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With over 400,000 monthly readers and more than 93,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.
Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.
With over 400,000 monthly readers and more than 93,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.
We recently asked our Members to recommend a single summer read, and why, and thought we might share some of their recommendations with you. Here are their choices and their reasoning:
“I would add Different to the list – unique insight into marketing and strategy tactics that have worked in highly competitive industries.”
“I’m currently madly in love with Alain De Botton’s newest book, The Course of Love. It’s a novel with interludes of philosophy that have really helped me to understand relationships (of all kinds) and nurse a little more empathy for others.”
“I find two books from Philip Coggan who writes the Buttonwood column at The Economist very interesting and very topical in these days.”
“My choice would be Peak. Because it is by far the best book covering deliberate practice. Could be life changing to anyone new to the field.”
“It’s not the ‘best’ book out there (though it’s very far from the worst). It’s not the most enjoyable read. It’s not the top of the ‘page for page most full of wisdom’ list. But it *is* the one that, were everyone to read it, would have the best chance of making the world a better place (and quite possibly the collective lives of the individuals that read it too).”
“A German classic not so well known in the english-speaking world about an engineer who is exposed to a number of freak events “fooled by randomness”-style which completely changes his intuition about probability.”
“A really fantastic book based on Mary Catherine Bateson’s work in foreign cultures. Tough to describe in a nutshell, but the title comes from her encouragement to seek more answers from the periphery, versus what we often find in front of us.“
“I would recommend Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. A bit on the side of science/physics but a nice small read that simplifies the broad concepts in physics.”
In his new book, Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday tells the story of Genghis Khan and how his openness to learning was the foundation of his success.
By Ryan Holiday
The legend of Genghis Khan has echoed through history: A barbarian conqueror, fueled by bloodlust, terrorizing the civilized world. We have him and his Mongol horde traveling across Asia and Europe, insatiable, stopping at nothing to plunder, rape, and kill not just the people who stood in their way, but the cultures they had built. Then, not unlike his nomadic band of warriors, this terrible cloud simply disappeared from history, because the Mongols built nothing that could last. Like all reactionary, emotional assessments, this could not be more wrong. For not only was Genghis Khan one of the greatest military minds who ever lived, he was a perpetual student, whose stunning victories were often the result of his ability to absorb the best technologies, practices, and innovations of each new culture his empire touched. In fact, if there is one theme in his reign and in the several centuries of dynastic rule that followed, it’s this: appropriation.
Under Genghis Khan’s direction, the Mongols were as ruthless about stealing and absorbing the best of each culture they encountered as they were about conquest itself. Though there were essentially no technological inventions, no beautiful buildings or even great Mongol art, with each battle and enemy, their culture learned and absorbed something new. Genghis Khan was not born a genius. Instead, as one biographer put it, his was “a persistent cycle of pragmatic learning, experimental adaptation, and constant revision driven by his uniquely disciplined and focused will.”
He was the greatest conqueror the world ever knew because he was more open to learning than any other conqueror has ever been.
Khan’s first powerful victories came from the reorganization of his military units, splitting his soldiers into groups of ten. This he stole from neighboring Turkic tribes, and unknowingly converted the Mongols to the decimal system. Soon enough, their expanding empire brought them into contact with another “technology” they’d never experienced before: walled cities. In the Tangut raids, Khan first learned the ins and outs of war against fortified cities and the strategies critical to laying siege, and quickly became an expert. Later, with help from Chinese engineers, he taught his soldiers how to build siege machines that could knock down city walls. In his campaigns against the Jurched, Khan learned the importance of winning hearts and minds. By working with the scholars and royal family of the lands he conquered, Khan was able to hold on to and manage these territories in ways that most empires could not. Afterward, in every country or city he held, Khan would call for the smartest astrologers, scribes, doctors, thinkers, and advisers—anyone who could aid his troops and their efforts. His troops traveled with interrogators and translators for precisely this purpose.
