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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Why You Should Read Poetry… Even If You Don’t Like To

There’s something about the power of poetry… what it can do that other forms of literature cannot. If you don’t know what I mean, read Robert Lowell’s collection Near the Ocean.

Harriet Zinnes, a poet, introduced me to Robert Lowell when I was in my junior year at Queens College, CUNY, in 1969. I bought a copy of Near the Ocean, a small volume then in its 4thedition.

I remember liking his poetry very much. Particularly this collection. But I hadn’t seen it in years. It had mysteriously disappeared. Then – just as mysteriously – it reappeared in my library at our home in Nicaragua. And so, when the family was at the tennis courts and Helen, my mother-in-law, was napping, I sat under the palapas-topped pavilion by the pool and read it.

Among its many virtues, is this example of concentration – loosely translating the Cleopatra story (from Book 1 of Horace’s Odes) to something modern and powerful and deep:

 

Cleopatra

Now’s the time to drink,

to beat the earth in rhythm,

toss the flowers on the couches of the gods,

Friends!

Before this, it was infamous

to taste the fruit of the vine,

while Cleopatra with her depraved gangs,

germs of the Empire, plotted

to enthrone her ruin in the Capitol,

and put an end to Rome…

Impotent,

yet drunk on fortune’s favors…

but Caesar tamed your soul

you saw with a now sober eye

the scowling truth of his terror,

Of Cleopatra, scarcely escaping,

and with a single ship, and scarcely

escaping from your limping feet, on fire,

Cleopatra, with Caesar running on the wind,

three rising stands of oars, with Caesar

falling on you like a sparrow hawk

fallen on some soft dove or sprinting rabbit

in the winter field. And yet you sought

a more magnanimous way to die.

Not womanish, you scorned our swords,

you did not search for secret harbors.

Regal, resigned and anguished,

Queen, you even saw your house in ruin.

Poisonous snakes give up their secrets,

you held them with practiced hands,

you showed your breasts. Then bolder, more ferocious,

death slipping through your fingers,

how could you go aboard Octavian’s galleys,

how could you march on foot, unhumbled,

to crown triumphant Caesar’s triumph –

no queen now, but a private woman?

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Intimations of Mortality

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Delray Beach, Florida.- My friend Alec sent this brief note to me this morning:

“A light went out in our bathroom.  I remember that I changed it 14 years ago.  I showed my son how to do it, thinking surely it is the last time that I’ll change it.”

It reminded me of something Gary North, who was in his mid-sixties at the time, wrote about a dozen years ago. It went something like this:

“Just bought a suit. It’s inexpensive but well made, a nondescript charcoal gray that I can wear for almost any occasion. A good investment, considering the likelihood that this may be the last suit I ever buy.”

It stunned – and spooked – me.

Now I’m doing the same thing. All the time.

Should I get a new car? I don’t see why. I have more cars than I need right now. The car I drive is an Audi S5 coupe. I bought it slightly used five years ago. It’s fantastic – reliable and fun.

The other two, a 27-year-old Acura NSX and a 13-year-old BMW 850, are rarely used. Should I sell them? No. They cost almost nothing to maintain. And they will likely hold their value. Someone will figure out what to do with them when I die.

The last suit I bought – for Patrick’s wedding five years ago… was that my last? Yes, I think it was. I have a half-dozen perfectly good suits in my closet. I might wear each of them once a year.

Sometimes these intimations of mortality prompt me to spend more.

“A six-foot tree would be one-quarter the price,” Paul Craft, my palm tree consultant, tells me. “And it will be 30 feet tall in only 15 or 20 years.”

Only 15 or 20 years?” I say, laughing and shaking my head. “No. Order the biggest one you can find.”

We joke about death, but only to trivialize it, to temporarily diminish the dread.

At my book club meeting last night, we talked about the fear of death. (We were reviewing two books: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari and The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant.) About half of the group (four) admitted to that fear. The other half said they didn’t. I said that the only way one can be fearless about one’s death is to deny it. I said something like, “If you really contemplate your own death, the utter extinction of your personal self, you cannot feel anything but terror.”

I did not persuade them.

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Elegant Solutions

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Delray Beach, FL – In his book In Pursuit of Elegance, Matthew E. May tells a story about Drachten, a Dutch village that had a serious problem with traffic at its main intersection. The village hired an expert, Hans Monderman, to help them reduce congestion and accidents.

