking about with the Karpis book is that while this seminal book on race relations was written, Karpis was busy plotting some comical prison escape. When we learn about history we seem to only learn about the events themselves and never their context. One thing I didn’t know about Black Like Me is that Griffin was only black for like six weeks and the book is mostly his journal notes. I wish I had read this when I was researching for The 50th Law because it is much, much better than Native Son and says most of the same things. (Two sidenotes, if Griffin was able to successfully fool people into thinking that he was black using the resources available in 1950, how incompetent were the makeup artists on Black White? Secondly, the best part of the book is the editor’s note at the end where his biographer basically admits that after John died he married his widow and took over his estate, including the book he happens to be writing the epilogue to.)

Essays by Plutarch

I bought this to read “On Contentment” which is one of Plutarch’s best essays. I think we can learn a lot from his writing style, maybe as much as we can from his philosophy. Notice how it weaves anecdotes and examples and quotes seamlessly into the page without making it feel heavy or unoriginal. His translator put it best when he said that Plutarch doesn’t set out to convince through a long logical argument that some position is correct. Instead, Plutarch uses his strong sense of empathy and example to get you to admit that you already believed it. This makes Plutarch easy to read because rather than following where he is going, you arrive there together, having reached the destination through compromise and shared understanding. Personally, I enjoyed On Sparta a little better but both are good to have.

 

July 25th, 2009

Asylum: An Alcoholic Takes the Cure by William Seabrook

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book The Crack Up, he mentions in passing the memoir of a man who had himself committed to an institution. Both he and Fitzgerald had cracked under the same pressure, or so Fitzgerald thought. The man was William Seabrook, a world-famous travel writer from the Lost Generation and the book was Asylum. In 1934, Seabrook knew he was slowly drinking himself to death and entered an insane asylum. There, from the perspective of a travel writer, he described his own journey through this strange and foreign place. Today, you can’t read a page in the book without seeing him bump, unknowingly, into the basic principles of 12-step groups. On a regular basis, he says things so clear, so self-aware that you’re stunned an addict could have written it – shocked that this book isn’t a classic American text.

I read three of Seabrook’s books back to back so I’m unable to say where one stopped and another began. But you find that the deep, ceaseless fear that drove him to drink was that he’d die a mediocre writer, barely remembered. Ultimately, this is what happened. It was this fear and anxiety that drove Seabrook around the world. It’s awful, really, because aside from the occasional strange phrase, there isn’t a word in his books that couldn’t have been just as easily written today. I mean the whole gonzo concept of Wolfe and Thompson was essentially done by Seabrook 30+ years prior and in a bolder way. He went to Africa while Thompson barely made it to Vegas. He was a Hearst syndicate writer, one of the earliest Americans to serve in the First World War, a horse bandit in the Middle East, the first Western writer to taste human flesh and describe it, the first to use the word ‘zombie’ in an English text. Yet all his books are out of print and hard to find. Two of my copies are first editions from 1931 and 1942.

What you’ll notice, in these books, is how he’s always asking why and what for? Way too many memoirs are hampered by their own narcissism but Seabrook is honest and self-critical. Asylum is maybe the best book on addiction I’ve ever read and it breaks your heart, knowing that just a few decades later someone would have been able to help him. Read it first and then try No Hiding Place: An Autobiography. If you’re skeptical, try this book review from Time Magazine in 1942 that talks about his lifelong fetish for women in chains. I also read Jungle Ways which was a good end to the trilogy. You may have a hard time finding them but try to pick them up from Amazon or a college library because they are fucking awesome. It’s nice to have books in your library that few people have even heard of.

Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 by Bryan Burrough

Although the movie was a disappointment, this is a wonderful book. Burrough is just a spectacular writer and the narrative is well-known enough that I don’t need to try to sell anyone on it. What I will say is that Public Enemies has perhaps the best introduction in it that I’ve read at this point in my life. First in the author’s note, Burrough presents exactly why he decided to write the book and why it was so compelling. That he suddenly discovered one day that Pretty Boy Floyd, Alvin Karpis, Baby Face Nelson, John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Ma Barker, all made their names concurrently inside a single year in the 1930s and how shocked he was to learn that prior authors had neglected to inform the public of this as they told each story independently. Then in the prologue, he teases the narrative with an account of someone who lived through it. Finally, in the opening pages he does what too many non-fiction authors fail to do – properly place their own book in the context of the world around it. He writes that 1933 was not some antiquated, back century time but eight years from Pearl Harbor, a decade before the Atomic bomb, twenty three years before Elvis and less than forty before Woodstock. There are still people alive today, Burrough writes, that cowered behind their mothers knees while Dillinger raided the bank vault just a few feet away from them.

The book is worth reading because it’s a fascinating story but the introduction chapters alone are a lesson – for me at least – in the mastery of writing. Alvin Karpis was a figure I want to learn more about after reading, his story extends far outside bank robbing and his autobiography sounds interesting. I ordered it last week and expect it soon. For those that want more of Brian Burrough, Barbarians at the Gate is a good book.

And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture by Bill Wasik

This is a weird book that is difficult to categorize. I’ve tried to hammer out my thoughts on how the way we (the public) generate and consume media narratives and this is the first book to do a good job advancing the science. It is also one of the few books on the internet that I thought was both forward-thinking and intellectually honest. I’d like to think I am in front of this field a bit and seen some shit that only a small group has thus far. Trust me, it’s not all sunshine and kittens and I don’t think many people have bothered to consider the consequences of what Jeff Jarvis calls “process journalism.”

There is a blurb on the back that says the book has a  timeless quality to it and whoever said it is totally right. It could be The Image for my generation. The notion of process journalism, which I think is a stupid rationalization for lazy reporting – a way for blogs to abdicate responsibility for their actions – the way that we consume the stories we created ourselves like some oblivious ouroboros; all these things are discussed thoughtfully by someone with actual experience in the matter. In fact, I think it’s the first time someone who knew what they were talking about has attempted to do so. It’s short, definitely worth reading. A peerless book thus far.

Stealing MySpace: The Battle to Control the Most Popular Website in America by Julia Angwin

A friend who works at YouTube recommended this because he said it was a good example of the differences between the start-up cultures in Los Angeles and the Silicon Valley. He was right and I’m glad I read it. The differences he referred to are going to become important as these kinds of companies become larger parts of our lives. An infamous example at Google was when they ran a series of tests to decide between 43 shades of blue and not only didn’t see anything wrong with that but bragged about it. Things like that are windows into the DNA of a company, and ultimately have very big influences on how we consume or experience the internet. In MySpace’s case, the book is a good example of how toxic leadership and culture can ruin companies. MySpace’s problems stemmed mostly from its origins – it was run sloppily because it was formed sloppily, it was spammy because its founders were spammers and so on. I think the book is a good precursor to what we’ll see with Facebook, a organization whose problems are rooted in arrogance, poor strategy and a fundamental lack of understanding of their own purpose as a company. It’s rather stunning to think that something as big as Myspace could come and go from the cultural consciousness so quickly. Makes you wonder what we have coming.

As for the book, the writing is so-so, the subtitle is totally overblown and the picture section in the middle makes no sense. It’s not a classic business book by any means, but I’m glad I read it.

 

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

2 responses to Reading List Email Archive

  1. I just finished Ender’s Game this morning. It was beautiful and haunting. Then I stumbled upon your website and saw that you recommend this book. That gives weight to the rest of your recommendations. You have a convert!

  2. Sally Wheatland July 8, 2013 at 9:47 am

    Love your recommendations.
    On the LA front, what about Day of the Locust (very dark, but compelling, and possibly the source of the name Homer for Homer Simpson?); and do you like Wallace Stegner? The Big Rock Candy Mountain, The Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety? and, Larry McMurtry’s Texasville and Terms of Endearment?
    Thanks

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