In 2018 I refined my reading habits in a manner that drastically improved my overall experience. I sought out more books with big ideas that had stood the test of time, and started more systematically filtering and skimming newer non fiction. I also started reading more fiction.
I read the Financial Times and the Economist regularly, monitor key topics on Google News, and regularly peruse reliable curators on blogs and Twitter for news and essays. I ignore most “breaking news” that isn’t immediately relevant to me, and instead look for carefully researched work. Some of this is necessary because I need to stay up on what is happening with capital markets and technology. News is often bullshit, but its entertaining, and I often get useful ideas piecing together trends.
For actual books though publication date isn’t quite as important. I generally choose non-fiction books three ways: (1) Focused on a particular topic (2) timeless deep reading (3) timely speed reading.
When I’m interested in a topic, I’ll skim whatever book I can find about it, and sometimes find a few valuable ideas. This applies not just to business, but life in general. In the past year this has included topics as wide as gilded age businesses, securities law, uranium mining, and child psychology. I like to see not just what the “accepted wisdom” is, why and how it came to be widely accepted, and if it is likely to be correct. Reality is rarely black and white.
Timeless deep reading
When I hear smart people talking about books that are a few years old, I listen closely. Often the most valuable books are those that have stood the test of time. Core concepts stay relevant, even if the technological specifics change. Information Rules by Hal Varian and and Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital by Carlota Perez are prime examples of this category that have become important influences on my thinking. Similarly, historical biographies are almost always relevant decades after publication.
Timely speed reading
Many newer non-fiction books, have a couple key ideas that make them worth reading. Yet sometimes authors stretch a great potential blog post into a long fluffy book. Sometimes I can get the key point from listening to podcast interviews with the author.
If I listen to an interview, and it seems like there is more depth than can be captured in an interview, I’ll consider getting the book.Often I’ll first see if I can get an audio book version from the library via Libby. Then I’ll download the key ideas(at 2x speed) into my head while working out or walking to work. If I listen to the audio book, and I find myself needing to pause and take notes, or wanting to capture quotes, then I’ll look at getting a kindle or dead tree version of the actual book.
I’ll skim through books that present well known ideas in unique ways, but reserve my deep focused reading for life changing insights. Of course sometimes being presented with a familiar idea will have more salience based on new experiences or just my subjective perception. So this isn’t an objective filter, even though I sometimes try to make it so.
There are of course exceptions to this filtering heuristic. There are a few familiar authors whose books I’ll buy right when they come out. I keep a lot of random books all around the house, so sometimes I’ll just pick one up and read it. And often serendipity leads me to find good books randomly on Twitter, in the library, or a bookstore.
Reading is definitely my thing, too, and I think you have to read not just business stuff but also history, novels, and even some poetry.: Investing is about glimpsing, however dimly, the ebb and flow of human events. It’s very much about breasting the tides of emotion, too, which is where the novels and poetry come in.
Barton Biggs, Hedgehogging
I went through a phase as a non-fiction snob. Who has time to read fiction, I thought? I have since done an almost complete 180 on this thinking. Fiction is more challenging to read and is generally better written than non-fiction. My day job involves reading a lot of dense regulatory and legal filings. There is usually an obvious structure to any given piece. But the broader meta game is piecing together disparate parts into a coherent narrative.
Fiction challenges the reader more because one has to spend more time thinking about what is important, understanding character development, and anticipating a story as it develops. Plus after a day of reading dense legalese and staring at screens, sometimes I want to engage my mind in a new way.
Besides, sometimes you have to refresh your mind and soul by consuming some crafted, eloquent writing.When I get home at the end of a business day, after being absorbed in investment babble and dull, plodding writing, replete with trite phrases such as make no mistake, which is my pet peeve, I am stuffed with babble. My gorge rises at the thought of more business carbohydrates. So I sit down with a nice big glass of wine and immerse myself in something I want to read. I always have at least one book going, and my taste is eclectic, but the sine qua non is that it has to be well written
Barton Biggs, Hedgehogging
I have been reading 3-5 non fiction books for every fiction book I finish, but to start reading fiction again was a major change in this past year. I still don’t have a good heuristic for filtering fiction. I mostly rely on recommendations from smart and interesting people. So send me your recommendations!
Louis L’amour was an autodidact’s autodidact. John Wayne called him the most interesting man in the world. L’amour spent the first couple decades of his adulthood wandering across the country, and around the world, doing odd jobs, and obsessively reading whatever he could find. Only much later did he become a famous novelist. Education of a Wandering Man is a quasi-autobiography, in which he describes the trajectory of his life, and the evolution of his thinking in terms of the places he traveled and the books he read.
