“One of my students (who was majoring in, of all subjects, economics) asked me for a rule on what to read. “As little as feasible from the last twenty years, except history books that are not about the last fifty years,” I blurted out, with irritation…” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Most of the books published this year will be useless or forgotten soon (if they’re not already). With this in mind, I decided to take Taleb’s rule wholeheartedly. In 2015, every second book I read has to be at least 1000 years old.
As I mentioned in this post, “The thinking goes, if something was good to last for a thousand years (or, in modern times, 20 years!), then it must be really good.”
I didn’t reach much this month. I’ve been going out more than normal, and hanging out with friends, etc. has been keeping me far from the books. I’ve read only two books, while went through three others in audio. Here’s the break up:
Ab Urbe Condita Libri, Books I-V, by Titus Livius (The History of Rome From Its Foundation)
I’ve been reading Livius (Livy) since May or so. This one is the first compilation of five books, including the period from the legendary founding of Rome to the Gallic sack of 390 BC. It’s more of the good Livius: easy, exciting narration, good characterization and myths and legends with the splendor (or, in those days, the rough streets) of Rome as a context. A few observations:
– Livius started writing this in approx. 25 BC, and the events he mentions in these books are ~700-500 years prior, a period he calls “ancient times”. Just to put it into perspective, this period felt as old to Livius as old as the Mongol conquests feel to us today.
– Because of the above, Livius’ sources for this part of the story are blurry, to the point that one should take all stories and legends as that, and not as fool-proof factual history.
I expect to be done and over with Livy in September. I’ll miss him, but hey – I’m looking forward to dive into other of the Ancient annalists and historians.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami
This one is a kind-of memoir / self-help type of book. It follows Murakami’s experiences – for example, how he started his writing career and his running habit (he ran like 30 marathons). I found it interesting – I love Japanese culture, and Murakami comes to me as embodying part of the Japanese stoic ethos as he goes through different challenges, be it to run a pub, write a book, or complete an ultra marathon. It’s a fine and good vibe read.
I haven’t read any of Murakami’s novels yet, but I’m tempted to check one out soon.
Debt: The First 5000 Years, by David Graeber
Debt is one of those ambitious anthropological tomes in the likes of Guns, Germs and Steel or The Ascent of Money. The book outlines and backs up some interesting theories:
– There was debt (as credit) before money, and money as physical currency didn’t spontaneously emerge to address a social need, but its rise was rather a calculated effort by state-societies and empires in the Axial Age to build markets for their own benefits – more specifically, to pay for soldiers and the war-machine
– “Barter” societies are a myth, as all the way to Ancient Sumer people used credit instead. It was the same in Medieval Europe, with people using Roman (and, later, Carolingian) money for transactions, but with the detail that the money was not physically there but was “virtual”
– From Ancient Israel, to the Rome of the Gracchi, and Russia in Lenin’s time, there was a serious trouble with debt, with structural discontent and a big popular push for “clean slates” and other types of debt amnesties. These were more common and violent than even slave uprisings
Graeber has a political agenda, and as thus I suggest to take his theories with a grain of salt, especially those of the latter part of the book, where he makes his predictions for the future. Those I don’t take seriously (if not completely dismiss). In all cases, it’s an interesting book and a worthwhile read.
The Hard Thing About Hard Things, by Ben Horowitz
These days it looks as if every smart, successful guy in Silicon Valley needs to write a book and Ben Horowitz is not the exception. This book has some good and actionable advice on how to build and run a company, but the advice is very thinly spread out on what, in my eyes, could be a book five to ten times shorter.
If you never read a business or startup book, you’ll find The Hard Thing a very valuable read. If you, as me, have read all the startup “classics”, then you might be better off reading a condensed version or just the highlights.
The Martian by Andy Weir
I don’t read much fiction. I’m more of a non-fiction type of guy, and when I want to read a story, I read Livy or another exciting ancient writer. The few times I read fiction, I ready fantasy – not science fiction, historical fiction, or the every day best seller. But I gave The Martian a try, and, hey, it was worth it.
I devoured this book. It’s really, really exciting – especially if you’re into space, Mars, survival, thinking out of the box, etc. The book is about this guy called Mark Watney who gets stuck in Mars, abandoned by his crew, who presume he’s dead. The story follows Watney’s efforts to survive until the next scheduled mission to Mars arrives.
The book is easy to read and at the same time very well researched, with great technical detail. I’m very much looking forward to watch the movie adaptation in October.
Have you been reading something interesting in the past few months? If so, let me know – I’ll be happy to take recommendations!