It was a habit that would survive his death. While the Mongols themselves seemed dedicated almost solely to the art of war, they put to good use every craftsman, merchant, scholar, entertainer, cook, and skilled worker they came in contact with. The Mongol Empire was remarkable for its religious freedoms, and most of all, for its love of ideas and convergence of cultures. It brought lemons to China for the first time, and Chinese noodles to the West. It spread Persian carpets, German mining technology, French metalworking, and Islam. The cannon, which revolutionized warfare, was said to be the resulting fusion of Chinese gunpowder, Muslim flamethrowers, and European metalwork. It was Mongol openness to learning and new ideas that brought them together.
As we first succeed, we will find ourselves in new situations, facing new problems. The freshly promoted soldier must learn the art of politics. The salesman, how to manage. The founder, how to delegate. The writer, how to edit others. The comedian, how to act. The chef turned restaurateur, how to run the other side of the house.
This is not a harmless conceit. The physicist John Wheeler, who helped develop the hydrogen bomb, once observed that “as our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.” In other words, each victory and advancement that made Khan smarter also bumped him against new situations he’d never encountered before. It takes a special kind of humility to grasp that you know less, even as you know and grasp more and more. It’s remembering Socrates’ wisdom lay in the fact that he knew that he knew next to nothing.
With accomplishment comes a growing pressure to pretend that we know more than we do. To pretend we already know everything. Scientia infla (knowledge puffs up). That’s the worry and the risk—thinking that we’re set and secure, when in reality understanding and mastery is a fluid, continual process.
The nine-time Grammy– and Pulitzer Prize–winning jazz musician Wynton Marsalis once advised a promising young musician on the mind-set required in the lifelong study of music: “Humility engenders learning because it beats back the arrogance that puts blinders on. It leaves you open for truths to reveal themselves. You don’t stand in your own way. . . . Do you know how you can tell when someone is truly humble? I believe there’s one simple test: because they consistently observe and listen, the humble improve. They don’t assume, ‘I know the way.’”
No matter what you’ve done up to this point, you better still be a student. If you’re not still learning, you’re already dying.
It is not enough only to be a student at the beginning. It is a position that one has to assume for life. Learn from everyone and everything. From the people you beat, and the people who beat you, from the people you dislike, even from your supposed enemies. At every step and every juncture in life, there is the opportunity to learn—and even if the lesson is purely remedial, we must not let ego block us from hearing it again.
Too often, convinced of our own intelligence, we stay in a comfort zone that ensures that we never feel stupid (and are never challenged to learn or reconsider what we know). It obscures from view various weaknesses in our understanding, until eventually it’s too late to change course. This is where the silent toll is taken.
Each of us faces a threat as we pursue our craft. Like sirens on the rocks, ego sings a soothing, validating song— which can lead to a wreck. The second we let the ego tell us we have graduated, learning grinds to a halt. That’s why Frank Shamrock said, “Always stay a student.” As in, it never ends.
The solution is as straightforward as it is initially uncomfortable: Pick up a book on a topic you know next to nothing about. Put yourself in rooms where you’re the least knowledgeable person. That uncomfortable feeling, that defensiveness that you feel when your most deeply held assumptions are challenged—what about subjecting yourself to it deliberately? Change your mind. Change your surroundings
An amateur is defensive. The professional finds learning (and even, occasionally, being shown up) to be enjoyable; they like being challenged and humbled, and engage in education as an ongoing and endless process.
Most military cultures—and people in general—seek to impose values and control over what they encounter. What made the Mongols different was their ability to weigh each situation objectively, and if need be, swap out previous practices for new ones. All great businesses start this way, but then something happens. Take the theory of disruption, which posits that at some point in time, every industry will be disrupted by some trend or innovation that, despite all the resources in the world, the incumbent interests will be incapable of responding to. Why is this? Why can’t businesses change and adapt?