The conventional way to do this is to implement various measures to get cars to slow down. Unfortunately, such measures – including stoplights, radar-controlled equipment, and a beefed-up police force – are expensive. Since Drachten had a small budget, Monderman was forced to do something different.

He realized that this was an opportunity for him to test a theory he had been developing about human behavior: that the more controls you impose on people, the less self-control they are likely to exhibit. In his words, “Treat people like zombies and they’ll behave like zombies. But treat them as intelligent, and they’ll respond intelligently.”

So instead of increasing traffic controls in the middle of town, he reduced them to a startling degree. Instead of adding regulations, he suggested repealing most of them. No speed bumps, no speed limits, no signs, no mandates about right of way.

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I am sometimes asked – and I don’t know why – what course of study I recommend for college students wishing to become successful in business. My answer usually provokes skepticism if not scorn. I recommend liberal arts.

In the age of the Internet and the new economy, specialized technical knowledge is revered. Most of those who ask my opinion figure I’m going to say something like “computer programming” or “communications engineering.” In fact, I think that type of education is the least likely to put you at the top of your field – either as an entrepreneur or as a corporate climber.

There are several reasons.

First, technical knowledge is temporary. The trendier the technology, the faster it changes. What you learn now will become less true as time goes on. Eventually, it will be obsolete.

Plus, technical majors take a lot of time. The typical engineering student – if he aims to get into a good graduate school – must use up most if not all of his credits on subjects that only a fellow techie would even begin to understand. All that specialization leaves little time for “softer” skills like reading, writing, and thinking. And virtually no time for hanging around and having fun.

But the main reason I advise against a technical major is that technical workers have secondary roles in business. In How to Become CEO, Jeffrey Fox distinguishes between “staff jobs” (which make a business work) and “line jobs” (which make a business profitable). He says that in most companies “most of the people are either in administration or field sales. Administrative people are not bad, or untalented, but they are not on the cutting edge. The company doesn’t depend on them.”

I made this point to FS just the other day. He had the idea that he would “do better” in business if he majored in computer sciences or some such “high-tech” major – even though he didn’t especially like that course of study.

From what I’ve seen in business, I told him, staff people (and I’d include all technical people in this category) are unfairly but often viewed as:

  1. Temporary: You need them only as long as you need technical know-how.
  2. Expensive: Because they fall onto the “expense” side of the P&L, keeping their compensation low seems to make good fiscal sense.
  3. Expendable: When sales slow down, all expenses are trimmed – including salaries for staff employees.

Good line employees, on the other hand, are seen as:

  1. Necessary: They create the sales, and sales are always needed.
  2. Worthwhile: Since most line positions are compensated at least partly on the basis of performance, the usual attitude is “The more we pay you, the more valuable you are.”
  3. Irreplaceable: People who create sales have a secret power that the company does not want to lose to its competition. Again, the more money you make, the more irreplaceable you become.

Now let’s look at the other side. What’s so good about liberal arts?

A liberal arts education teaches you three skills: to think well, to write well, and to speak well. And in the corporate world – and in the entrepreneurial world as well – wealth is created by analyzing problems, figuring out solutions, and selling those solutions. In other words, a liberal arts education is tailor-made to give you the skills you need to succeed in business. And not just to do well. I’m talking about going all the way to the top.

Businesses have one fundamental problem that presents itself endlessly in different disguises: how to sell products/services profitably. There are many, many solutions to this problem. Even in a specific situation on a specific day, there is always more than one. And the person who can regularly come up with solutions – and convince others that his solutions should be implemented – is the person who is going to get the rewards. The money. The power. The prestige.

Yes, you can improve your thinking, writing, and speaking skills while enrolled in a technical curriculum. But it will happen indirectly and additionally. It won’t be what you are mainly concerned with. With a liberal arts education, you ensure that you will spend most of your time learning and practicing the very skills you will use later to get your ideas and solutions sold.

I’m not criticizing technical people. They are very valuable. I’m simply saying that if your goal is to get to the top of any organization, public or private, you need to be a very good thinker, writer, and speaker. And a liberal arts education is designed to help you with that.

I’ve known very successful business leaders that did not have a liberal arts education. The CEO of Agora, a billion-dollar company I consult with, is one. He was educated in accounting and worked his way up to CFO. But he was smart enough to see that he had reached the end of that line. So he gradually moved his way into discussions about marketing and sales and product development. Eventually, he became a very good thinker and speaker on these issues. And when it came time to appoint a new CEO, he was the logical choice.

