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Reading “Hard” Books vs. Pretending to Do So

Sunday, December 14th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

The other day, some friends shared an old post by controversial conservative activist, writer and publisher of  The Federalist,  Ben Domenech, that struck a chord:

The Top Ten Books People Lie About Reading 

Have you ever lied about reading a book? Maybe you didn’t want to seem stupid in front of someone you respected. Maybe you rationalized it by reasoning that you had a familiarity with the book, or knew who the author was, or what the story was about, or had glanced at its Wikipedia page. Or maybe you had tried to read the book, even bought it and set it by your bed for months unopened, hoping that it would impart what was in it merely via proximity (if that worked, please email me). 

I have not, though I frequently catch many people in conversation and even more online who do.

What does happen too often is a sense of despair welling up as my Antilibrary looks down from the shelves with disapproval as I wonder when I will ever get around to reading them. Maybe this weird bibliophiliac guilt is what spurs people to lie about books they have read. Or perhaps they merely are lazy and want intellectual street cred without the work:

….Take Neil DeGrasse Tyson as one example, whom the internet loves with an unrestrained passion usually reserved for fluffy cat videos. He was asked a few years ago on reddit to share his recommended reading list.Given his brief commentary on the eight books he recommends, he seems largely unfamiliar with the actual content of the works by Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Niccolo Machiavelli, and particularly Sun Tzu, who views the avoidance of killing as the best form of warfare.

The truth is, there are lots of books no one really expects you to read or finish. War and Peace? The Canterbury Tales? The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? Announcing that you’ve finished those books might surprise a lot of people and make them think you’re abnormal or anti-social, unless you’re an English or History major who took their reading very, very seriously. Perhaps the shift to ebook format will diminish this reading by osmosis – and book sales, too – since people can afford to be honest about their preference for 50 Shades over The Red and the Black since their booklists are hidden in their Kindles and iPads.

E-reading and reading a book are different experiences. I read Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul on a kindle once. It was convenient, as I was traveling, but the kindle seemed better suited for fiction; with a serious book, I felt the need to mark up pages with marginalia. I last used the Kindle for reading Daniel Suarez’s Daemon and Freedom and then gave it to my Eldest child:

So here’s my attempt to drill this down to a more realistic list: books that are culturally ubiquitous, reading deemed essential, writing everyone has heard of… that you’d be mildly embarrassed to admit you’ve never read.

10. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand: The libertarian moment has prompted a slew of people to lie about reading Ayn Rand, or to deploy the term “Randian” as a synonym for, say, competitive bidding in Medicare reform without even bothering to understand how nonsensical that is.

9. On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin: Many pro-evolutionists online display no understanding that the pro-evolution scientific community rejects the bulk of Darwin’s initial findings about evolution.

8. Les Miserables, Victor Hugo and A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens: Virtually every bit of literature about the French Revolution could be tied here, though ignorance of it might inspire fun future headlines, such as “De Blasio Brandishes Knitting Needles, Calls For ‘The People’s Guillotine’ To Be Erected In Times Square.”

7. 1984, George Orwell: A great example of a book people think they have read because they have seen a television ad. On Youtube.

6. Democracy in America, Alexis De Tocqueville: Politicians are the worst about this, quoting and misquoting the writings of the Tocqueville without ever bothering to actually read this essential work. But politicians do this a lot – with The Federalist Papers and The Constitution, too.

Read the rest here.

I have read # 10, 7, 3 and 2 multiple times each and expect I will read them again.  I’ve read de Tocqueville and Tale of Two Cities once. I have looked up stuff in Wealth of Nations but never read it despite having read von Hayek, von Mises, Galbraith, Friedman, Veblen and Marx. I can’t muster much enthusiasm either for Melville or James Joyce, though if forced to choose, I’d select the former.

There’s a lot of intellectual merit – and consequent pride, sort of a nerd throw-down bragging rights – in conquering a “hard” book. I’ve read many that didn’t make that particular list, but perhaps should – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,  Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, Clausewitz’s On War, Aristotle’s The Politics, Herodotus and Thucydides and (in a more modern vein) Barzun’s  Dawn to Decadence or Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.  But there’s many more I have not yet read and worse, may never get to, for lack of time or inclination. My hat is off to those who have slogged through Hobbes’ Leviathan or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason because I’m dubious that I ever will; and while I will probably get around to The Muqaddimah, I’m not sure if I will ever dive into Montaigne or Spengler or most of the great twentieth century novelists. Our time is scarce and so we must choose.

This is of course, what makes book-phonies so worthy of ridicule. There’s something pretentious and absurd about holding forth on a book you have not yourself read as if you were an expert. It’s not remotely as morally serious as the “Stolen honor” frauds who are regularly exposed faking military heroics, but the “Stolen intellect” pretenders to knowledge have a similar motivation and in the end, they are only fooling themselves.

What “hard” books do you take pride in having read?

Happy Thanksgiving from Zenpundit.com

Thursday, November 27th, 2014

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

On behalf of Charles Cameron, Scott Shipman, Lynn Rees and Adam Elkus I’d like to wish all the readers a Merry Christmas and Happy Holiday today!

More Books and Bookshelf Musings

Sunday, June 30th, 2013

   

Mussolini’s Italy:Life under the Fascist Dictatorship by by R. J. B. Bosworth 

Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott

Been busy writing a book review and a long and serious post, so here is something more lighthearted and tangible in the meantime.

Having recently purchased the Bosworth bio of Mussolini, I went back and bought his history of Italian Fascism. While doing that, I came across Scott’s Seeing Like a State, which had either been highly recommended in a discussion over at Chicago Boyz blog or perhaps in an email by one of the Chicago Boyz themselves ( maybe Lex will help me out here).

However, a long discussion by my amigo Adam Elkus on Facebook about his emerging organizational system for his books coupled with an hour long search to try and find a book I needed to cite in the review I was writing have made me realize something: I no longer have any organization to my books.

Sure, there’s still a semblance of a core – a Soviet/Russian bookcase, an antique/antiquarian bookcase for collectible editions 80-130+ years old, three shelves of strategy and war, two and half on Nazi Germany, two on Richard Nixon, an “Ummah” shelf on Islam, al Qaida, Central Asia and the Mideast but after that it starts getting messy. Once methodically organized, diplomatic history and diplo memoirs are spread across two rooms, four bookcases and three packing boxes in the garage; the Vietnam War is on two shelves in two different bookcases plus a half dozen or books so shelved at work; ancient history and classical philosophy have metastasized to occupy parts of three shelves in two different rooms; American history, European history, Japan and China,  sociology, general science, politics, biographies, neuroscience, intelligence community, economics are everywhere and anywhere. Your guess is probably almost as good as mine.

And then there are book piles randomly stacked horizontally on top of shelved books and bookcases or stacked by my computer desk or on/under/next to my nightstand. I no longer recall what books I have loaned out or to whom vice given away as gifts.

Bibliomania….A Gentle Madness …..

 

Half Price Books

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

An old Border’s location near where I live was taken over by Half Price Books, the growing used book chain. So I took a drive with the kids to check it out, though my expectations were not high.  My Eldest also decided to sell a box of books dating back to her more childish years.

The atmosphere of the store was pleasant and the employees friendly and helpful, much of the space is (quite properly) devoted to maximizing the display of the stock of books instead of various kinds of retail nonsense. We browsed while the buyers evaluated my daughter’s books for resale. The store was very well stocked for a used book store catering to the general public and the prices were excellent. While the decor was “no frills” there were comfortable, well-used, chairs in which to sit toward the back of the store accompanied by end tables for the piling of books.  My son enjoyed going through the bins of of old comics, of which he bought a fistful for .50 cents each.

The most expensive book I bought was $9 (for two volumes) vice a new retail price of $40; most ran $4 – $6. One brand new copy was purchased for all of $2.

Here’s what I picked up:

    

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa byJason Stearns 

This one was the subject of a book review by Scott Shipman which you can read in full here.

Clausewitz’s On War: A Biography by Sir Hew Strachan

I have been wanting to read this one ever since we had The Clausewitz Roundtable at Chicago Boyz. Strachan is one of the leading military historians and strategic thinkers and can be viewed lecturing on strategy and war here.

The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain by Terrence Deacon

This was in mint condition – literally had never been opened (must have been a student’s copy LOL) – and was only $2 as a Half Price Books “SuperBuy”. Deacon is a biological anthropologist and was/is a professor at Harvard Medical School and Berkeley. On the one hand, some of the neuroscience might be dated, given the 1997 copyright, but as he is investigating 2 million years of human evolution, so how off could it be in just 16 years?

The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian 

Arrian was cited frequently, but with significant reservations and commentary, by Paul Cartledge in his biography Alexander the Great, which I reviewed here.

    

War in the Shadows: The Guerrilla in History (vol. I & II) by Robert Asprey 

I am not very familiar with Asprey but I have deep sympathy for anyone who attempts this kind of epochal survey, they are very hard to pull off well ( and harder to get people to read all the way through  once they are written and published, see Arnold Toynbee and Will and Ariel Durant). Any comments here are welcome.

Mussolini by R. J. B. Bosworth 

A biography of il Duce by a leading expert on the period of Italian Fascism.

Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly 

I’ve read this before, when it was first published, but did not have a copy. Bought it to have on hand as a reference.

My only complaint about the Half Price Books experience was the store was a trifle warm. My Eldest pocketed a cool $15 from selling her old books and decided to treat herself to a detective novel and a used Xbox game.

A good time was had by all.


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