By Jason Zweig | Sept. 4, 2017 5:30 p.m. ET
Image credit: Jan Davidszoon de Heem, “Still Life with Books and a Violin” (1628), Mauritshuis
I’m always struck by how many people seem to want to know what I’ve been reading lately. It’s healthy to use books as resistance bands that build different mental muscles, so when I’m not at work I try (with rare exceptions) not to read anything related to investing, finance, or economics. My recreational reading tends instead toward literature, art, science, and history; if I can’t be deep, I can at least attempt to be broad. For me, at least, insights and creativity seem to come out of the intersections among seemingly disparate and unrelated fields; I happen to think that everything in the universe is related somehow (after all, “universe” comes from Latin roots meaning “to be turned into one”). So, in that spirit, here’s an annotated sampling of what I’ve read over the past few months. I’ve provided links to all the books on Amazon, although several of the earlier classics are in the public domain and are freely downloadable online as noted.
Graham Greene, The Tenth Man: This short novel by one of the greatest storytellers of the 20th century is a haunting parable of money, honor, sacrifice, and redemption. It feels as if you’ve known the main characters your whole life and as if you know every turn the plot will take — and then the story unfolds with another surprise, and another. As always with Greene, you will be left wondering how you would have behaved had you been thrust into the same situation. Weeks after reading the book, I’m still troubled by the suspicion that I would have done no better.
Marc Flandreau, Anthropologists in the Stock Exchange: A Financial History of Victorian Science: I bent my rule of never reading about finance in my spare time for this book, because it looked so intriguing. Flandreau, a leading economic historian, follows his curiosity wherever it takes him — and it is an intellectual thrill to go along with him for the ride. With uncompromising rigor and strict devotion to original sources, he shows that modern anthropology emerged to serve the overlapping interests of British imperial power and the European investment banks that financed speculative international stock and bond offerings in the 19th century.
Flandreau focuses on wild schemes to build railroads, canals, and other infrastructure in Central and South America, which bilked investors of what would today be billions of dollars. He shines a startling klieg light into previously undiscovered dark corners of racism, insider trading, and the corruption of science. Even a century and a half ago, research wasn’t “funded”; it was bought, just as it often is today.
Samuel Beckett, Proust (and Three Dialogues): I was hesitant when my friend Vipal Monga foisted this book on me. I’ve always loved Beckett, the great poet and comedian of despair, but he seemed a most unlikely commentator on the associative arpeggios of Marcel Proust, author of the massive novel Remembrance of Things Past (or In Search of Lost Time). Beckett put words into place as sparingly as if they weighed 80 pounds apiece; he notoriously called the act of writing “disimproving the silence.”
Proust, on the other hand, goes on for thousands of filigreed pages that I’ve never quite managed to finish.
But in this little book Beckett meditates profoundly on the meaning of time and memory, habit and curiosity, and the aims and limitations of art. I’ll admit I couldn’t follow all the references, because I’m not a hardcore Proustian. But Beckett’s presence is hypnotic, and almost every sentence he writes makes you want to go back and read it again to see what you are missing in the space between the words and the ideas. I’m still pondering this phrase: “the only true Paradise is the Paradise that has been lost.” The more I think about it, the more I suspect Beckett is right and the more I hope he is wrong.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Auguste Rodin: This short biography of the greatest sculptor of the 19th century, written by the greatest German poet of the 20th century, is an extraordinary meditation on the meaning of art. I hadn’t realized that Rilke, as a young man, had been Rodin’s secretary; few great writers have ever known a great artist better.
Rilke captures what makes Rodin’s work so powerful: the ability to take objects and people in motion through space and time and fix them in one place and one moment for eternity. His sculptures of the human form have the same effect as a full-length motion picture that is somehow, miraculously, distilled into a single photograph that holds all the action and emotion of the entire movie.