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Recommended Reading

The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World

By the Dalai Lama & Desmond Tutu

2016, 321 pages

20 thoughts from The Book of Joy:

The purpose of life must be to find happiness (joy) because every human being seeks that.

  1. The purpose of life must be to find happiness (joy) because every human being seeks that.
  2. Joy is somehow bigger than pleasure or fun or even happiness.
  3. Why worry about problems? If they are solvable, there is no need to worry. Get to work on solving them. If they are not solvable, why worry?
  4. An old Tibetan saying: Wherever you have friends is your country. Wherever people love you is your home.
  5. Nothing beautiful in the end comes without a measure of pain and suffering. That is the nature of things.
  6. A disagreement: How much control do we have over our emotions? The Dalai Lama says much. Desmond Tutu says not much.
  7. All dharma teachings agree on one point: We must strive to lesson our self-absorption. (Dharma is a key concept in Hinduism and Buddhism that deals with the basic principles of existence.)
  8. According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist, our happiness depends upon our ability to reframe situations we are in more positively, our ability to feel gratitude, and our choice to be kind and generous.
  9. We can’t give up pleasure. We have to learn to enjoy it without attachment.
  10. Pay more attention to the mental aspects of pleasure than the physical and your joy will be deeper and last longer.
  11. Everyone knows that physical pain is bad and tries to avoid it. We should recognize that spiritual pain, too, is bad and do what we can to avoid it.
  12. To become a better/happier/more joyful person you must first accept yourself as you are and thus avoid the guilt and shame that makes improvement harder.
  13. The Buddha once said that he teaches only one thing: suffering (dukkha) and the cessation of suffering (sukha).
  14. Courage is not the absence of fear but the triumph over it.
  15. Hiding your fear behind a mask of boldness is one way to triumph over it.
  16. But sometimes it is better (more helpful) to show your fear and pain unashamedly.
  17. Stress and anxiety (dukkha) often come from too much expectation and too much ambition.
  18. Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn found that constant stress wears down our telomeres, the caps on our DNA that protect our cells from illness and aging.
  19. The path of joy is through connection. The path of sorrow is from separation.
  20. When you are angry or fearful of someone, remind yourself that they are made in the image of god, which is to say in your image.
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Unfinished Business

I have a library of at least a thousand books, a third of which I have never read. I’d like to. I also have twenty years’ worth of memos I’ve written that I’d like to re-read.

I have always fancied that I’d spend the last five or ten years of my life seated comfortably in a chair across from the ocean, catching up on all that reading.

I’m not sure I’ll actually do this since I am habituated to more active intellectual challenges, such as running businesses and writing. But the idea appeals to me.

There could be worse ways to fade out of the picture.

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Teach Your Children Well: How to Develop Successful Kids

When I was a young father, I wanted my young children to be very good at everything they did. I wanted them to be very good students, very good athletes, very good thinkers, etc.

Although they never took a great deal of interest in sports, they did well enough in school and became bright and athletic thinkers.

By the time they had become young men, my desire for them to excel at everything had evaporated. And in its place was something else: pride and satisfaction in knowing that they had become independent and kind.

Many parents, I believe, experience the same shift. When their children are small, they want to see them excel because they believe that childhood performance is an indicator of future success. But as time passes, they come to have a more realistic view of maturation.

One of the most important recognitions is that the most important stages of childhood development are all marked by the need to separate in some way from the parents.

This makes perfect sense when you consider us as creatures of evolution. When our children are helpless, our instinct is to nurture and protect them. As they grow older, they acquire habits (biting the nipples that feed them, breaking free of the hand that holds them, discovering music their parents abhor, etc.) that promote independence.

This is as it should be. A mentally healthy parent learns to accept and eventually desire his children’s independence.  

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Reading Out Loud

Reading your writing out loud will tell you if it is good. The first time I tried it, I read several poems to my wife and found, as I was reading them, that I was instantly aware of how good or bad they were. I didn’t have to ask her. I knew.

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Reading is More Engrossing Than Watching TV or Videos

Reading is more engrossing than watching movies, TV, or videos. It takes more energy. It demands more attention. It requires imagination. And all of that is both pleasurable and useful to the brain. One of the particular advantages of reading is that it is easy to pause and reflect. How often, when reading a book, do you put it down for a moment to ponder some thought suggested by what you just read? This doesn’t happen when you are at the movies. It doesn’t even happen at home when you have a remote control in your hands.

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