“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’ve read only four books this month, all of them very good and two of them ancient gems. These are:
Ab Urbe Condita Libri, Books VI-X, by Titus Livius (The History of Rome From Its Foundation)
Finally, my last five Livus books. They start with Rome’s recovery from the Gallic sack, and go all the way to the final acts of the Third Samnite War, after which the Romans become the undisputed masters of Central Italy. It exciting because:
– Rome’s a small city-state fighting with its neighbors for hundreds of years. That’s all until the Gallic sack. After that, the Romans step it up – first get a hold of Latium, then of Campania, then of all Central Italy and they keep going, on and on for centuries – like a conquering-machine that has no parallels in history. This is when the machine starts to pick up steam.
– In the Samnites the Romans have an opponent to match themselves – very tough, stoic mountain warriors with a discipline and energy to pose the Romans a real threat for generations.
– The Romans are just crazy. At one point, the Samnites come out of the mountains with a huge army and join the Etruscans, the Gauls and the Umbrians, building a massive force to take on Rome together. In a paramount case of divide and conquer, the Romans take all their reserves (leaving Rome defenseless) and send them to attack the Etruscan and Umbrian homelands – the Etruscans and Umbrians leave the grand army to defend their homes and then the four allies are all cut to pieces one by one.
– There are so many tough, tough guys on the Roman side. Guys you don’t really hear much about but that are as fascinating as a Cincinnatus or a Scipio: Marcus Valerius Corvus and Lucius Papirius Cursor have amazing stories, just to name a few.
There are even at least two or three mentions of the sacred chickens. I’ll miss Livius dearly. He’s engaging, easy to read and his stories are rich in detail. He literally transports you to ancient Rome.
I so much would love to see Livy’s missing books appear in some old basement, or some monastery, or even as a palimpsest. Really!
Anabasis, by Xenophon (The March of the 10,000)
This one is even older than Livius. Around 400 BC, a mercenary army of 10.000 Greeks is hired by Cyrus the Younger in an expedition to usurp the Persian throne from his brother. In the key battle the Greeks rout the Persian army, but, on the other end of the battle line, Cyrus falls. The Greeks, with nothing to fight for now, are left stranded in the Persian heartland – a utterly hostile territory far away from home. To top it up, during peace negotiations the Persians treacherously kill the Greek generals, leaving the Greek army without a head.
In that tough moment, Xenophon, a disciple of Socrates and then still a young soldier, rises as one of the leaders of the army and encourages the Greeks to fight their way home. What follows is a march through deserts, abandoned cities, snowy mountain passes and clashes with hostile tribes and armies all the way up to the Black Sea. Through this journey, Xenophon shares lessons on strategy, leadership and toughness – lessons that, less than a hundred years after, Alexander the Great will put into action himself when he sets out in the conquest of the same Persia Xenophon and his army got stranded in.
Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer
In this book, Foer, a journalist, dives into the world of the “memory athletes” – guys that can, among other things, remember 20.000 digits of pi, the order of a shuffled deck of cards after seeing it for only one minute and other crazy feats. Foer chronicles how he, a completely newbie to the “art of memory”, goes all the way to win the US Memory Championships with a just a year of training.
It’s a very cool book. I’d heard about these memory methods – after all, Cicero himself mentions them over and over – but I didn’t know they were so easy to implement. I got so hooked that I learned a few of them – for example, now can proudly say that I remember all my credit card numbers (it’s pretty easy), and will soon use the technique to remember speeches and quotes (a bit harder).
I’ll read more about this topic in the near future, and probably the classics – after all, the “bible” for memory champions is called Rhetorica ad Herennium and was written ~2.000 years ago. Viva the Romans.
The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande
In this book, Gawande, who’s a surgeon, describes how simple checklists have done wonders in the fields of medicine and aviation, to name a few. I’ve been a big checklist fan for years, and this book encourages me to keep on that trend – there’s much leverage in having simple, clear and vetted procedures written down in a checklist.
The book, however, is a bit too long and, though illustrative in the wonders of checklists, gives little substance on what makes a good one. I’ve heard that there’s a New Yorker article from the same author which basically summarizes the book and available online for free. If you’re sold on checklists already, perhaps it’s better for you to go through that instead of a whole book.
Bonus – The Revolutions Podcast
Mike Duncan’s great Revolutions Podcast just wrapped up the French Revolution. In 50 or so 30-mins episodes he went through the Estates General, the Reign of Terror, and the ascent of Napoleon. Mike’s very well researched, engaging and funny at times as well. You can check the podcast free on iTunes and I strongly recommend it – you’ll enjoy it even if you’re not a history nut like myself.
Have you been reading something interesting in the past few months? If so, let me know – I’ll be happy to take recommendations!