A large part of it is because they lost the ability to learn. They stopped being students. The second this happens to you, your knowledge becomes fragile.
The great manager and business thinker Peter Drucker says that it’s not enough simply to want to learn. As people progress, they must also understand how they learn and then set up processes to facilitate this continual education. Otherwise, we are dooming ourselves to a sort of self-imposed ignorance.
Source: Ego is the Enemy and used with permission from the author.
Ecology is the study of relationships and processes linking living things to the physical and chemical environment. Exciting, right?
In the 1971 book The Closing Circle, Barry Commoner gives us a clear and understandable example of what ecology really means, while being one of the first to sound the alarm on the impending environmental crisis. (Although Rachel Caron’s Silent Spring certainly holds the mantle for implanting ecological thought into the popular consciousness.)
Commoner’s life was devoted to helping people see the benefits of ecological thinking:
Ecology has not yet explicitly developed the kind of cohesive, simplifying generalizations exemplified by, say, the laws of physics. Nevertheless there are a number of generalizations that are already evident in what we now know about the ecosphere and that can be organized into a kind of informal set of laws of ecology.
He goes on to lay out four basic and inescapable laws of ecology (which nicely complement Garett Hardin’s Three Filters). The principles describe a beautiful web of life on earth.
It reflects the existence of the elaborate network of interconnections in the ecosphere: among different living organisms, and between populations, species, and individual organisms and their physicochemical surroundings.
The single fact that an ecosystem consists of multiple interconnected parts, which act on one another, has some surprising consequences. Our ability to picture the behavior of such systems has been helped considerably by the development, even more recent than ecology, of the science of cybernetics. We owe the basic concept, and the word itself, to the inventive mind of the late Norbert Wiener.
The word “cybernetics” derives from the Greek word for helmsman; it is concerned with cycles of events that steer, or govern, the behavior of a system. The helmsman is part of a system that also includes the compass, the rudder, and the ship, If the ship veers off the chosen compass course, the change shows up in the movement of the compass needle. Observed and interpreted by the helmsman this event determines a subsequent one: the helmsman turns the rudder, which swings the ship back to its original course. When this happens, the compass needle returns to its original, on-course position and the cycle is complete. If the helmsman turns the rudder too far in response to a small deflection of the compass needle, the excess swing of the ship shows up in the compass—which signals the helmsman to correct his overreaction by an opposite movement. Thus the operation of this cycle stabilizes the course of the ship.
In quite a similar way, stabilizing cybernetic relations are built into an ecological cycle. Consider, for example, the fresh water ecological cycle: fish-organic waste-bacteria of decay inorganic products—algae—fish. Suppose that due to unusually warm summer weather there is a rapid growth of algae. This depletes the supply of inorganic nutrients so that two sectors of the cycle, algae and nutrients, are out of balance, but in opposite directions. The operation of the ecological cycle, like that of the ship, soon brings the situation back into balance. For the excess in algae increases the ease with which fish can feed on them; this reduces the algae population, increases fish waste production, and eventually leads to an increased level of nutrients when the waste decays. Thus, the levels of algae and nutrients tend to return to their original balanced position.
In such cybernetic systems the course is not maintained by rigid control, but flexibility. Thus the ship does not move unwaveringly on its path, but actually follows it in a wavelike motion that swings equally to both sides of the true course. The frequency of these swings depends on the relative speeds of the various steps in the cycle, such as the rate at which ships responds to the rudder.
Ecological systems exhibit similar cycles, although these are often obscured by the effects of daily or seasonal variations in weather and environmental agents.
The dynamic behavior of a cybernetic system—for example, the frequency of its natural oscillations, the speed with which it responds to external changes, and its overall rate of operation, depends on the relative rates of its constituent steps. In the ship system, the compass needle swings in fractions of a second; the helmsman’s reaction takes some seconds; the ship responds over a time of minutes. These different reaction times interact to produce, for example, the ship’s characteristic oscillation frequency around its true course.
Ecosystems differ considerably in their rate characteristics and therefore vary a great deal in the speed with which they react to changed situations or approach the point of collapse.
The amount of stress which an ecosystem can absorb before it is driven to collapse is also a result of its various interconnections and their relative speeds of response. The more complex the ecosystem, the more successfully it can resist a stress. … Most ecosystems are so complex that the cycles are not simple circular paths, but are crisscrossed with branches to form a network or a fabric of interconnections. Like a net, in which each knot is connected to others by several strands, such a fabric can resist collapse better than a simple, unbranched circle of threads—which if cut anywhere breaks down as a whole. Environmental pollution is often a sign that ecological links have been cut and that the ecosystem has been artificially simplified and made more vulnerable to stress and to final collapse.
The feedback characteristics of ecosystems result in amplification and intensification processes of considerable magnitude. For example, the fact that in food chains small organisms are eaten by bigger ones and the latter by still bigger ones inevitably results in the concentration of certain environmental constituents in the bodies of the largest organisms at the top of the food chain. Smaller organisms always exhibit much higher metabolic rates than larger ones, so that the amount of their food which is oxidized relative to the amount incorporated into the body of the organism is thereby greater. Consequently, an animal at the top of the food chain depends on the consumption of an enormously greater mass of the bodies of organisms lower down in the food chain. Therefore, any non-metabolized material present in the lower organisms of this chain will become concentrated in the body of the top one. …
All this results from a simple fact about ecosystems—everything is connected to everything else: the system is stabilized by its dynamic self-compensating properties; those same properties, if overstressed, can lead to a dramatic collapse; the complexity of the ecological network and its intrinsic rate of turnover determine how much it can be stressed, and for how long, without collapsing; the ecological network is an amplifier, so that a small perturbation in one network may have large, distant, long-delayed effects.
This is, of course, simply a somewhat informal restatement of a basic law of physics—that matter is indestructible. Applied to ecology, the law emphasizes that in nature there is no such thing as “waste.” In every natural system, what is excreted by one organism as waste is taken up by another as food. Animals release carbon dioxide as a respiratory waste; this is an essential nutrient for green plants. Plants excrete oxygen, which is used by animals. Animal organic wastes nourish the bacteria of decay. Their wastes, inorganic materials such as nitrate, phosphate, and carbon dioxide, become algal nutrients.
A persistent effort to answer the question “Where does it go?” can yield a surprising amount of valuable information about an ecosystem. Consider, for example, the fate of a household item which contains mercury—a substance with serious environmental effects that have just recently surfaced. A dry-cell battery containing mercury is purchased, used to the point of exhaustion, and then “thrown out.” But where does it really go? First it is placed in a container of rubbish; this is collected and taken to an incinerator. Here the mercury is heated; this produces mercury vapor which is emitted by the incinerator stack, and mercury vapor is toxic. Mercury vapor is carried by the wind, eventually brought to earth in rain or snow. Entering a mountain lake, let us say, the mercury condenses and sinks to the bottom. Here it is acted on by bacteria which convert it to methyl mercury. This is soluble and taken up by fish; since it is not metabolized, the mercury accumulates in the organs and flesh of the fish. The fish is caught and eaten by a man and the mercury becomes deposited in his organs, where it might be harmful. And so on.
This is an effective way to trace out an ecological path. It is also an excellent way to counteract the prevalent notion that something which is regarded as useless simply “goes away” when it is discarded. Nothing “goes away”; it is simply transferred from place to place, converted from one molecular form to another, acting on the life processes of any organism in which it becomes, for a time, lodged. One of the chief reasons for the present environmental crisis is that great amounts of materials have been extracted from the earth, converted into new forms, and discharged into the environment without taking into account that “everything has to go somewhere.” The result, too often, is the accumulation of harmful amounts of material in places where, in nature, they do not belong.
