The gateway drug theory has reared its ugly head. For me, the gateway drug of podcasts has lead to the much more serious (and time consuming) drug of reading. I’ve always considered myself a “reader”, but in the past few months I’ve gone into overdrive. My amazon wish list has over 800 items on it and at least 700 of them are books. Even though I have continued to add things to it, its actually been getting shorter rather than longer for the first time in five years. I won’t give full reviews here, but here are some quick thoughts on the books I have finished (mostly) in the last few months:
How to read a book – This is one of those I wish I would have heard about years ago (high school would have been nice). While the title is a little ironic (there are audio versions too – that’s slightly less ironic), this is a practical how to that gives a method for how to get the most out of everything you read. One of the most interesting points is that not every book deserves a careful reading – some you can (and should) just skim.
The Great Conversation – this is the first volume in the set of “Great Books of the Western World” that I picked up this past fall via Craigslist. The relatively short intro book (a long essay really) documents the thinking that went into assembling the set, provides a few approaches to reading the books in the set, and makes an argument as to why anyone would want to bother reading what is admittedly some difficult material (hint: its the key to understanding most everything about western culture, society, history, etc). Subsequently I picked up volume 2 and 3 (the so-called Syntopicon) and read a few entries on “big ideas like truth and happiness. This is another one that I wish I had found earlier, but the author put me at ease when he wrote that you have to be old to understand most of it anyway ;-).
Meditations (50% complete) – it took me a while to understand what I was reading, but now that I do, this is one that I go back to in between reading others, which is one reason I am only halfway through. I’ve been a “fan” of very modern 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and most specifically the concept of Circle of Influence vs. Circle of Concern. I should have known that there is nothing new under the sun and some ancient Greeks and Romans had this figured out more than 2000 years ago.
Brave New World – In the next few months, I think I need to add a some more fiction. Looking back over the past few months this is the only fiction title on my list, and its more than 50 years old – not that there is an expiration date on good fiction. But also not to say that this is good fiction. I read 1984 when I was 11 in 1984. Not sure that I got it all at the time, but I’ve read the companion book now and I can see the allure of claiming that Huxley wasn’t writing fiction…he was telling the future.
Liberalism In The Classical Tradition – this was another short (and even better free courtesy of mises.org) that a fellow forum member pointed me to when I was questioning some of the confusing labeling – left, right, liberal, conservative, etc. This was a quick read that gives a good explanation of the real differences between a classical liberal and todays liberal progressive.
Tragedy and Hope (33% complete) – this is a tough read – worth it so far, but tough. Its nominally a history book, but in reality it attempts to create a common thread (and justification) to over a century of Anglo-American foreign and domestic policies. I’m only a about a third of the way through (it is 1,300 pages) but already I have gained lots of interesting ideas including the concept that the varying rate of technology diffusion is a primary driver of history, that there are different forms of capitalism and a seemingly natural progression from one to the next, that the dark ages were the impetus for the development of classical liberalism in the west (it didn’t develop in Russia or the East since they have always had rulers = no dark ages), the differences between wealth and claims on wealth and a solid explanation of why global governments love war so much (it allows them to add money to the economy without the correlated increase in goods since what is made is destroyed in the war and not available for consumer purchase anyway). Again, a dense / tough read and something that I need to be in the mood to take some notes before I crack it open.
A Century of War – I heard about this one on a podcast a few days before I was going to leave for a quick trip to Spain and read it in two days, most of it somewhere over the Atlantic. It was another free one courtesy of mises.org and although the title claims that it covers Lincoln, Wilson and FDR, it really goes deep on the first and last and just skims over Wilson’s role in getting the US into WWI. I’m in the “no single explanation”” for historical events camp, but this book added some interesting perspective to the events that lead to the US fighting “defensive” wars as far back as the 1860s.
The Torture Report – this came out the day I was in transit to Spain. Fortunately I had some long layovers, so I was able to track down the PDF link and add it to my reading list before my devices were in airplane mode. Not much to say here other than reading this made me triply sad: sad that these things were done in my name, sad that the focus of the report is the effectiveness of torture – not its morality, and sad that not more people will take the time to read the report.
Rubicon – this one has been on my reading list for more than 2 year – ever since I listened to the Hardcore History multi-part series on the fall of the Roman Republic. I saw a cheap copy in good shape on a recent trip to Half Price Books so of course I bought it. I ripped through this one in about a week. It was the first “narrative history” book that I have read, and I have to say that I am fan of the format. Although the author specifically admonishes the reader to avoid drawing parallels between the ancient Roman and the modern American empires, it was really tough to do, especially when there are some that are so obvious.
Day of Deceit – I heard about this one on the same podcast that pointed me towards A Century of War and found it on the same trip to HPB that netted me a copy of Rubicon. This was an interesting read, but one that was hard to follow at some points and repetitive in others. While there is no smoking gun that FDR knew that Pearl Harbor would be attacked well in advance of it happening, there is an interesting “preponderance” of circumstantial evidence that the author has done a solid job of assembling into an important document.
Economics in one lesson – another free one from mises.org. This is a rather straightforward view of economics and the author gives the main point away on the very first page. A good read if you want to understand the basics of where the Austrian school of economics is coming from.
Propaganda – this one was interesting. Very much a product of its time in both language and content, the author provides a basic overview of what propaganda is and how to facilitate it. Obviously, the word propaganda didn’t have the negative connotations it has today when this book was written, but whatever you call it, this book made me feel a little ashamed about my chosen profession (marketing). If this is what the leading marketers were taking advice from in the 50s and 60s, I’m glad that I “came of age” in the Cluetrain era.
There are a few more books on my desk from my last trip to HPB that I’ll be digging into next and my lovely and talented wife gave me a BN.com gift card that I spent yesterday so there are another 10 on their way to my house as I type this. Now I just need to find some reading glasses…