A Rodin sculpture doesn’t just represent a person as he is at the moment, but as he was and as he will be. “Even stillness, where there was stillness, consisted of hundreds and hundreds of moments of motion that kept their equilibrium….There was no quiet even in the stones.” When Rodin looked at a person’s face, “he saw that it was as full of motion, as full of unrest as the dashing of waves.” (Full text also available at Google Books.) Dennis C. Rasmussen, The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought: Hume had the dubious distinction of tying with Hegel for my least favorite philosopher when I was a college sophomore: His insistence that love is only a form of the selfishness he called “sympathy” enraged me. Almost 40 years later, my copy of his selected works still has a bonk in the spine from the time I flung it against the wall of my dorm room in frustration. But as I have grown older, Hume has grown greater in my eyes. His central principle — you should believe nothing unless you have systematically evaluated the evidence for and against it — laid the foundation for modern science and is a model for how to think.
As for Smith, he not only created the intellectual framework for capitalism but further developed Hume’s ideas about how people should live and societies should organize to promote human decency. These two brilliant men were also lifelong best friends. Rasmussen chronicles the debt each owed to the other’s ideas and their personal devotion to each other. The book is well-written, but it feels a bit long; I wanted to hear less from Rasmussen and more from Hume and Smith themselves. Do you remember the scientific experiment we all did as young children, when we took a piece of paper outside and set it on fire by holding a magnifying glass up to the sun? This book is like that: Whenever Rasmussen quotes Hume or Smith, their words burn a hole in the page. It isn’t Rasmussen’s fault, of course, that his subjects are so much more quotable than he is; what makes this book fun is reading them first-hand. Of being extravagantly praised in France, Hume wrote:
I eat nothing but Ambrosia, drink nothing but Nectar, breathe nothing but Incense, and tread on nothing but Flowers. Every Man I meet, and still more every Lady, wou’d think they were wanting in the most indispensable Duty, if they did not make to me a long & elaborate Harangue in my Praise.
Or consider Smith’s remark:
The disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition [is] the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.
In fact, the best part of the book is the appendices, each written by one of the great philosophers himself: Hume’s brief autobiography, which he wrote from his deathbed, and Smith’s description of the dignified way Hume faced death. (If you don’t want to buy the book, you can read Hume’s “My Own Life” here and Smith’s recollection, the “Letter to Strahan,” here.)
Scott Saul, Becoming Richard Pryor: As the only Jewish kid in my high school in remote rural New York state, I found a cultural hero in Richard Pryor: He turned the anger and pain of being a minority into comedy as sharp and glittering as broken glass. (I’m not trying to get away with not “staying in my lane” here: I don’t mean to imply I could ever understand the depths of the prejudice Pryor suffered, only that he spoke to me as no other comic did.) I never had the thrill of seeing him perform in person, but to this day I consider him — especially in the spellbinding video Richard Pryor: Live in Concert — the greatest comedian of my lifetime. Pryor knew, like all comic geniuses, that pain is the deepest mine of laughter. And what pain he went through! Born in a whorehouse, abandoned by his mother, sexually abused as a child, surrounded by poverty and crime, corruption and addiction, Pryor dropped out of high school, got thrown out of the Army after a racist confrontation, and failed as a performer over and over again. But the demons of his childhood and the evils of racism wouldn’t let him quit, and he kept digging deeper into himself and into society until he turned all that pain into performances that were — and still are — like revelations.
Saul put more than eight years of research into retracing the steps of Pryor’s life in granular, gut-wrenching detail. Like all overnight successes, Pryor’s was decades in the making — but, along the way, he had to overcome obstacles most people (especially most white people) couldn’t imagine in their worst nightmares. Many people who say with a wave of the hand that “the truth hurts” probably haven’t thought much about how deep the truth can be buried, how hard it is to dig it out, and how scalding the pain of handling it can be.
Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam: In this long series of short poems, Tennyson grieves over the death of his beloved friend Arthur Hallam. The wild English countryside and the nearby sea echo with love and loss, faith and hope, as Tennyson observes the natural world and senses his dead friend everywhere. Crafted with such perfect mathematical precision that you can’t imagine changing even a syllable, these poems nevertheless are seething with emotion. (Full text also available at archive.org.) Consider my favorite, Canto LIV, which insists that hope is possible — no, that it is imperative — no matter how imperfect the world or we ourselves may seem:
O, yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final goal of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;
That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroyed,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;
That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shrivell’d in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another’s gain.
Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last — far off — at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.
So runs my dream: But what am I?
