I was working on a rather personal post after I read Kenneth Whyte’s Sack of Detroit. But my aunt came to town and my ruminating writing routine got disrupted. I had finished outlining but had yet to start drafting. When I don’t get those first coughs of a draft out, my themes go into limbo. And to get that pulse back, I need to obsess over the outline, get lost on a few walks, and let it come back.
I tried forcing it out, but what came out was forced. So I’m going to put it back into my ruminating brain and aimless walks.
So, today, I have a haul and some recaps. I recap a few books in the photo.
Recap: How To See, David Salle
Most books on art, most conversations on art, spew jargon. David Salle’s book does not spew jargon. He avoids the highfalutin theory that pseudo-intellectuals and four-flushers love to spout. Instead, the renowned artist and art critic delivers a clear and simple way to see art.
Salle centers his book around two questions:
- How does it make you feel?
- What does it make you think of?
He teaches you to ignore the standard “What does it mean?” or the “What kind of fancy theme am I supposed to be seeing here to sound like I’m cultured and not some sling blade moron?”
I love art.
I can’t say I’m an expert. I barely know the labels like abstract expressionism or realism. I couldn’t go to a museum and tell you, ah, this is a post-modern realism take on the abstractionist expression of the pre-industrial world.
And that’s why I found Salle’s book freeing. He teaches how to have a personal conversation with a work of art. He also teaches how to cultivate and develop taste.
And it’s a selfish conversation. Yes, selfish.
Because it’s between you and the painting, not between you and what you think would sound good to an art critic.
Salle bakes in a theme that the more you let a painting move you the better your eye gets. You see good art. You can grasp a piece’s meaning. You can also respect a piece even if it doesn’t speak to you.
Furthermore, Salle teaches how to spot shtick and crap. But Salle doesn’t teach the reflexive “it’s crap” he walks through why something stinks. And you develop a radar for it.
People think of learning art as learning culture. And when we think of learning culture we often envision a wooden dork or some emo hipster that acts like every waking second of his life resembles being dumped on prom night.
But that isn’t the case. Salle shows how to grasp culture and art on all levels, lowbrow to highbrow, and how to appreciate each level.
I argue that developing aesthetic tastes provides an important skill professionally and personally.
Let’s look at the professional side.
Consider a copywriter.
A copywriter writes words that sell. But those words are never alone. Most sales letters aren’t a straight word document with the copy. The words sit next to a picture, the pitch is said on video and delivered by someone, and the words go to a particular market with particular tastes.
The best copywriters I know own a decent eye to best present their copy (one of the most overlooked skills, and one never taught). They will work with the design person (many online designers stink) or they will voice that the stock photos cheapen the value of the product. That eye, that sense, builds the ability to say, “you know, this font and color scheme looks a little childish for this market.” Or “you know, the font and colors, it’s too fancy; we’re selling socks here, not hand-built Ferrari’s.”
And on the general professional front, cultivating aesthetic taste can help you present your business’s mission better. It plants your flag in the ground and waves it for the audience you want.
On the personal side, the skill is manifold. One skill, good art can enrich your life. You can enjoy a museum nearly anywhere and that colors that location for you.
But developing taste does something else. I opine it helps you spot qualities. You can sense and intuit qualities about a person, a restaurant, a business, or a book. I’m not saying that good people all have an amazing eye for art. I am saying, however, developing that sense for the quality of something helps you see the qualities in others, good or bad, owning or lacking.
That’s why a book like Salle’s is well worth the read.
White Guilt, Shelby Steele
Shelby Steele is a dangerous man.
Shelby Steele’s name surfaced often during my political deep dive rabbit hole. When I discovered Thomas Sowell, Steele’s name surfaced.
I gathered that Steele was a leading conservative thinker. I wasn’t sure at first which topics or philosophies. But soon I realized he spoke on race. When the Los Angeles Times called conservative candidate Larry Elder, The Black Face of White Supremacy Steele’s name came up a lot in conservative circles.
And you may have heard his name in the news. Amazon at first rejected Steele’s recent documentary What Killed Michael Brown on its streaming platform. Amazon implied the documentary was racist.
In sum, Steele is a lightning rod in left-wing circles. Those circles call him abhorrent things: Uncle Tom, race traitor, race denier, Stockholm Syndrome sufferer, plagued with internalized whiteness, and, appallingly, a house n-word.
Steele is a black conservative. And “black conservative” to progressive Democrats, most academics and intellectuals, and in popular American media, dregs up all types of demeaning epithets and insults.
Steele writes on race. A topic that the Left — politicians, pundits, academics, media, etc. — claims as its own. And he disproves their theories, brutally and empirically.
White Guilt was my first foray into Shelby Steele. Steele’s prose works like a master fencer. He deploys a graceful, elegant, and vulnerable writing style that assassinates empirically. He assassinates Critical Race Theory, affirmative action, virtue-signaling, race peddlers like Ta-Nahesi Coates or Al Sharpton, and much of the progressive theories on race, gender, and politics.
Let’s compare Steele to Coates.
Ta-Nahesi Coates writes a lot on why everything is racist. I managed to endure his book Between The World and Me.
Remember when I talked about why developing an eye for art is a good thing? The same goes in writing. Coates writes in a style that’s pseudo-fancy. He’s not impossible to read, rather, he forces a poetic style to sound deep. He uses a style that appeals to the type of person on Instagram that uses the hashtag “wanderlust” and virtue signals at any chance.
But try-hard prose aside, Coates’s book is self-pitying. He moralizes, infantilizes African Americans, feeds a victim narrative, and panders and patronizes to his reader base.
I can go on with Coates, but Coates centers his prose more like a crazy ex that slams doors and screams “you never understand me.”
Steele, on the other hand, captures the beauty, the rawness, and the vulnerability that eludes Coates. Steele opens up personally. And it’s deeply personal. When racism rears its head, with Steele, you feel all its ugly and demeaning aspects. But Steele does what Coates can’t, he guides the reader with a clear and cogent argument. He takes you through the ugliest parts of racism and provides perspective.
While the book is on race, Steele teaches ways to consider difficult decisions or obstacles.
In other words, Steele doesn’t navel-gaze.
Hear me out.
Many “success” books or “live your best life” lessons, in reality, teach you to navel-gaze. For instance, I love Stoicism. I find it a powerful philosophy teaching tangible ways to live a good, moral, and upstanding life. But many Stoic popularizers today — Ryan Holiday, Massimo Pigliucci — turn Stoicism into an odd navel-gazing philosophy.
In the realm of Success, gurus tell you to gratitude journal or to be asking yourself at all times “does this make me money?” But all this looking and questioning, it’s navel-gazing.
Steele inspires the reader to put their life, their agency, into their hands. It’s a powerful theme. Whereas someone like Coates puts it off that he can never rise (despite him becoming a millionaire) and it’s on others to fix it. And gurus make it sound as if you can’t rise in your life unless you pay them to show you how.
A fantastic read and fantastic masterclass into powerful writing.
There’s No Free Lunch: 250 Economic Truths, David Bahnsen
There’s No Free Lunch is the kind of business or success tract we need.
David Bahnsen hosts two National Review Podcasts. I tune into them here or there. I like his sense of humor and his salt-of-the-earth vibe. But he’s also a monster economist and runs a top-notch private wealth management firm.
This book reads more like a daily inspirational. But you can read it straight through. Each passage features a quote from a famous economist, like Adam Smith or Thomas Sowell, then, Bahnsen delivers a memorable and pithy insight.
And the insights are plenty.
A big insight that surfaced for me, most marketing and success gurus hyperfocus their audience on the results. As in, you run an ad, and you look solely at the results. But while that’s a critical component, it misses that on the other side of those conversions, on the other side of the dollar signs, are individuals.
Bahnsen shows that economics is more than math and a spreadsheet. He shows that economics measures human flourishing and human action. That flourishing part derives from commerce benefitting both business and consumer.
Returning to my marketing point, it’s easy to over-focus on percentages or a profit boost. Today’s software measures every little thing in a sales funnel or ad campaign, and the gurus’ hail that making money makes you more valuable to society. That messaging and considering only what the software measures distances us from this fact: individuals buy your products. The distance blinds and seduces many into the most aggressive, egregious, and unethical parts of marketing. And if you criticize someone falling into this stupor, they reflexively fall back on the guru trope of, “you’re a hater, and you hate making money.”
Why that fall back?
People that fall deep into the most aggressive parts of online marketing often buy into the belief that money equates personal value and that high conversion rates make them smarter and better. If you call out the lies or that their offers are scammy, it attacks their ethical vanity.
I’m all for making money and all for making a big fat income. I love it. But human flourishing works two ways. In business, it’s the business making money, and what that money does for that business. And for the consumer, it’s their life being improved in some fashion. Many online marketers overlook the latter.
Another part I loved from the book, Bahnsen shows that the disinterested third party — gurus, consultants, experts, events — people hire often ends up as a waste of money.
I thought of masterminds, gurus, income experts, and the Garrett White or Jim Kwik fare of sciolists. Bahnsen shows why these high-paid people have zero skin in your game.
Gurus never think about your business. For instance, someone like Ryan Deiss runs an expensive mastermind. As I’ve pointed out in my article on masterminds, Deiss, and no one else in that room wakes up and thinks about your business. And they don’t live your business. Deiss and others will never know the nuance. And the ideas they bloviate, often grand and said to impress others, are consequence-free. Your numbers are never looked at, the research and development of the product are never looked at. Instead, you pay thousands upon thousands of dollars to hear themes of “hustle and grow!”
Bahnsen isn’t advising people to not seek wisdom. But he implies to self-govern and lean into your decisions and learn from them.
I believe a nuanced line exists. It’s great to educate yourself, to ask for help, to gain as much wisdom as you can. But the gurus push you into thinking they offer the keys to the kingdom, and they offer it quicker. They sell shortcuts around what you need most, to learn as you go.
Another aspect I enjoyed, take this old chestnut from gurus, “paying attention to politics is stupid!!!!!”
I agree that watching MSNBC or Fox News all day wastes time. But as Bahnsen shows, politics is human nature. A person’s individual character, and politics reside in that character.
And your business exists in a political world. Completely ignoring it, or hoping for a Socialist Commune or the Ayn Rand Utopia proves another waste of time.
Your business runs in the present. It runs in reality, and no, you can’t stop paying taxes or have the Bolsheviks come back.
So having some information of depth and substance on politics, you can keep an eye on particular forces that may affect your business. You don’t need to be a policy hawk, but your business exists in a political world, its legal frameworks, the beliefs and stances of your customers, and changing tides. So understanding a bit keeps you on your game.
To finish, this book provided a lot of inspiration. I opine Bahnsen’s book is the kind of book that best motivates and teaches. Highly recommended.
I’ve read bits and pieces of Aristotle’s Rhetoric. I’ve yet to read anything beyond those bits and pieces, and it’s time to rectify that. I’ve read Plato. I enjoy Plato yet some ideas line up and some I disagree with. I’ve voiced that, and I’ve heard that I’m going to love Aristotle. I plan to read Ethics soon and likely will twice.
Raymond Chandler, The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler
If you’re an avid reader of mine, you know I love Chandler. This book features his ruminations on writing and some other goodies.
Word Workout, Charles Harrington Elster
Elster’s Verbal Advantage I consider a must-read for any serious writer or reader. He shows a word, then teaches everything related to that word. At the end of a section, he has a test, and not an easy one. But Elster teaches word-smithing better than anyone.
You would think teaching words would be dry, but Elster isn’t. I found Verbal Advantage engaging and a lot of fun and a humbling challenge. But while he teaches a big word like my favorite, sciolist he shows all the other words related to it. And his teaching style paints a clear picture of various words, and when and how to use them.
The battle in good writing is finding the right word. You can use one word to capture a phrase or pick the right verb to paint action. If you’re a copywriter the same rule applies. But in copy, often, the struggle is working to sound fresh and novel and not like everyone else or a salesman on crack.
If you’re a serious writer, Elster is a must-read. If you’re a serious reader, I highly recommend Elster.
Word Workout works like Verbal Advantage. I’m looking forward to getting into this one.
The Great Society, Amity Shlaes
Amity Shlaes is one of my favorite writers. Coolidge and The Forgotten Man were excellent. She’s a heavyweight thinker and writes in the style of Thomas Sowell, but with more excitement. This book is about the 1960s and the Great Society plans instilled by the government.
Killer Angels, Michael Shaara
My aunt grabbed me this one for Christmas. It’s a famous book. I’ve heard of it, and have intended to read it for years. It’s the second book in a trilogy. I plan to go in order when I get to it.
The Socratic Method, Ward Farnsworth
I loved Farnsworth’s Rhetoric. Farnsworth uses a ton of examples to teach. You may not know the method or remember the name, but how he teaches it, you get it. So I’m looking forward to his unpacking of the Socratic Method.
1984, George Orwell
1984 comes up a lot in current media. On one end, many on the right reference Orwell’s 1984 when they push against Woke ideologies and far-left progressive politics. Orwell’s book acts prophetically with the amount of political correctness going on and the expanding reach of the government in our lives during this pandemic.
On the flip side, the Orwell estate has agreed to someone writing a feminist version of 1984 based on a character. I find this eye-rolling and sad.
If you wish to know why Shelby Steele in White Guilt answers it. Steele also shows why ideologies like Intersectional Feminist Theory simply make a victim of women and attack all other things.
The stunt — and that’s what it is, a stunt — to make 1984 feminist displays chronological snobbery (a fallacy that we’re smarter in the present time than the past) and an attempt to “erase the wrongs of the past.”
For these reasons, I decided to pick it up and read it. I read it in high school, and I remember reading it when I did a study abroad in college. But will crack into it again soon.
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
My aunt and I went to The Christmas Carol play here in Denver. I was in a Dicken’s mood. I love the Christmas Carol, it’s my favorite Christmas story. I’ve never read much Dickens. I believe in college I got maybe halfway through A Tale of Two Cities.
My aunt and I went to the bookstore the morning after the play, I wanted to pick up a Dicken’s work. In 2022 I plan to inject more fiction into my reading routine. And I plan to tackle a few classics. That’s why I grabbed this one.
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
My aunt raved about it, said it’s one of her favorites, I know it’s a classic, I grabbed it.