The Pleasures of Reading by Alan Jacobs introduces a reading concept called, Swimming Upstream. The concept: use your curiosity to guide your reading. When you read an author you like or a topic you like, then you swim upstream to either who influenced that author or who influenced that topic; or oftentimes both. This Swim Upstream method provides an easy way to find and read some classics and understand those classics. It also provides a way to dive into new topics and find new authors. Swimming upstream eschews the constraints of an “approved” reading list; instead, it allows your curiosity to lead the way, but it also provides some structure while not sapping the enjoyment and pleasure from what you’re reading.
Recently, I swam upstream to read The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith. Adam Smith is the father of Free Market Economics. He’s most known for The Wealth of Nations. That book influenced and continues to influence our world. It’s also considered the underpinning of Classical Liberal economic frameworks. And The Wealth of Nations overshadows The Theory of Moral Sentiments. When Theory of Moral Sentiments was published, it was a big hit. And Smith evolved the work over his lifetime. He wrote the first edition of it before he penned Wealth of Nations. After he wrote that, he continued updating Theory of Moral Sentiments, releasing various editions, right up until his death. In many ways, Wealth of Nations details the machinations of commerce; Theory of Moral Sentiments details the machinations of human nature. From what I gather, the two books work together but also work individually. You can read one and not the other and be fine, or read both to see the breadth of his work and ideas.
As fun as it would be, or as boring, I’m not going to dive exhaustively into Theory of Moral Sentiments. I’ll cover some parts of it, but I hope to inspire a way to get into better books. I hope my personal example offers a roadmap you can use to dig into a few classics or dig deeper into a topic and enjoy either.
I’ll reveal how I swam upstream into Theory of Moral Sentiments. And a possible, we’ll call it, sit on the shore of the stream to gain some modern insight (what a tactic name, my next course, long names for tactics). We’re going to look at three books, one is obvious, the other two, Thomas Sowell’s Conflict of Visions, and Russ Robert’s How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life.
How I Swam Upstream From A Rabbit Hole
Thomas Sowell is my intellectual hero. My longtime readers know this and have heard me say this umpteen times. I discovered Sowell when I went down a Conservative rabbit hole. I went down that rabbit hole to explore my worldview, politically, morally, and intellectually. I came upon Thomas Sowell and I felt embarrassed I never heard of him before. But I’m glad I found him.
My first foray into Sowell was his classic, Basic Economics. I read it twice. That work is arguably Sowell’s most approachable and readable. In fact, what makes Sowell stand out, is his approachability. He marshals clear, empirical arguments with wit, insight, and clarity. Basic Economics is clear, concise, and memorable. Sowell’s depth and breadth of thought prove extensive, however. The more you read him, the more you discover. He writes excoriating social critiques, he also writes heavy-duty economic tracts, and covers other various topics. With all of his work, which is extensive, Sowell claims Conflict of Visions as the feather in his cap.
I swam upstream, loosely, to Conflict of Visions. I’m glad I did. I say loosely since I read a few other Sowell works before that work. Again, I’m glad I did. Why? Conflict of Visions requires time. Sowell tackles massive ideas, philosophies, psychologies, politics, and histories. All that he puts into a tangible framework. A framework packed full of insight and truth. I read Conflict of Visions twice. I read it slowly each time. It requires slowness despite his laying out a simple premise. The premise: people fall into either the constrained vision or the unconstrained vision. Whether a person is a political policy hawk or has no idea the difference between Democrat and Republican, individuals will fall into either vision. And it’s not perfect. No one person is ever 100% one or the other. It’s a mix. Nor does Sowell profess a grand unified theory of all. Quite the opposite. He instead shows worldviews. The constrained vision believes in the tragic nature of man and believes that society will forever be imperfect. Generally speaking, people falling into this camp tend to lean Conservative politically. The unconstrained vision believes the tragic nature is a farce, and that man can be perfected as can society. To perfect either, experts can lead the way. Generally speaking, people falling into this camp tend to lean Liberal politically. Again, a person doesn’t have to be “political.” Sowell clearly shows how people tend to gravitate towards certain beliefs and likes that resemble each worldview.