An infant crying in the night;
An infant crying for the light;
And with no language but a cry.
G.K. Chesterton, The Innocence of Father Brown: I regard Chesterton (1874-1936) as one of the great artists of the English language. You can open any of his books to a random page, start reading aloud, and people around you will stop whatever they are doing, transfixed by the precision and vividness of his prose. Someday I hope to write one-25th as well as Chesterton did. He never overlooked the poltergeists who perennially stash tiny monkey wrenches in the gearboxes of the laws of nature. To be rational, Chesterton argues, you must accept the irreducible irregularities of the world. I often think of him whenever a quantitative money manager claims to have “solved” the relationship between risk and return in the stock market. Consider this paragraph from “The Blue Cross,” one of the tales in this collection of short stories featuring the unassuming Catholic priest whose insights into evil make him one of the most astute detectives in all of literature:
The most incredible thing about miracles is that they happen. A few clouds in heaven do come together into the staring shape of one human eye. A tree does stand up in the landscape of a doubtful journey in the exact and elaborate shape of a note of interrogation. I have seen both these things myself within the last few days. Nelson does die in the instant of victory; and a man named Williams does quite accidentally murder a man named Williamson; it sounds like a sort of infanticide. In short, there is in life an element of elfin coincidence which people reckoning on the prosaic may perpetually miss. As it has been well expressed in the paradox of Poe, wisdom should reckon on the unforeseen.
John Maynard Keynes (ed. Robert Skidelsky), The Essential Keynes: John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) was not only one of the most influential economists who ever lived, but also one of the world’s greatest investors and a brilliant writer as well. Keynes is almost universally despised by conservatives for advocating the modern welfare state, but this anthology of his writings on an encyclopedic range of topics offers a more nuanced view, showing that Keynes deeply distrusted central authority, hated communism as much as fascism, and believed in government intervention only as a last resort. This collection is also primarily not about economics, but rather about what it means to be engaged in all the intellectual aspects of the world around you. In one of my favorite books (although not one I read this summer), The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, Russell — himself one of the most brilliant minds of the past century — said of Keynes, “When I argued with him, I felt that I took my life in my hands, and I seldom emerged without feeling something of a fool.” Reading Keynes here, in short selections chosen by one of his biographers, you sense his intelligence powering every sentence like an immense waterfall driving a turbine. It feels as if Keynes permits himself to use a word only after he has defeated all its opponents in logical combat. That’s equally true in his ruminations about probability, poetry, Sir Isaac Newton, friendships in college, human suffering in the Soviet Union, or the future of humanity and the quality of life. I often found myself reading him forensically, trying to pick the sentences apart to reconstruct how he put them together so persuasively, to see if I could detect any flaws in his reasoning. You don’t have to agree with Keynes to benefit from reading him.
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (translated by Donald M. Frame), The Complete Essays of Montaigne: To say I read Montaigne’s Essays this summer is misleading; I’m always reading them. This is the book that has been on my bedside (whenever I’ve had a bedside) for most of the past 40 years, ever since I read it as a freshman in college. It went with me to Jerusalem in 1979-80; it traveled more than 3,000 miles across West Africa in my backpack in 1985. I still have that same copy, and I open it at random, just before bedtime, every few evenings. (Note to publishers: Please consider printing books again the way you once did: built to last. My copy of Montaigne, which I bought in December 1977 or January 1978 and have spent countless hours reading, remains more supple and intact than several books I bought last year and read only once.) To me, Montaigne is the touchstone of what it means to navigate the world: You must never forget that what we know about everything, including ourselves, is no more than a mote of plankton in the middle of an ocean of ignorance. Honor and dignity and decency come from the relentless work of confronting how little you know, how much you never can know, and how hard you must work, every day, to light one more little candle to drive back the darkness the best you can. Montaigne’s imagery of ideas is unforgettable and, for me, unimprovable. Read the sentence below, from Montaigne’s “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” and ask yourself: Has anyone ever described better how learning more should make you feel you know less?
To really learned men has happened what happens to ears of wheat: They rise high and lofty, heads erect and proud, as long as they are empty; but when they are full and swollen with grain in their ripeness, they begin to grow humble and lower their horns.
For further reading: