Why A Reading List Can Ruin Your Reading
Natural curiosities create great reading lists; recommended reading lists, however, can create unsatisfying and empty reading.
Recommended reading lists are alluring, for sensible reasons. The idea is, someone or a group of people we like curated books and created a list, and in the mind of many readers, the curated list conjures a result. That result looks like, but is not limited to, expert knowledge on a topic, faster self-development, or making more money. But recommended reading lists have gotten out of hand. The lists have turned into a rite of passage for a large group of people: the people who want to have read. People who want to have read versus people who want to read, love recommended lists. The lists serve as a Hustle Signal, they serve as a way to tell others by reading this set list of books, the person is a real go-getter in life, and that this person is “doing the work” and fits in with the Hustle crowd. In other words, a guru mentions Atomic Habits and the trained seals start barking in approval (and the trained seals miss that the books listed on these lists share mutual theses and premises — aka, they say the same shit). And the have read trained seals and their seal trainers are the loudest in the room. The message of “read these books” is pervasive. And unfortunately, it misleads curious readers to supplant curiosity and agency, and only read within the confines of the “approved list.” But not all lists are bad.
A rare few lists are great, they stand out among the keyword algorithms and clickbait trying to drive us to the same Airport best-sellers we’ve seen umpteen times. And our curiosity leads us to those solid lists. We find a thinker we like and see what influenced him or her. We can find a topic that interests us and find some recommended books to introduce us to the basics of that topic. And a list like The Great Books earns its esteemed reputation and legacy for a reason (most people would do well to read any one of the Great Books; you don’t need to read all of them, but life is a lot more colorful reading a few of them). But if we stumble onto a list we like, instead of confining ourselves to that list, if our curiosity gets sparked by a certain writer, see where that goes. See who influenced that author, or see who debated that author. And then see where that goes.
And, naturally, you trust certain reading recommendations. Certain figures or sources you trust and respect. They mention great books to read, and sometimes those mentions, you don’t read a particular book, but it leads you to find books on a topic perking your interest. And these sources can help create reading lists or update reading lists. For instance, I bought a new bookshelf a few months ago, and I bought it with a specific reason in mind. That reason, The Great Books. I’m arranging the books in the order of The Great Books, plus I have a section of Conservative thinkers and some new fiction sections. But that Great Books section is the main reason for the shelf. If you know me, I revere Mortimer Adler. He’s the godfather of The Great Books. And in the back of his famed, How To Read a Book,he lists the Great Books. As I said, and will say again (and again), anyone would do well to read a few of the books on it. And as I said, we don’t need to adhere to the confines of a list. Over time I have, through various sources and curiosity, shaped my own Great Books list. Here’s what I mean, Adler leaves out Edmund Burke on his list. I disagree with that absence (these disagreements do not happen willy nilly, to get on that shelf, the book or thinker still needs to have had cultural impact, I don’t just pick some obscure person only fifty people read, yet I think is great and think should be on the list, I respect the parameters Adler posited and the tradition of his list). So I have Edmund Burke on the shelf. The sources of recommendations I respect, my time with certain Great Books I like, and my own curiosity inspired me to put my input into The Great Books list and make it my own. Reading is a personal and intimate conversation. Your lists will resemble that intimacy, as they should. The sources you like and trust on recommendations, in a way, it’s also intimate. Like your circle of friends, you will have closer circles you trust.
In sum, distrust this nonsense:
Dickie is in a race to the bottom, we can let him win.
Since you’re not in a race to the bottom, let your curiosity guide you, see where it guides you. Find the sources you trust, see what you like, but let your curiosity and experience shape your reading lists or rabbit holes. Your lists will shape and change, and that shaping and that changing offers its own personal and professional benefits. Plus, instead of have read you’ll enter into a deeper conversation with each book you read. With some deliberation, you’ll see how certain books converse with each other, and you’ll soon enter into that conversation on your own terms.
Ok, enough rambling, let’s get into the haul.
Seeing how I’m catching up on some hauls, I’m going to do this haul and the next two following hauls a slight bit differently. I’ll cover briefly what I’ve read and then go back to the standard of why I bought what I bought.
Raymond Chandler, Tom Hiney
This book played a hand in why I’m overdue and behind on the book hauls. It played a hand in the most personal article I’ve ever written. You can see that all HERE.
The Right, Matthew Continetti
I read this book at the right time. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, for the last two years, I’ve been down a Conservative political rabbit hole, down a rabbit hole of the ideas, thinkers, moments, leaders, ideologies, and philosophies shaping and influencing American Conservatism. This book encapsulates it all.
I would say it’s geared toward a Conservative audience. But it certainly offers a lot to anyone of any political belief system.
If you’re not a Conservative, the names Continetti drops will come at you a million miles an hour and might overwhelm you.
If you’re a Conservative in passing or you’re unsure where you stand politically, as in you haven’t looked deep into political beliefs, here you’ll find both a guidebook on who or what shapes or has shaped what you align with. Again, the names will come fast, but it will give an excellent guideline to some figures and philosophies to check out.
If you have knowledge of Conservatism this book lays out a detailed structure of Classical Liberalism in the last one hundred years. You won’t find exhaustive details on Edmund Burke, yet you will see how Burke’s framework has taken shape since Warren Harding’s presidency. And I enjoyed how Continetti details the conflicts, the gripes, and the debate of the future vision of Conservatism.
Books like The Right, a book unpacking a particular ideology or philosophy, and showing the landscape of that ideology or philosophy, provides wonderful insight into your likes, curiosities, worldview, and beliefs. And I like it when the work isn’t a deification piece of “we can do no wrong! we see the light.” I find that “empowering our message” is blindly self-serving, moralizing, and sanctimonious. Those sorts of pet project works do little to move any needle. An even-handed approach, like the one Continetti deploys, paints a much clearer and more honest picture.
The book will appeal more to a Conservative person, but no matter your politics, you’ll find an exhaustive history of political thought that’s both clear and detailed, and offers a deeper understanding of Conservative ideology, or if you want to be nit-picky, Classical Liberalism.
The Conservatarian Manifesto, Charles W. Cooke
Charles Cooke is one of my favorite writers and he’s one of my favorite thinkers. For any of you that are fans of my writing style, one, thank you, and two, Cooke’s writing inspires me. I study his writing. Nothing too intense, but I read many of his passages aloud, and I look to see what style tricks he’s using.
And as a thinker, I find him principled and pragmatic. Also, to keep crushing, if you listen to him on a podcast, his speaking style is incredible. One thing I notice with popular personalities, many are rich in convictions and poor in principles. Principles, here, don’t mean behaviors or opinions. Principles, here, means that a person is principled in their beliefs. They speak or write from a place of depth, from a place of experience, wisdom, and study. And when Charles speaks, writes, or tweets (his wry sense of humor is fun to observe on Twitter) you can see those principles.
Naturally, I was excited to read his book. I was excited to study his sentences, and I was excited to read a “manifesto” of a political thinker that I find myself aligning with often.
The book shocked me.
The shock wasn’t a personal rattle, rather it was who the book didn’t feature. Cooke wrote the book right before the 2016 election. Some Conservative circles call this period — the rise of Donald Trump. Trump, in fact, gets no mention in the book, either he wasn’t on the radar yet when Cooke wrote it, or Cooke, like many at first, didn’t see Trump as serious. So seeing the political landscape before Trump — before both sides of the political spectrum took Trump seriously; Cooke was and still is a critic of Trump — was a trip. A trip because, for both sides, or all sides, politically, Trump exists in the conversation. And for conservatives, Trump takes up a lot of real estate, whether he’s liked or not. And it’s been this way since 2016. So reading a conservative manifesto without a single mention of Trump, well, it felt like when you have the hiccups and then you notice the hiccups are gone. That odd feeling like, “where are the hiccups?” but none are there.
Regardless the missing Donald, and whether you love the Donald or hate the Donald, Cooke lays out a solid Classical Liberal tract. He offers pragmatic ideas and concepts conservatives today would do well to consider.
As for the writing, Cooke is a writer to study. He marshals clear arguments. He writes with charisma, style, and precision. I enjoyed the book. For you non-political types, but lovers of good writing, it’s worth the read. For you political types of any belief, conservative or liberal, I believe you’d enjoy this book. And for you fans of reading and not really concerned on politics, Cooke is just a lot of fun to read.
The Art of X-Ray Reading, Roy Peter Clarke
I threw it in the trash. Literally.
I tried to like it. Roy Peter Clarke has some decent books on writing. He’s worth checking out. But this book, well, it’s sitting in a trash heap somewhere in Colorado.
Why did I trash it?
First, let’s get something out of the way: I can’t stand the smooth-brained trope of, “Grasshopper, the lesson was not yet ready, read it later, and the lesson will appear.”
Away with that nonsense. In fact, in the spirit of honesty and decorum — fuck off with that nonsense.
That’s like saying, “stay in an abusive relationship, because at the right time, it will blossom.” Ok, that might be a stretch. But some books suck, and it’s ok to have the backbone to say it sucks, and, more importantly, it’s ok to think for yourself and say it sucks. Some people hate the idea of throwing a book in the trash, literally. They often say, “you can donate it and give it to someone who may find value in it!” You can give it away if you want, sure. But if you think it sucks that bad, why let anyone else read such shittiness? I know that idea offends many, they leap to an absurd stretch that it’s almost as if I’m out here burning books (this book, I wouldn’t want to waste the matches on it). But it’s me taking a stance, and that stance is, in case you forgot, the book and its shitty ideas suck.
Here’s why I threw it in my trash and covered it in cat food, coffee grinds, and cat throw up. Like I said, I like Roy Peter Clarke. He’s not a favorite of mine. But some of his writing books are ok, they offer some decent writing tips.
This book almost offered some ok tips on how to read fiction until he unleashed: “I’m a boomer hippy that’s down with the scene man! Peace and love are what I’m all about, and you know man, I was against ‘Nam and am for free love, and now I’m all about bringing down the…. give me a minute while I find out what’s hip and far out with the kids… the patriarchy! white supremacy! the classics!… wait I’m telling you to read the classics, but whatever, BRING EM DOWN MAN!!
It read like some boomer hippy insisted on playing Volunteers by Jefferson Airplane in the middle of every sentence.
Here’s what I mean, Clarke offered a decent tip, like if you spot a word repeated a lot, then it may point to something in the story. Ok. Not bad. But then the next sentence or clause would wax an anti-Republican trope or some self-loathing about the author being white, or that women too can write good books. It was ridiculous and pointless.
Look, I’m conservative in the classical liberal sense, it roots my values and principles. That may come out sometimes in my writing. I’m not a political writer, nor do I pretend to be, but my beliefs and worldviews I’m sure leak into my writing. But I’m not going to write, “Aristotle’s golden mean gives a guideline, it’s unfortunate and horrific today that people believe Alexandria Oscaio-Cortez, she’s literally bringing down society, the Golden mean aspect, it’s nuanced….” But that’s the style in which Clarke wrote his book. A lesson, then a completely unnecessary progressive hobbyhorse, then right back into a tip. Sometimes he tried to be subtle, like calling then Republican Florida Governor Rick Scott, “Voldemort.” As in, he’d make an example sentence, and it would be, “Acts like Voldemort, treats people as if Voldemort, why it’s Rick Scott! The Governor of Florida. This dialogue style shows foreshadowing of theme.” It was pathetically absurd. If he wanted to take his stand, then argue it with clarity and then write a book on it, Clarke. But he simply wrote a tip, then either took his MSNBC informed shot at Conservatives, then went back into the tip. His virtue-signaling and his sanctimonious partisan grandstanding destroyed any lesson the book potentially offered.
So no, the grasshopper in me is not going to wait. If you’re a left-leaning reader of mine, my review, I believe, holds up. Politics aside, Clarke’s book suffered a whiplash effect and I found the tips to push navel gazing methods.
Safe to say, I don’t recommend this book.
The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith
Thomas Sowell mentions Adam Smith a lot. Adam Smith is often called the “Father of Capitalism.” He never used the term capitalism, in fact, it wasn’t around then. It was said as an insult later on. Smith is known as the father of a free market, his earth-shaking book, The Wealth of Nations fomented an entire economic school of thought and policy.
Yet this work overshadowed another earth-shaker, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith taught philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. And the book is largely influenced by his lectures.
I’m reading it slowly. The style of the writing is accessible, but it’s written in a way that requires the reader to think on a passage and reread passages a few times. In other words, it reads like how proper teaching is supposed to work, a dialogue back and forth, where you engage with the text. I’m a few weeks into it, and only about 280 pages in as of this writing.
I wouldn’t call it a slog, however. It’s a book that needs patience and consideration. What makes it not a slog, is that he’s able to capture human nature so well. The psychology he uses is incredible. It’s things observant people may have noticed, but couldn’t quite vocalize clearly. Smith puts it down on paper. And reading it, it forces you to reflect on these observations.
I will say, to make this work a little more accessible, knowledge of the following will help:
- Thomas Sowell
- Meditations, Marcus Aurelius
- Discourses, Epictetus
- Treatise on Human Nature, David Hume
In the back of my edition, Smith makes clear references to these among others (Cicero is really big, and Seneca here or there).
I heard of him via Mortimer Adler, he’s come up frequently in my Conservative rabbit hole, and masculine thought-leader, Shawn Smith has spoken highly of this work. Solzhenitsyn got sent to the gulag for speaking out against Joseph Stalin and communism. I hear his Gulag Archipelago is heart-wrenching and full of lessons. I hear the same thing on his fiction. He’s also on The Great Books list.
Love, Roddy Doyle
In high school, I was on a huge Roddy Doyle kick. And a bit into college. I haven’t read him in twenty years. The title caught me, and the dialogue inside caught me. It will be interesting to return to an author I haven’t read in twenty-some-odd years.
Classics Mini Stack: Twain, Stroker, Eliot, Shelley, Virgil
The names speak for themselves. I planned to inject more fiction into my reading for 2022. So lately, when I go to the bookstore, I do my best to grab some literature classics. Some of these may not be read for years. But I plan to get to them at some point.
The Long Embrace, Judith Freeman
This book popped on my radar via Tyler Cowen.
I’ve heard of Raymond Chandler, I guess he created a detective series, and apparently, it’s quite good. Ok, jokes aside, you know the deal with me and Chandler.
Chandler lived at something like 40 addresses in and around Los Angeles and La Jolla. From what I gather, Freeman attempts to visit each address, along with this, she delves into Chandler’s relationship with his wife Cissy. While Chandler was not faithful to his wife Cissy, he adored her and she adored him, and they had a distinct bond. This book meshes his addresses, his love for Cissy, and Freeman’s curiosity about both topics. It sounds interesting.
M. Stanton Evans, Stephen Hayward
This book is part of my Conservative rabbit hole. I love behind-the-scenes players. And Evans, apparently, was a big one behind the Conservative movement. He commanded his behind the scene power due to his writing, which makes me even more curious.
Black Rednecks and White Liberals, Thomas Sowell
Thomas Sowell arguably wields the most influence over my thought. He’s my intellectual hero. He’s a thinker and writer I believe people will be reading centuries after he passes. This book is on race issues. A topic where he rips off band-aids and rips down curtains. As always, I’m looking forward to reading Sowell.
Sunset Limited, Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy is one of my favorite fiction writers. I never heard of this book until I saw it. So I grabbed it.
How To Read A Book and Why, Harold Bloom
Harold Bloom is a famous literary critic. He’s written a ton on how to unpack and decipher literature. I’ve read him in the past. I enjoy him at times, yet at times he can be very Harold Bloom. He can get quite ponderous, snooty, sanctimonious, and downright boring with his galactic levels of navel-gazing. Yet, at times, he can offer some decent insights. I will not intensely read this book, I prefer to extract a few simple insights from Bloom, and ignore the parts where he gets into sanctimonious drivel.
The Complete Essays, Michel de Montaigne
Montaigne has been on my list for a while. The Essays is thick. I’m unsure whether I’ll read it in one pass or if it will work more like dipping into essays here or there. Either way, he was an influential thinker, and these essays are considered a classic.
Modern Ireland, R.F. Forester
I’m nearly 100% Irish. The genetic background tests tell me I’m something like 99.999% Irish. So my ancestors hung out on that island for a long time. My dad held dual citizenship in the USA and, you guessed it, Ireland. I’ve visited Ireland around twenty times. And my senior college thesis was on Ireland (it was a terrible paper, I think it was on how The Troubles were represented in American media versus Irish Media). And my senior project in high school was on James Joyce (that one was better than my college thesis). And my hero Edmund Burke is from Ireland.
If you’re picking it up by now, Ireland is an important place to me. I haven’t read much Irish history since college. Recently, Tyler Cowen went on an Irish bent with recommendations. Cowen said this book is the best on Irish history. And he recently had the author on his Conversations with Tyler Podcast. The interview was fantastic. I listened twice.
Irish history isn’t quite on my radar right now. I pick on gut feelings and rabbit holes when I decide what book to read (it’s a whole ordeal sometimes). Yet at some point I’ll get to this one.
Oedipus Rex. You’ve likely heard of him. Perhaps in high school or college. Sophocles created that story, among other famous stories. I’ve been hearing Sophocles a lot lately in regard to today’s society. And Victor Davis Hanson, a thinker I admire, references Sophocles often when he talks about what is hollowing out society today. In other words, Sophocles’ drama and the meaning he instilled still holds up 2,400 or so years after he wrote his plays.
The next haul is around the corner.