Tracing these worldviews back to their philosophical and psychological and dispositional roots, Aristotle is the father of the Constrained Vision; Plato is the father of The Unconstrained Vision. Keep in mind, Sowell doesn’t claim that Aristotle or Plato invented these visions, they existed long before either, but both put to words the inklings of each vision.
Sometimes a person can start off in one vision and change to the other. Sowell is an example himself. He started off as a radical Marxist to then became one of the greatest Conservative thinkers. Our vision may be genetic, as developing studies show and as Sowell lays out, but sometimes we arrive at our worldview later for various reasons.
I could go on. Conflict of Visions packs psychological insight to all ends. Once Sowell shows it to you, you see it everywhere. It’s the most powerful theory I’ve ever read. The psychology is immense. As I read, he put to words my worldview, constrained. And he named Adam Smith as a figure laying out much of the constrained worldview. Sowell mentioned how Smith laid out the tragic vision, what man is like, but also how Smith laid out the traditional principles and values the constrained vision gravitates towards. Sowell mentioned others, Hume, Hobbes, Aristotle, Burke, Christian ethics, and so on. But he kept coming back to Smith. I also found it interesting that Sowell, who also happens to be one of the greatest economists ever, quotes Theory of Moral Sentiments far more than Wealth of Nations. The same goes for elsewhere in Sowell’s work.
I decided to swim upstream to read Theory of Moral Sentiments.
Swimming Up To The Theory of Moral Sentiments
Theory of Moral Sentiments took me a month to read. It’s not that it’s unreadable, it’s that Smith deploys a classical English style that’s not used often today. And he asks big questions and answers big questions, and answers tangibly, so the book requires thought. In my experience, I sense that Theory of Moral Sentiments is a book many people wish to have read versus actually reading it. In other words, people who claim they plan to read The Great Books inside of five weeks or wish to write a blog post with, These 5 Classics Changed My Life Here Are 5 Moneymaking Secrets From Each! This book, however, doesn’t lend itself to those kinds of life hacks. The questions are big, the answers are nuanced yet beautifully detailed. Something like that takes time and savoring.
But back to that whole reading it.
As I said, it took me a month. I don’t read two books at once. If a book is a challenge or requires focus, at night, in bed, I either read The National Review or essays from a writer I like. I do this so I don’t doze off when I need to focus, and either will not distract me from thinking about the book I’m reading. That’s me. People who read more than one book at a time, I’m convinced you might be an alien from a different planet.
I’m also fortunate that I read Classical English Style by Ward Farnsworth right before I read Smith.
As I mentioned, Adam Smith writes in the Classical English Style. Today, many mistake this style as complicated. But once you grasp it, you see its power and its potency. The short of it, the writer uses a mixture of Saxon words and Latinate words to create an effect. Saxon words comprise simple words, like ‘walk’. Latinate words comprise words, like ‘ambulate.’ Walk and ambulate roughly mean the same thing, walking. But writers can use both, Saxon and Latinate, in a passage to express an idea. They use both as potential devices for wit, showing a spectrum, introducing a big idea (Latinate words), and then grounding the idea in tangibles (Saxon words), and so on. Farnsworth teaches the style clearly and memorably. You also recognize the power and potency of the style, and those who did it well (Edmund Burke, Abraham Lincoln, Herman Melville, and Winston Churchill were exceptional at it).
Smith writes in that style. I’m lucky I read Farnsworth’s book. Otherwise, much of Theory of Moral Sentiments meaning would have flown over my head. When instead, Farnsworth gave me a special key to open a special door of prose style.
Sowell also provided guidance through Smith’s work without entirely swaying my thoughts on it (more on this point in a bit). Smith argues that man is self-interested, but not wholly selfish. While self-interest gets a bad rap today, self-interest fuels healthy relationships, healthy behaviors, healthy goals, healthy self-questioning, and healthy societies. And Sowell helped to point out the parts where Smith argues against experts trying to control a chessboard. Smith lays out a famous concept that some men act and believe as if the world or society is a chess board and man and society comprise the chess pieces. And this man, a self-anointed expert, believes he can move any piece and it will behave as he believes it will. And if it doesn’t he believes he can start anew, and this time will be different. But the world doesn’t work like that. Smith shows why it doesn’t; Sowell shows why it doesn’t.
What I found fascinating, Smith lays out the behaviors, values, and dispositions that help move society. But not just society, values that would serve any man or woman well. The tract lays it out with examples. It’s not as pithy as some works of Stoicism, but Smith details how something like Stoicism or Christian ethics works in the world, why it works, and how you can aim to live a better life. His concept of the impartial spectator provides a wonderful guide on how to live a good life. The impartial spectator isn’t God or a sage, rather it’s a dispassionate imaginary person who observes you. This person knows good values, behaviors, and traditions. And this person watches you, and judges. So you can step outside yourself, as this impartial spectator, and observe your actions, either in the moment or after to gain perspective.
Now, I could go on. But my aim here, Sowell helped me see Smith’s lessons. On the flip side, Smith helped me see more of Sowell. My conversation with each went deeper. My understanding of each went deeper. I also started noticing their lessons and insight everywhere. My marginalia in books says “constrained” or “unconstrained” everywhere. Plus going upstream to read an influence of Sowell, I see the values I respect in Sowell, and the values I work to uphold personally.
Sitting By The Shore Watching The Stream
Russ Roberts popped up on my radar via a review of his new book Wild Problems. I went to Amazon and looked up Roberts. I noticed the Adam Smith book. I noticed good reviews and flap testimonials from a few sources I like. And I noticed he’s associated with the Hoover Institute at Stanford. Four other favorites of mine call the Hoover Institute home, Victor Davis Hanson, Niall Ferguson, Shelby Steele, and none other than Thomas Sowell. Sometimes, I feel a book calling me. Yes, call me weird, call me crazy, but I get a feeling about a book and that the timing is right. And as I’ve said before, I work through a list in my head sometimes, but it morphs and changes, sometimes the timing is ripe for some books and ripe for others. I saw it, saw the flap reviews, saw his background, and decided to pick it up to read it sooner than later.
The book is called How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life. Roberts popularizes Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Meaning, he took the lessons from Theory of Moral Sentiments and wrote it in a way a mass audience would understand.
Books that popularize the work or philosophy of a figure like Smith work like prefab houses. Some prefab houses are great. They get built with quality material, they look good, and they hold up. Whereas some prefabs look great but are built shoddily. And most popularized books, unfortunately, fall into the latter category of prefab. Books that popularize walk a tough line. Shed light on a topic intimidating many, show its rich lessons but try not to turn into another TedTalkX list of truisms. Most books popularizing a subject tend to turn it into another TedTalkX list of truisms, unfortunately.
Roberts, however, maintains depth and makes for a fun read.
After I read Theory of Moral Sentiments, I needed time to reflect on its premises. It was a heavy-duty read. I read a number of lighter books after to not get burned out, and to give myself time to think about the lessons. Roberts surfaced on my radar at a perfect time. How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life helped encapsulate the Theory of Moral Sentiments into more digestible nuggets.
Here’s what I mean. I’m going to refer to the whole sitting on the shore watching the stream thing. I swam upstream to Conflict of Visions. From Sowell, I went upstream to Smith. I then slowly went through Smith’s work. After I read it I wanted to give myself time to digest Smith’s insight. To digest his lessons on the impartial spectator, man’s desire not only to be loved but to be lovely, and wisdom and virtue versus ambition. Many more lessons exist in the book, hence it being heavy. Yet Roberts helped me summarize the lessons. He helped me extract a little more juice out of what I read and helped to clarify some thoughts. I didn’t swim upstream, instead, I was able to sit on the shore and see the stream I just swam.
When I read Roberts, at first, I was worried he was going to hijack Smith into a self-serving agenda — a huge issue with popularizing. But Roberts didn’t attempt any hijackings. He provided context, memorable quotes, and helped clarify what Smith was saying, without being overbearing.
Sometimes, you walk away after reading a classic wondering, “did I really get it?” It’s natural. If the work struck a chord, and you find yourself still wondering what it all meant, I suggest finding a work to help you understand it. Granted, the hard part is finding the book that does it. That will take some time and experience. Some works breaking down other works do an abysmal job. On one end, you find academic hair-splitting. On the other, you find books shoehorning into cliche self-help mantras.
For instance, A.A. Long is perhaps the best Stoic scholar today. His book Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide To Life unlocks the work of Epictetus and unlocks Stoicism better than any book I’ve read on the topic. Read Epictetus and read Long’s book, and you will own a deeper understanding of Stoicism that 99% of Stoic fans will never have. But it’s not exactly a fun read. It’s accessible, it’s readable, it’s interesting, but it’s aimed towards scholars of Stoicism or Hellenic philosophy, so it’s rather dry. You really have to want to know your Epictetus to squeeze any enjoyment out of it.
So what do you do? What if you want to read a great work, then maybe capture a bit of some understanding after but not be bored to death by lifeless academic writing?
I wish I had an easy answer, but the answer: do a bit of research. I found Roberts serendipitously. Though, I did do some research before, and I found a writer I respected, Jesse Norman. I saw he wrote a biography of Smith. I loved Norman’s biography of Edmund Burke, so I grabbed his biography of Smith. But Roberts surfaced, and How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life he talked specifically about the Theory of Moral Sentiments. I lucked out. But it all happened by my looking at the writers and resources I trust. That’s a great place to start.
Mistaken Swimming Upstream
Swimming upstream is an easy way to read “better” books. It’s an easy way to stumble upon original sources. But curiosity drives swimming upstream, not a rigid list. If you’re curious to read an original source, then do it. But today, people seemed a little frightened to read an original source, and instead, look towards the popularizing books first. And then look for a list of sorts to help them unpack the original source without ever reading it. An issue exists with this method. You’re trying to figure out what to think regarding a topic, versus arriving at your own conclusions.
Thomas Sowell’s famous professors, Milton Friedman and George Stigler, noticed that Sowell only read the original sources first. They asked him why, not as a criticism, but because most other students tried reading summaries or academic breakdowns of the work. Sowell replied that he’ll figure out the original for himself with his own eyes, and not let idiots ruin the work with their cockamamie theories. What Sowell says here, is a lesson in self-determination that many need today.
Let’s look at this. I just talked about swimming upstream. Swimming upstream isn’t necessarily a straight line back to an author or a book. You may read a mass fiction book, love it, look for the influences, and then find yourself reading Henry James’s The Bostonians. It’s not a direct line. It’s not, “oh, I want to read The Growth of The Soil by Knut Hamsun, I will read all the biographies on him first, then all the papers on him next, then the book.” Swimming upstream is your curiosity, not a rigid list of steps. But today we have an issue of “where do I start?” And embedded into that question is the idea of reading modern, fashionable, self-help styled books on a topic, since, as the idea goes, those books contain the “applicable insight” whereas the original sources are somehow stuffy and procrastinating. Some think to read Stoicism, you start with Ryan Holiday. From there, one must then read the approved list of Hustlepreneur Stoic books. But this isn’t swimming upstream. This is looking for the approved lists to read in the approved way to include oneself in the approved crowd. It’s eliminating curiosity, and it’s looking for someone to tell you what to think and how to view a topic. Versus letting yourself get into a topic, engaging with that topic, and doing the thinking on your own. It’s great to ask for some help and look to some other sources to gain a richer understanding. But today we’re taught to read in a passive manner; we’re taught here’s what you must think on a topic. Even how readers take notes or marginalia today falls under the approved methods. All the notes and quotes underlined stick to “mindset” lessons. They don’t engage with the premise or the thesis of the book. They don’t see the allusions in the story or the richness of the character. Instead, every note looks motivational and tied to fashionable self-help lessons. In sum, “where do I start” looks to remove curiosity. I argue it’s done out of fear. The person wants to read the “right” books to think in the right way. As you can see, this leads to not reading but assuming the lessons. And it leads to confusion. Because you could get to the original source, read it, and have no idea what’s going on since you’re taught to not ask questions. This is why Sowell said he’ll read it himself to come to his own conclusions versus letting someone else mess it up for him.
I’ll use an imperfect example of what Sowell means, and to show what I’m talking about. And I’ll use the example with Theory of Moral Sentiments and the introduction to the version I read (Penguin Classics). I consider an introduction in some classics, in a way, like a mini-swim upstream. But in reality, introductions can help inject context into an older work. We can get a little bit of meaning. The famous economist Amartya Sen wrote the introduction to the version of Theory of Moral Sentiments I read. Had I not gone down a Conservative rabbit hole, and even a Liberal rabbit hole before, nor had I not read Sowell and some others, nor had I decided to think for myself and instead went with the fashionable here’s what to think, Sen’s introduction would have made Theory beyond confusing. Sen is a famous Liberal economist (Liberal here meaning, left-wing, Democrat, etc.). It’s peculiar Penguin picked him to write the introduction. In the introduction, Sen makes Smith almost into a Marxist on economic theory. Sen takes what Smith says, and says, “well, he really meant this, and today his view would be different.” In other words, Sen’s long introduction injected his own philosophy. He kept iterating that Smith meant otherwise and going so far as to say Smith never intended for Free Market Economics. Then Sen injects why Smith, socially, clearly meant we can solve our tragic nature despite him saying we couldn’t. It was confusing. I stopped reading it after a few pages, as it was so trying. But had I thought, this is the expert, he’s correct, I would have gone into that book and been lost within five pages. Which would have been a shame. I would have likely stopped reading it altogether.
So what do we do?
Swimming upstream isn’t done to read a specific work. As in, again, if you read a work of fiction, and you see that Thomas Hobbes’s The Leviathan influenced the author you enjoyed, you go and read Thomas Hobbes. You, here, are reading the original source. You’re not reading a bunch of complementary works prior to that work. The concept here, you enjoyed an author, and via that enjoyment, you understand that author. You grasp the lessons, philosophies, and other elements perking your interest. That interest fuels that curiosity. So when you grab Hobbes, you can see the ideas and elements that influenced the author you liked. This helps you see what Hobbes is saying and helps you grasp perhaps the more confusing parts of Hobbes. But, it’s you engaging with the book. It’s your own thinking and questioning. It’s no one else.
Now let’s say you go the other way. You pick up a book called, “The Hustleprenuer’s Leviathan” (I’d like to think my readers would ignore a book titled this poorly, but let’s just use it for our example). You read it, and the author hammers on how the Leviathan really means having multiple passive streams of income. And that Hobbes’s “war against all” idea means you need to treat each day like a warrior and hit your customers with email marketing seven times a day. I’m using a ridiculous example, but my aim, if you try to find what to think on a topic, especially if you grab one from the Success world, you’ll find yourself wildly misled.
If you’re curious about a classic when in doubt, read the original source. Some will be challenging, some not so challenging. But with the original sources, it’s better to come to your own conclusions. And if you liked it, but felt much of it flew over your head, then look to grab a book that helps unpack it.
In sum, it’s your own curiosity that leads the way to read some classics. Some classics intimidate. Some classics are a slog. Some classics are impossible to put down. I suggest, if you have an author you like, like Thomas Sowell, then look to read who influenced them. Or if you’re curious about Russian literature, like Dostoyevski or Tolstoy, then try it. Give yourself some time to read it. Look to grab a good translation versus finding some cheap e-book online (spend the few bucks to give yourself the best shot), and be willing to take your time. No one says you need to finish the book in five minutes. Often you’ll find many classics are a classic for a reason. Most are readable. Only a handful of philosophies are unreadable. Let your curiosities guide you. It’s easy to try to force ourselves to read heavy-duty books. It’s also just as easy to read the sugary popularized books prior to reading a classic. Not that all popularized books are bad. But the good ones require some experience and thought to pick out. But it’s much easier to enjoy Adam Smith if you love Thomas Sowell. Just like it’s much easier to enjoy some other classic work if it influences a topic or an author you like. You’re going to be much more open and willing to spend your time with a classic — if it requires it — than you would be if you’re forcing yourself through a topic just to say you read it. Most good works will have great footnotes to make the work accessible.
No perfect method exists to read “better books” other than go with your curiosities and likes. Reading is to be enjoyed. Some works require time. The more curious and interested you are in the topic, the more you’re willing to spend time with the work. You’ll be engaged with it. Like I said, I spent a month with Smith. During some moments while reading, I looked at my bookshelf and wanted to be reading the next book. That’s natural. But my admiration for Sowell kept me glued to Smith. Then, by luck, I discovered Roberts, and he helped encapsulate Smith. All of this was done by curiosity and swimming upstream.