Why “Best Books” Lists Are Sort of Silly… and My “Best Books” List for 2018

When I first read Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, I read it quickly. It was the selection of the month for my November book club – and by the time I got to it, I had less than two days to go through it.

No problem. I arrived at the Cigar Club, book in hand, with plenty to say. And most of that was a mixture of admiration and dismissal. Among other things, I said that it was “the best-written book that told me things I already knew.”

Two weeks later, I listened to it on Audiobooks, and I loved it. And now I’m reading it again…  and I’m thinking it may be one of the best books I’ve ever read!

Each chapter is a book in itself. And each section of every chapter contains at least one idea that feels big and new and important. This is a book that I will read over and over again.

I felt the same way about Pride and Prejudice when I first read it, which was 12 or 15 years ago. I’ve read it twice since then, and I’d be happy to read it again today.

But had I read  Pride and Prejudice as an undergraduate, I might have dismissed it as superficial and melodramatic. I know I felt that way about Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady and The Ambassadors when I read them for Dr. Powers at the University of Michigan. I pretended to admire them because he did, but they felt insignificant to me then. (“Brilliant writing about trivial human affairs,” is what I said in my journal.)

I don’t feel that way about those two novels now that I’m older and less cynical. Quite the contrary, I think they are brilliant and deep.

And that’s one of the problems with lists of the “best” books. The pleasure we get from books depends greatly on the level of intellectual and emotional sophistication we have when we read them. On the one hand, a book that strikes us as luculent in our youth might seem dim or even dimwitted decades later. On the other hand, a book that bores us in high school might thrill us in our middle age.

The same can be said of almost any aesthetic object. That painting of the young girl with the huge brown eyes that swept us away when we first saw one in Woolworth’s when we were nine years old now looks like the intentionally bathetic work of a commercial panderer.

I’m not suggesting that there is no such thing as bad, better, and great books. I’ve made the point elsewhere that I believe very strongly that the potential pleasure and elucidation we get from a book depends primarily on its intrinsic qualities. As a general rule, books that are broader and deeper and also subtler tend to get better the more you read them because they are better. They are better because they have complexity, depth, and subtlety, qualities that are enhanced by rather than diminished by repeated exposure.

What I’m saying is that best-books lists should be seen as what they are: the temporary feelings of one person – the list maker – at a particular time.

That said, here is my list of “best” books that I read (or reread) in 2018:

  1. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
  2. The Good Earth by Pearl Buck
  3. Brief Questions to the Big Questions by Stephen Hawking
  4. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
  5. Beyond the Grave by Jeffrey L. Condon
  6. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
  7. Fox 8 by George Saunders
  8. 21 Lessons for the 21stCentury by Yuval Noah Harari
  9. Dress Her in Indigo by John D. MacDonald
  10. The Soul of America by Jon Meacham
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Today’s Word: luculent (adjective) – Luculent (LOO-kyoo-luhnt) means cogent, convincing, clear or lucid. As I used it today: “… a book that strikes us as luculent in our youth might seem dim or even dimwitted decades later.”

Did You Know? There are more than 130 million books in print. The three most read books in the world are The Holy Bible (King James version), Quotations From the Works of Mao Tse-tung, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Worth Quoting: “When the reader is ready, the best book will appear.” – M.M. Ford

What I’m Reading: From The Atlantic: “Rising Instagram stars are posting fake sponsored content”

The cleverest marketing is usually not created by the companies that win awards but by the oddballs cruising on the thin tails. Instagram marketing is no exception…

Watch This: I can’t get enough of these rockabilly dancers… the skill, the technique, and most of all the spirit. You can’t watch them without being reminded of how youth, at its energetic apex, once felt.

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Four Proven Ways That Employees Can Get Big Raises and Retire Rich

It’s commonly said that you can’t get rich working for someone else. That the only way to achieve financial independence is to own your own business.

This idea feels true when you are stuck in a thankless job, working long hours for mediocre pay. But it’s nonsense.

It’s perfectly possible to become wealthy as an employee. You’ve just got to (a) be working for the right kind of company, (b) chart a course for yourself that takes you from ordinary to valuable and from valuable to invaluable, and (c) make sure you get the compensation you deserve.

I know this to be true for three reasons: I did it myself. I mentored at least a dozen employees that did the same thing. And I looked at a foot-high stack of research on highly paid employees that confirmed my experience.

(In this essay, I’ll outline the principal ideas I’ve developed on this subject. I’ll present them just as I presented them to those I’ve mentored: as observations and advice. Sometime later this year, if I can get someone to help me, I’ll expand this essay into a book. But what you are about to read should get you going and keep you moving in the right direction, if you are interested.)

Nothing I’m about to suggest will be especially difficult. It will take time. And commitment. And the willingness to do some things that you are not doing now. But there will be no big scary leaps required of you. Begin where you are now, with the skills and knowledge you currently have. Then move forward, taking small, sensible steps, acquiring the skills and knowledge you currently lack.

There are 5 stages to this journey:

  1. Make sure you are working for the right company.
  2. Become extraordinary at what you do.
  3. Develop additional, financially valuable skills.
  4. Expand your reach so that your business can’t do without you.
  5. Move from employee to stakeholder.

Work for a Business That’s Right for You

There are basically three kinds of businesses that can provide the environment you are looking for, where you can become rich.

Big corporations

Big corporations will pay you serious money if you are at the top of their food chain. A senior vice president of a billion-dollar business can easily make $350,000-$750,000.

It’s not difficult to accumulate an eight-figure net worth if you get yourself promoted into one of those highly paid jobs quickly. But the competition will be strong. You will be competing with dozens (if not hundreds) of very smart, very hardworking, very ambitious young people. You will have to be not only outstanding at your job and then move yourself strategically towards the money side of the business, you will also have to be politically shrewd. Because all big companies suffer from some amount of corporate politics. And even if you have what it takes to rise to the top, it will likely take 10-20 years.

Financial service businesses

Brokerages, banks, and insurance companies are particularly good places for ambitious people that want to get rich as employees because they are designed to motivate and reward their employees with commissions and bonuses. And if you are with the right company, those commissions and bonuses can be huge.

There are probably a thousand such businesses in the USA that are happy to pay their best people $250,000 to $1 million or more – if they can perform. Career paths at this level include portfolio managers, marketers, and salespeople.

Becoming a high-earning portfolio manager is a matter of knowledge, skill, and luck. If you are highly intelligent, mathematically oriented, and mentally disciplined, this could be an exciting and rewarding path for you. But be prepared for the emotional challenges. It is difficult to keep an investment portfolio’s performance above the pack. When the performance is up there, you are a superstar. When it drops below – and eventually it will – you will be a pariah.

A less demanding (in my view) career path is to become a broker – starting out working under another broker, developing leads and then signing up your own accounts, and then eventually having a team of junior marketers and junior salespeople working for you. Brokering is 80% salesmanship, 10% customer management, and 10% knowing what you are doing. To succeed as a broker, you need to be very good at all three.

Small companies with big potential

The third type of business that offers employees the potential to become rich is the small, entrepreneurial company with big growth potential.

This was my choice as a young man, and I don’t regret it. Starting out with a small company, especially if you are young, gives you a fast track to making big money that you won’t get in a big corporate environment. You are not competing against dozens of hyper-smart and uber-ambitious colleagues. And there is no formal corporate ladder to climb.

With small businesses, it’s generally easier to take on more responsibility. It’s also much more likely that you will be working directly with the founder, who will be very conscious of everything you are doing to make him or her rich.

Plus, working for a small business gives you a much greater ability to shape the corporate culture so that you can become not just wealthy but also proud of what you do.

Becoming a Valuable Employee

Whatever type of company you choose, your journey to wealth begins by establishing yourself as a valuable employee.

Most employees go through their lives working for businesses they care nothing much about, dealing with problems they’d rather not face and getting paid very ordinary wages. They would like to earn more. They may even be willing to do more. But their ambitions are sporadic and fleeting. Most of the time, they are simply showing up.

Such employees are never going to get substantial raises. They can expect their salary to rise very slowly and very gradually. From 1984-2017, for example, the average salary rose by around 3.5%, according to the Average Wage Index.

As an ordinary employee, that’s what you should expect. But getting a 3.5% increase every year will never get you rich. It’s barely enough to keep up with inflation.

Becoming a valuable employee, however, puts you on a different trajectory. Extraordinary employees can – and often do – get raises that begin at twice the 3.5% average and often jump by 10% yearly with periodic leaps of 25% or more.

That sort of arithmetic is why most college-educated employees starting out today can expect to quadruple or quintuple their salaries over a career span of about 20 years, whereas top-performing employees can easily double or triple that.

A valuable employee, earning only a minimum increase of 7% a year, will see his compensation grow from $50,000 to $193,000 in 20 years. At 10%, he will see his compensation break into the quarter-million-dollar range.

There are basically four ways to distinguish yourself as a valuable employee and see your compensation accelerate at a faster pace:   READ MORE

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Today’s Word: immure (verb) – To immure (ih-MYOOR) is to enclose within walls; to seclude or confine. As used by the 19thcentury Unitarian preacher William Ellery Channing: “He who possesses the divine powers of the soul is a great being, be his place what it may. You may clothe him with rags, may immure him in a dungeon, may chain him to slavish tasks. But he is still great….”

Did You Know?: Scientists say that Saturn’s icy rings are losing so much water that they could disappear… in 300 million years.

Worth Quoting: “What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.” – Zig Ziglar

What I’m Reading: The short, simply written and heartfelt essays in Gratitude were written by Oliver Sacks in 2015 when he was dying of cancer – fearing extinction, yet grateful for the life he’d lived and the friends he’d loved. There are four essays: “Mercury,” “My Own Life,” “My Periodic Table,” and “Sabbath.” True and touching, I found them difficult to read at bedtime.

Watch This: When I was in my early teens I worked part-time for a sign painter. Most signs today are done digitally, but back then every town had at least one sign painter that would service all the retail stores, car dealers, and other businesses that needed signage.

I don’t remember the sign painter’s name, but I do remember being amazed at his technical expertise. This video will give you an example of what I mean…

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No, You Didn’t Choose It… And, No, You Can’t Change It… So What Are You Going to Do About It?

You didn’t choose and cannot change the locale of your birth.

You didn’t choose and cannot change your ethnicity or your parentage.

You didn’t choose and cannot change the color of your skin.

But you can choose to change almost everything else.

Dwelling on what you didn’t choose and can’t change does you no good.

It doesn’t soothe your pain.

It doesn’t change the past.

It doesn’t lift you up.

It doesn’t give you hope.

And it cannot improve your future.

Feeling victimized by what you didn’t choose and can’t change actually hurts you.

It makes you angry,

Which depletes your energy,

Which makes you weak,

Which makes you less capable of moving ahead.

Ultimately, this way of thinking is a tragic waste of your precious time.

So why do so many supposedly smart and learned people promote it?   READ MORE

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Today’s Word: balmy (adjective) – Balmy (BAH-mee) means soft, soothing, mild. As used by Eugene Field in A Little Book of Profitable Tales: “The night wind was balmy, and there was a fragrance of cedar in its breath.”

Did You Know?: The kidneys are involved in almost every bodily function and 500 biochemical actions.

Worth Quoting: “Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.” – Oscar Wilde

What I’m Reading:

I was in one of my daily lows, prompted in part by my decision to scrap an essay I’d spent half a day on. My blood chemistry was bad too. I needed something to lift my spirits. And there, in one of my overstuffed bookshelves in the den, was an old paperback copy of Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe by Bill Bryson.

I’ve read two other books by Bryson, and they were both 100% pleasurable and enormously informative. This one, published in 1991, was not so informative. But the pleasure was fully there. It’s about Europe and England and America from the perspective of a very smart and very curious American who had been living in England for 15 years. I was barely three chapters into it, and I could feel my mood moving from a 5.9 up to about a 7.5, which is more than I can get with any sort of natural therapy – or even any sort of drug –that I’ve so far tried. I checked out some online reviews of the book. Some were not positive. They complained that Bryson made fun of the Germans for being Germanic and the English for being English and the French for being French. But if you like Europe and enjoy wit, Neither Here Nor There is for you.

Try This: The “Tequila Sunset”

I claim to have invented the Long Island Ice Tea back in the early 1970s. I can’t prove that, but I am claiming this drink too. I call it the Tequila Sunset. It’s made with a shot (or two) of añejo tequila (aged 1 year), club soda, fresh passion fruit juice, and a few dashes of smoked sea salt. It’s very good.

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A Letter From a Man Whose Mother Is a Bank

I received a letter this morning that began as follows:

Dear Mark – I hope all is well with you and yours. I want to reach out to you because you can help me…

I looked at the signature. A name I didn’t recognize. Perhaps I had forgotten. I asked Gio to look him up in our files. She couldn’t find him.

Notice his rationale for “reaching out to me.” It was because I could help him.

I was intrigued. Either I did know the man and he was making a claim on that relationship, or we had no relationship and he was oblivious to how arrogant his request was.

His letter continued:

I am living at home in a toxic environment trying to launch my internet business. I haven’t worked for months; jobs are hard to land these days. I do not want any handouts, I just want the opportunity to explain my circumstances.

He went on to tell me all about his life… his dreams and his challenges. He explained that his current financial problems were “not his fault” but the fault of his “dysfunctional family.”

And then, in the very next sentence, he mentioned that he had been using his supposedly dysfunctional mother “as a bank for almost nine years.”

I was now reading with the utmost interest.

“My livelihood is on the line,” he said. He had “boxed himself” into a fast-disintegrating financial corner, but he was not going to give up. Where there is hope, he believed, there is hope!

And what was that hope? Words of advice from me? Perhaps a free copy of Automatic Wealth? Or Seven Years to Seven Figures? Or Living Rich?

No.

“To be totally transparent with you,” he said, “Money will take care of the aforementioned problems.”

Aha! So it was as easy as that. All he needed was some quantity of my money. All I had to do was sign a check and send it off… and presto! He would be in fine shape.

Every week, I get letters from people asking for advice. And I answer every one of them. Sometimes with a quick suggestion but usually by suggesting that they read one of my books. But it’s rare that I get a request like this.

I believe that no one has an inherent right to wealth. I believe that we are born into a universe that guarantees us nothing. But I also believe that the acquisition of wealth – enough to sustain oneself – is a fundamental human responsibility.

It requires three things:
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Today’s Word: aegis (noun) – In classical mythology, the aegis (EE-jis) was the shield of Zeus or Athena. We use the word to refer to something that provides protection, support, or sponsorship. Example from Memoirs of the Comtesse du Barry by Etienne Leon Lamothe-Langon: “Will she refuse to protect with her aegis the most humble of her adorers?”

Did You Know?: Porcupines float in water.

Worth Quoting: “Trying to get without first giving is as fruitless as trying to reap without having sown.” – Napoleon Hill

What I’m Reading: Little Failure: A Memoir By Gary Shteyngart and Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah. Shteyngart’s memoir about being a child in Russia and then growing up in a Jewish community in Brooklyn is smart, funny, perceptive. Such a contrast to Noah’s memoir about growing up in South Africa as a colored person. Noah’s observations are more profound and inspired, but Shteyngart’s ideas and articulation are more impressive.

Watch This: I’ve introduced you to Steve Ludwin, my friend the venomous snake aficionado. He’s landed a series with the VICE TV network in which he travels around the world interviewing people that have fascinating connections with deadly snakes. This particular episode is about preachers in Western Virginia that “handle” snakes.

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Principles of Wealth #24*

The banking industry promotes the idea that money stored in cash instruments (such as saving accounts, CDs, and money market funds) is safe money and a riskless financial strategy. But it is not true. Cash, like every other asset class, has risk.

On Saturday, Ted reads an article in The New York Times predicting that the president’s new tariff plan will decimate international commerce. Sunday morning, he reads a WSJ article pointing out that the stock market is dangerously overvalued with an average P/E ratio for the DOW of 25. At noon, he reads an essay by an economist he admires that points out that US debt is now higher than it has ever been.

He goes to bed feeling uneasy.

Monday morning, he calls Joe, his stockbroker. “What’s going on with the market?” he asks.

“You’ve seen the numbers?” Joe replies.

“What numbers?”

“It’s down.”

“How much down?”

“About 10%.”

“Is that bad?”

“It’s not good.”

“And my account ?”

He hears the tapping of fingers on a keyboard. “You should be relatively okay,” Joe says. “Your portfolio is very conservative.”

A bit more tapping. Then, “You are down just a bit more. Around 11.5%.”

“Shit,” Ted says. “I knew this was going to happen. What do you think I should do.”

“That depends on how you feel about the future. Our analysts believe this is a dip in a long-term bull market.”

“I don’t believe that,” Ted says. “Sell.”

“Sell everything?” Joe asks.

“Everything.”

“And do what with it?”

“Just leave it in cash.”

The tapping again.

“Okay,” Joe says. “You are out. Your money is sitting in cash.”

“Good,” Ted says “I feel better.”

“Then you made the right decision,” Joe says. “What could be safer than cash?”
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Today’s Word: bête farouche (noun) – Bête farouche (bet fah-ROOSH) is French for “wild beast.” I used the term this way today: “And most importantly, he should recognize that inflation is a bêtefarouche whose movements are wild and cannot be reliably anticipated – and, therefore, he should be very careful about long-term commitments to it.”

Did You Know?: The earliest use of the yin-yang symbol was in Rome, not China.

Worth Quoting: “It is better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating.” – Oscar Wilde

What I’m Reading: I took surfing lessons once in Hawaii, and I liked it. But when I tried to surf in front of my house in Florida, it wasn’t as much fun. I sometimes think about trying it again sometime. If I do, it will be down the beach from my home in Rancho Santana. I got this into my head while reading this update from the Rancho Santana team…

“The best breaks in the area”

Remembering Jack Bogle: Two people that have had a great impact on my thinking died last week – Mary Oliver https://www.markford.net/category/Blog/little-bits and Jack Bogle, the founder and CEO of The Vanguard Fund and the author of some very true and helpful books on investing.

Bogle argued for an approach to investing defined by simplicity and common sense. Below (from Wikipedia) are his 8 basic rules for investors:

  1. Select low-cost funds.
  2. Consider carefully the added costs of advice.
  3. Do not overrate past fund performance.
  4. Use past performance to determine consistency and risk.
  5. Beware of stars (as in, star mutual fund managers).
  6. Beware of asset size.
  7. Don’t own too many funds.
  8. Buy your fund portfolio – and hold it.
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