In my experience this principle is likely to encounter considerable resistance, for it appears to contradict a deeply held idea about the unique competence of human beings. One of the most pervasive features of modern technology is the notion that it is intended to “improve on nature”—to provide food, clothing, shelter, and means of communication and expression which are superior to those available to man in nature. Stated baldly, the third law of ecology holds that any major man-made change in a natural system is likely to be detrimental to that system. This is a rather extreme claim; nevertheless I believe it has a good deal of merit if understood in a properly defined context.
I have found it useful to explain this principle by means of an analogy. Suppose you were to open the back of your watch, close your eyes, and poke a pencil into the exposed works. The almost certain result would be damage to the watch. Nevertheless, this result is not absolutely certain. There is some finite possibility that the watch was out of adjustment and that the random thrust of the pencil happened to make the precise change needed to improve it. However, this outcome is exceedingly improbable. The question at issue is: why? The answer is self-evident: there is a very considerable amount of what technologists now call “research and development” (or, more familiarly, “R & D”) behind the watch. This means that over the years numerous watchmakers, each taught by a predecessor, have tried out a huge variety of detailed arrangements of watch works, have discarded those that are not compatible with the over-all operation of the system and retained the better features. In effect, the watch mechanism, as it now exists, represents a very restricted selection, from among an enormous variety of possible arrangements of component parts, of a singular organization of the watch works. Any random change made in the watch is likely to fall into the very large class of inconsistent, or harmful, arrangements which have been tried out in past watch-making experience and discarded. One might say, as a law of watches, that “the watchmaker knows best,”
There is a close, and very meaningful, analogy in biological systems. It is possible to induce a certain range of random, inherited changes in a living thing by treating it with an agent, such as x-irradiation, that increases the frequency of mutations. Generally, exposure to x-rays increases the frequency of all mutations which have been observed, albeit very infrequently, in nature and can therefore be regarded as possible changes. What is significant, for our purpose, is the universal observation that when mutation frequency is enhanced by x-rays or other means, nearly all the mutations are harmful to the organisms and the great majority so damaging as to kill the organism before it is fully formed.
In my experience, this idea has proven so illuminating for environmental problems that I have borrowed it from its original source, economics. The “law” derives from a story that economists like to tell about an oil-rich potentate who decided that his new wealth needed the guidance of economic science. Accordingly he ordered his advisers, on pain of death, to produce a set of volumes containing all the wisdom of economics. When the tomes arrived, the potentate was impatient and again issued an order—to reduce all the knowledge of economics to a single volume. The story goes on in this vein, as such stories will, until the advisers are required, if they are to survive, to reduce the totality of economic science to a single sentence. This is the origin of the “free lunch” law.
In ecology, as in economics, the law is intended to warn that every gain is won at some cost. In a way, this ecological law embodies the previous three laws. Because the global ecosystem is a connected whole, in which nothing can be gained or lost and which is not subject to over-all improvement, anything extracted from it by human effort must be replaced. Payment of this price cannot be avoided; it can only be delayed. The present environmental crisis is a warning that we have delayed nearly too long.
Lest you feel these are all scientific, Commoner ends by referring you to classic literature:
“A great deal about the interplay of the physical features of the environment and the creatures that inhabit it can be learned from Moby Dick.”
Still Interested? Check these related posts out:
Garrett Hardin on the Three Filters Needed to Think About Problems — “The goal of these mental filters, then, is to understand reality by improving our ability to judge the statements of experts, promoters, and persuaders of all kinds.”
The Effect of Scale in Social Science, or Why Utopia Doesn’t Work — Why can’t a mouse be the size of an elephant? Weclome to the effect of scale on values.
One of our goals when reading is to find and elucidate the key sentences in a book.
Independent of whether we agree with these key sentences, we first need to digest them — to capture the author’s meaning. This is easier in non-fiction than fiction (in part, because typically non-fiction authors stick to the same definition throughout the book whereas fiction authors can change the meaning.)
Consider this beauty from Machiavelli’s The Prince:
You must know there are two ways of contesting, the one by the law, the other by force; the first method is proper to men, the second to beasts; but because the first is frequently not sufficient, it is necessary to have recourse to the second. Therefore it is necessary for a prince to understand how to avail himself of the beast and the man.
Think for a second. What does it mean in your words?
In a long ago discussion between Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, authors of The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, they dissect this quote.
Van Doren: That’s a terrible statement isn’t it? It means that in the way of life, in which we all live, we cannot afford to be wholly human, we also have to be beastual.
Most of the time, especially with expository books, it’s easier to find the key sentences than to understand them.
We all read these sentences and feel as though we understand them. After all we understand the words the author is using. Adler however encourages us to go further. To demonstrate understanding he recommends putting the sentence in your own words. After you’ve done this, he suggests you offer a concrete example of the meaning.
Here is another example of this process playing out from Adler and Van Doren’s conversation.
Adler: In the middle ages the great philosophers were very fond of saying, again and again, ‘nothing acts, except it is actual.’ What does that mean to you? Say that in your own words now …
Van Doren: It means I can’t be hurt by something that is only potential. Unless something actually is, it can’t hurt me.
Adler: Unless something exists it can’t hurt you. Show me you understand that by giving me a concrete example of something that can’t hurt you because it isn’t actual.
Van Doren: Well … a possible thunder storm can’t wet me.
We’ve just added some insightful excerpts from Adler and Van Doren’s fascinating conversation as bonus content to How to Read a Book. You don’t want to miss this.
In the early 1900s Samuel Pierpont Langley wanted to be the first man to fly an airplane. He stacked the odds in his favor, or so he thought, by arming himself with all the ingredients for success.
His friends included some of the most powerful men in government and business. He was given a $50k grant from the War Department (an enormous sum at the time.) He brought together the best minds of the day – the most talented team imaginable. The team had access to the best technology and materials. They were treated like rockstars and followed everywhere by the press.
It was virtually impossible to fail. Or was it?
Not very far away Wilbur and Orville Wright were working on their own airplane. Only they didn’t have a lot of money. They didn’t have a team of world-class talent – not a single person on the team had a college education let alone an advanced degree. They didn’t have the best materials. Heck, they were operating out of a bicycle shop. But they did have something that Pierpont didn’t have. They had passion.
That passion was so intense, writes Simon Sinek in his book It Starts With Why, “that it inspired the enthusiasm and commitment of a dedicated group in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio.”
Like the Titanic, we know how this story ends.
On December 17, 1903 the Wright brothers took man into flight for the first time.
Why did they succeed against a more talented and better funded team?
It wasn’t luck. Both Langley and the Wright bothers were motivated, had scientific minds, and worked hard. It wasn’t money, talent, or materials. Langley had more of these in spades. It wasn’t systems or processes as these are easily replicated.
The difference was that the Wright brothers, according to Sinek, “were able to inspire those around them and truly lead their team to develop a technology that would change the world.”
The difference between someone doing something because they want to and not because they have to is huge.
Have you ever worked for a boss you didn’t like on a project you didn’t like? You might be the most talented person in the organization but it doesn’t matter because on that project and for that boss you’re a 9 to 5 worker. You do your job and nothing more. You shut your brain off.
Compare that to a time you worked for a boss you loved on a project you loved. I bet you went all in. The hours flew by, you thought about the project in the shower in the morning, your passion and excitement about the project was hard to contain.
The difference between these two examples is not a few hours of a day. The difference is non-linear. (And anytime you get a non-linear result when you expected a linear one, you need to pay attention as the world is trying to teach you something.)
This is how team can trump talent and one of the mains reasons that culture eats strategy.
Sinek concludes that great leaders “are able to inspire people to act. Those who are able to inspire give people a sense of purpose or belonging that has little to do with any external incentive or benefit to be gained.” In short, they inspire people to acts because they want to, not because they were swayed with money or rewards. And people who are inspired to act have a deeply personal motivation for doing so and they endure inconveniences, personal suffering and setbacks.
Give me a team of people acting because they want to, not because they have to, and you can compete with anyone.
Every two weeks, from 2007 to 2011, Yann Martel sent a book to then Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper. Each book was accompanied by a letter telling the PM why he might enjoy that particular selection. Martel, author of Life of Pi and the recently released The High Mountains of Portugal, strongly believes that “if you want to lead effectively, you must read widely”, and by widely, he means you must read literature.
My argument is that literature – as opposed to factual non-fiction – is an essential element to a deeply thinking, fully feeling mind in our complex twenty-first century world. A mind not informed by the thoughtful product that is the novel, the play, the poem, will be capable perhaps of administering the affairs of a people, maintaining the status quo, but not of truly leading that people. To lead effectively requires the capacity both to understand how things are and to dream how things might be, and nothing so displays that kind of understanding and dreaming as literature does.
Martel says that fiction has a more ‘universal resonance’ than non-fiction. Non-fiction has the advantage of being able to cover a specific topic in depth, but does not have the same broad appeal that fiction does.
A novel is about Life itself, whereas a history remains about a specific instance of Life. A great Russian novel…will always have a more universal resonance than a great history of Russia; you will think of the first as being about you on some level, whereas the second is about someone else.
Given the slightly disingenuous tone of Martel’s letters, it seems unlikely that he expected Harper – who never responded personally – to enter into a literary discourse with him. In his own words, Martel was using books as “political bullets and grenades”. He wanted to convey to the Prime Minister that the Arts are more than just entertainment; they are the core elements of civilization.
The value of 101 Letters to a Prime Minister lies in Martel’s insightful commentary on the books and their authors. Two things I am confident in saying: this compendium includes books you will not have heard of, and, your ‘to read’ list will grow after reading it.
Most of the works selected are under 200 pages – leaders are busy people – and it’s hard to imagine a more diverse selection of books. Along with the authors you’d expect to see – Shakespeare, Hemingway, Camus, Voltaire – are quite a few surprises. And not all of them are books Martel liked. He read Fictions by Borges twice and didn’t like it either time, but he encourages others to do the same.
By so doing one avoids the possible pitfall of autodidacts, who risk shaping their reading to suit their limitations, thereby increasing those limitations. The advantage of structured learning, at the various schools available at all ages of one’s life, is that one must measure one’s intellect against systems of ideas that have been developed over centuries. One’s mind is thus confronted with unsuspected new ideas.
Which is to say that one learns, one is shaped, as much by the books that one has liked as by those that one has disliked.
The books chosen by Martel include novels, plays, poetry, and philosophical works, but it’s not only classic literature. Ever heard of The Virgin Secretary’s Impossible Boss? Probably not. But you’ve likely heard of the brand. Over 6 billion Harlequin romance novels have been sold. Martel acknowledges that they’re poorly-written, silly, unrealistic and escapist, but says they provide readers with emotional satisfaction, “an escape from the harsh realities of life into a glamorous world populated by rich, beautiful people where a happy ending is guaranteed”.
Any book – trash to classic – makes us live the life of another person, injects us with the wisdom and folly of their years. When we’ve read the last page of a book, we know more, either in the form of raw knowledge – the name of a gun, perhaps – or in the form of greater understanding. The worth of these vicarious lives is not to be underestimated. There’s nothing sadder – or sometimes more dangerous – than the person who has lived only his or her single, narrow life, unenlightened by the experience, real or invented, of others.
It is this ability of Martel’s to see, and convey to the reader, the value of a very eclectic collection of reading material that makes his book such a pleasure to read.
Martel sends Harper several picture books – The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, Imagine a Day, Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen – as well as some books for older children – The Brothers Lionheart, Read All About It! and Charlotte’s Web.