L’amour spent years as a hobo, hopping trains from town to town, working various jobs. In each town he would visit the local library.
Its important to note, that unlike a bum, a hobo is ready and willing to work.
To properly understand the situation in America before the Depression, one must realize there was great demand for seasonal labor, and much of this was supplied by men called hoboes.
Over the years the terms applied to wanderers have been confused until all meaning has been lost. To begin with, a bum was a local man who did not want to work. A tramp was a wanderer of the same kind, but a hobo was a wandering worker and essential to the nation’s economy.
…Many hoboes would start working the harvest in Texas, and follow the ripening grain north through Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska into the Dakotas. During harvest season ,when the demand for farm labor was great, the freight trains permitted the hoboes to ride, as the railroads were to ship the harvested grain, and it was in their interest to see that labor was provided.”
He also worked on merchant ships, and traveled throughout Asia and most of the world. He would find books for free or cheap wherever he went, reading 100+ books per year. For example:
Byron’s Don Juan I read on an Arab dhow sailing north from Aden up the Red Sea to Port Tewfik on the Suez Canal. Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson (Penguin Classics) I read while broke and on the beach in San Pedro. In Singapore, I came upon a copy of Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan, Vol. 1 of 3: Or the Central and Western Rajput States of India (Classic Reprint) by James Tod.
Although he didn’t have real formal degrees, L’amour understood the value of books and knowledge:
Books are precious things, but more than that, they are the strong backbone of civilization. They are the thread upon which it all hangs, and they can save us when all else is lost.
…Knowledge is like money: To be of value it must circulate, and in circulating it can increase in quantity and hopefully, in value. “
He wrote 89 novels, and clearly a lot of ideas came from paying close attention when he travelled:
People are forever asking me where I get my ideas, but one has only to listen, to look, and to live with awareness. As I have said in several of my stories, all men look, but so few can see. It is all there, waiting for any passerby.”
… for a writer, everything is grist for the mill, and a writer cannot know too much. Sooner or later everything he does know will find its uses.
As with reading, L’amour never let the challenges of a transient lifestyle interfere with writing:
“I began my writing in ship’s fo’c’sles, bunkhouses, hotel rooms- wherever I could sit down with a pen and something to write on.”
L’amour also spent time boxing in various small towns, and coaching other fighters. I’ve seen reference online to a 51-8 professional record, although I wasn’t able to verify it.
In the later years of his life L’amour spent more time in his personal library. His deep knowledge of the world gave him perspective:
Surely, the citizens and the rulers of Babylon and Rome did not see themselves as a passing phase. Each in its time believed it was the end-all of the world’s progression. I have no such feeling. Each age is a day that is dying, each one a dream that is fading.
The Mezzanine by Nicholas Baker is a stream of consciousness novel that follows the protaganist’s thoughts during lunch-hour activities, including the purchase of new shoelaces. Since the novel is basically just the running dialogue of the a person’s thoughts, it includes deep observations of a lot of everyday items. After reading the novel, I came away appreciating the design of everyday objects much more. The book manages to be simultaneously, deep, absurd, and hilarious.
I originally picked up The Mezzanine, after Matt Levine mentioned it during a Reddit AMA as a literary inspiration for his use of footnotes, supplementing his legal experience. The novel’s protaganist indeed praises the “luxuriant incidentalism of footnotes” in certain classic works. Those that appreciate footnotes:
“…know that the outer surface of truth is not smooth, welling and gathering from paragraph to shapely paragraph, but is encrusted with a rough protective bark of citations, quotation marks, italica, and foreign languages, a whole variorum crust of “ibid’s” and “compare’s” and “see’s” that are the shield for the pure flow of argument as it lives for a moment in on mind.”
Great scholarly works can use footnotes as “reassurances that the pursuit of truth doesn’t have clear outer boundaries: it doesn’t end with the book; restatement and self-disagreement and the enveloping sea of referenced authorities all continue.”
“Footnotes are the finer-suckered surfaces that allow tentacular paragraphs to hold fast to the wider reality of the library.
Additionally, the book indirectly considers a lot of Epistemological questions. The protagonist wonders what influences his thoughts:
“Will the time ever come when I am not so completely dependent on thoughts I first had in childhood to furnish my comparisons and analogies and sense of the parallel rhythms of microhistory? Will I reach a point where there will be a good chance, I mean a more than fifty-fifty chance, that any random idea popping back into the foreground of my consciousness will be an idea that first came to me when I was an adult, rather than one I had repeatedly as a child?”