Mostly when I read a book, I’m looking for the cute little ‘aha!’ moments. I write ‘em down in my notebook so they can never escape. Sometimes a book also touches me emotionally, and it’s nice to be reminded my blackened heart still beats. And in most cases, that’s the end of it—I turn the last page, and my brain keeps merrily ploughing along the same well-worn tracks as ever.
But every once in a while, I stumble across something really wild. Gray matter lurches and heaves, while my few remaining brain cells huddle under the kitchen table. Neural pathways are destroyed and rebuilt. When the tremors finally stop, nothing looks the same. My meat-computer has been jolted out of its old familiar ruts, and into a new and unfamiliar area of idea-space. I am shooketh.
My reading was much different when I was younger. I would more likely intensively engage with some important book totally full of new ideas. Hayek. Parfit. Plato. And so on. There just aren’t books like that left for me anymore. So I read many more, to learn bits, but haven’t in years experienced a “view quake.” That is sad, to me at least, but I don’t know how to avoid how that has turned out. So enjoy your best reading years while you can!
At that time in my life, I didn’t really get what he meant. Tyler Cowen is the kind of brainiac who not only read Nietzsche in high school, but probably actually understood it, instead of just painting his fingernails black and telling everyone that life is, like, totally pointless.
The earth did not move for me in high school, and only once in university. I guess I’m a late bloomer. Fortunately, the last five years or so have been more destabilising. In this week’s post, I thought it’d be fun to note down the various authors and ideas that have had the biggest impact on my path through life, or changed my internal experience.
In rough chronological order:
I too was a teenage Randroid. I read Atlas Shrugged twice, and can still quote it from memory. The book’s premise is that America has descended into a crumbling dystopia bloated with freeloaders and rent-seeking bureaucrats, forcing the last remaining businesspeople and artists to form a secret libertarian utopia free from ‘moochers and parasites’.
Rand’s perfect, rational creatures of sharp angles and uncompromising purity were enormously appealing to me. Her writing crystallised things I’d already observed about the world, but hadn’t been able to articulate, or ever really heard anyone talk about.
Thank goodness I was never tempted to get involved in politics, or I might have been locked into a zombie-like path dependence forever. These days, Rand’s philosophy seems to me to be horribly misguided, but there’s still a relevant and interesting idea at the heart of it. Atlas Shrugged is an epic novel completely unlike anything else I’ve read before or since, and I think it deserves its place alongside other flawed but influential pieces of literature.
The decades of cognitive psychology research summarised in this book won Kahneman a Nobel Prize, and started a revolution in economics. As it turns out, humans are not perfect clockwork machines. We are all hopelessly biased sacks of meat, slaves to our evolutionary programming, who consistently act against our own best interests. Even really smart people. Even Ayn Rand! And so, maybe we do need social safety nets, and someone to hold our hand now and again, and prevent us from doing dumb shit.
I am pretty sure behavioural economics saved my life. This was the first time I realised how little I should trust my own muddy thinking, and that there was this whole spectrum called ‘grey’ in between my favorite colours of black and white. I came across Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational first, but Kahneman’s book is the best. It is a paean to humility, made even sweeter by the fact, that it, too turned out to be overconfident and flawed—so read it with a few caveats.
The Stoics basically invented the self-help genre. Cognitive therapy—one of the leading treatments for mental health problems today—is based on the same principles they developed over 2000 years ago. It continues to blow my mind that some ancient dudes in togas had so much figured out; this being a time when most other groups were still going around arguing about how many asses you should sacrifice as penance for wearing the wrong hat on a Tuesday.
The core ideas of stoicism are to accept with serenity the things you cannot change, focus your efforts on the areas within your influence, and constantly practice gratitude for the things you already have. Besides that, they’re full of timeless advice for dealing with haters, adversity, grief, and generally being a good human being. I first got interested in stoicism after reading the Tom Wolfe novel A Man in Full, which led me to William Irvine’s primer, and then the original texts: Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Seneca’s Letters From a Stoic, and Epictetus’ Discourses. That’s how I’d tackle them in order of difficulty, but they’re all accessible.
Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl endured unspeakable horrors in the concentration camps, and lost his brother, mother, and wife. As a trained psychiatrist, he was able to observe and treat his fellow inmates at their absolute lowest. His book is a deeply moving account of finding meaning even in the most absurd and hopeless circumstances, and a defiant rejection of nihilism.
At the time, most psychologists believed all human behaviour was either an automatic response to external stimuli—as reflexive as the doctor’s hammer tapping your knee—or a conditioned response, like Pavlov’s drooling dogs.
Frankl argued that unlike other animals, we have the ability to mediate our behavior through meaning, which allows us to find a gap between stimulus and response: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing—the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” ‘Find the gap’ is a mantra I repeat to myself when I’m about to lose my cool. It doesn’t always work, but often it’s enough of a circuit-breaker to salvage the situation.
DFW gave this commencement speech a few years before he killed himself. I’ve probably read it 10 times, and along with a couple of passages from E Unibus Pluram, it’s one of my favourite pieces of writing.
Towards the end of his life, DFW started to get uneasy about the part he had played in the postmodernist movement. This turned out to be prophetic. It feels like we’re increasingly living in a post-truth world, in which everyone screams at each other about how terrible everything and everyone is, and cynicism is the ultimate sign of hip sophistication. It’s a modern-day bloodsport: whoever issues the most savage ‘hot take’ or collects an enemy scalp gets back-slaps from their respective tribes.
I have been sucked into this morass like everyone else, but I really, really want to get out. DFW suggests that the new anti-rebels will be those who dare to be unabashedly kind, and sincere, and refuse to take part in the sneering and snark and endless irony. This is Water is about the principle of charity, and the importance of worshiping something beyond the usual money, fame, power, beauty. Instead of drifting through life on default setting, the really important kind of freedom “involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day”. In the toxic meme swamps that are taking over modern discourse, the ‘New Sincerity’ feels like a lifeline to me.
If you’re not religious, how do you find something to strive for in an indifferent universe? What is your higher calling? The best source of inspiration I’ve found comes from the fast-growing ‘effective altruism’ movement, which is the subject of Doing Good Better. The bad news is that the way we’re trying to help people right now is hopelessly inefficient, and often does more harm than good. The good news is that by focusing on the most effective evidence-based causes, even average Joes and Janes can have an enormous impact on the world.
For example: The way things are going, we might be able to stamp out malaria in our lifetimes. A treated mosquito bed net costs the same as a cup of coffee. You can tell your kids or grandkids that you personally helped to eradicate the single deadliest disease humanity has ever known. Saving the life of child costs around $2000 to $4000, if you donate to the most effective charities.
For readers who follow this blog for the frugal and simple living tips, well, now you know my not-so-subtle endgame. Effective altruism, along with its sister fields, is hands-down the most exciting collection of ideas I’ve come across.
(Note for New Zealand readers: EA NZ are giving away free copies of the book here).
Quake books are not the same thing as ‘best books’, although there is a fair bit of overlap. I guess the timing and circumstances in which you encounter a new idea can make a big difference; one person’s epiphany might be another person’s banality. I know I’ve read several much-hyped books which turned out to be yawnworthy or glaringly self-evident.
Quake books can be dangerous, too. Some people read Atlas Shrugged or Das Kapital or various religious texts as young idealistic firebrands, and are so enraptured that they’re locked into certain ideas for decades (if they recover at all). Their minds become rigid and hardened, and nothing can ever shake their foundations again. The only safeguard against this calcification has to be more ideas, more books, more creative destruction. Once you start, you better not stop.
I have no doubt that I’m wrong about lots of things right now. I just don’t know what they are yet! What are your quake books? Leave a comment, or send me an email.