The fundamental role of children’s literature is to encourage children to use their imagination…If the expandable imagination of a child’s mind is not expanded, then it will shrink all the more, harden all the more, when that child grows up. The consequence is more dire than simply an adult with a dull, narrow mind. Such an adult is also less useful to society because he or she will be incapable of coming up with the new ideas and new solutions that society needs. A skill is a narrow focus of knowledge, a single card in a deck. Creativity is the hand that plays the cards.
Even with a seemingly straightforward picture book, there can be more than meets the eye.
Look at the illustrations of In the Night Kitchen. Who do the cooks with their narrow moustaches remind you of? What then might it mean when Mickey escapes the batter and floats away from the oven? In other words, I would suggest that you not just read these books (and aloud, even better), but imagine them.
Maus is a masterpiece. Spiegelman tells his story, or, more accurately, the story of his mother and father, in a bold and radical way. It’s not just that he takes the graphic form, thought perhaps by some to be a medium only for children, to new artistic heights by taking on such a momentous topic as exterminationist genocide. It’s more than that. It’s how he tells the story. You will see. The narrative agility and ease of it. And how the frames speak large. Some, small though they are, and in black and white, have an impact that one would think possible only with large paintings or shots from a movie.
It’s brilliant. It so takes you in, it so rips you apart. From there you must make your own tricky way back again to what it means to be human.
Not something you might expect a Man Booker prize-winning author to send to a Prime Minister, but Martel gets to the heart of what erotica offers in describing Anaïs Nin’s Artists and Models:
Clothes are the commonest trappings of vanity. When we are naked, we are honest. That is the essential quality of these lustful stories of Nin, embellished or wholly invented though they may be: their honesty. They say: this is part of who we are – deny it, and you are denying yourself.
Read the Bhagavad Gita in a moment of stillness and with an open heart, and it will change you. It is a majestic text, elevated and elevating. Like Arjuna, you will emerge from this dialogue with Krishna wiser and more serene, ready for action but filled with inner peace and loving-kindness.
Om shanti (peace be with you), as they say in India.
Kafka introduced to our age a feeling that hasn’t left us yet: angst. …. The dysfunctional side of the twentieth century, the dread that comes from mindless work, from constant, grinding, petty regulation, the dread that comes from the greyness of urban, capitalist existence, where each one of us is no more than a lonely cog in a machine, this was what Kafka revealed. Are we done with these concerns? Have we worked our way out of anxiety, isolation and alienation? Alas, I think not. Kafka still speaks to us.
Tolstoy was unregulated. He lived in a manner unbridled and unblinkered. He took it all in. He was supremely complex. And so there was much of life in his long life, life good and bad, wise and unwise, happy and unhappy. Thus the interest of his writings, because of their extraordinary existential breadth. If the earth could gather itself up, could bring together everything upon it, all men, women and children, every plant and animal, every mountain and valley, every plain and ocean, and twist itself into a fine point, and at that fine point grasp a pen, and with that pen begin to write, it would write like Tolstoy.
So though limited by class and by sex, Jane Austen was able to transcend these limitations. Her novels are marvels of wit and perspicacity, and in them she examined her society with such fresh and engaging realism that the English novel was durably changed.
The final work Martel sends to Harper is In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. At 4,347 pages, it breaks the ‘under 200 pages’ rule by quite a wide margin, and is also the only book Martel hadn’t read before sending. He sends it as a commitment to read it himself one day.
So why did I never take on Proust’s masterpiece? I suppose for the same reason that many books are left unread, a mixture of fear and slothfulness, fear that I wouldn’t understand the work and unwillingness to spend so much intellectual energy reading all those pages. But as you and I both know, fear and slothfulness lead nowhere. Great achievements only come through courage and hard work.
101 Letters to a Prime Minister is a worthwhile addition to the bibliophile’s bookshelf.