I read a lot. Wide, deep and across quite a number of different fields. As a self-proscribed ‘writer’ and ‘editor’, reading much is both satisfying an intellectual desire and a professionally useful practice in familiarize myself with various styles, voices and topics. A common tip for aspiring writers is to read someone they admire and try to imitate their style; at this, at least, I am somewhat successful, as a friend recently told me that my style reminded him of Deirdre McCloskey. Full of idolized admiration for Deirdre’s work, I couldn’t imagine a higher praise.
As readers, the eternal curse of modernity is our laughable inability to keep up with the couple of millions of books that are published every year. Not to mention written materials on blog or respectable outlets or in magazines and journals. As consumers of the written word, we are completely outstripped, utterly defenseless and overwhelmingly inundated.
When in September I published my discussion of geographer and anthropologist Jared Diamond’s impressive work, I got a lot of feedback of astonishment from friends and family – including the friend that praised me for occasionally (accidentally…?) write like McCloskey: “Wow,” he said, “I’ve never heard of him before!”
Huh, I thought. I wonder what other household names of public intellectuals are not read as much as they deserve.
My exact reaction of astonishment was more like a gaping “What?!”, betraying my wanna-know-everything attitude, slight elitism and writer lifestyle. Contrary to the belief that our times is one of all talking and no listening (well, writing and no reading), it takes a vast amount of reading before you can produce anything that others want to read. Sure, anybody with a laptop and an internet connection can start a blog and flush out their thoughts (I did so for years) but it takes knowledge to say something intelligent and interesting – knowledge acquired by extensive reading.
It also takes a lot of practice to develop a voice of one’s own. Authors with astonishing and recognizable writing styles are made, not born.
What, then, should you read?
In light of this surprise, I decided to make a list of intellectuals I would advise anybody to read. Note that this is not a list of the most important thinkers ever, nor is it a collection of the most profound academic contribution to various disciplines. Instead it’s a gathering of writers whose popular writing (often in addition to their rigorous academic work) is exactly that – popular. That means that a lot of others liked them (and if you’re anything like others, you might too) and more importantly: a lot of smart people you meet are rather likely refer to these authors or to the ideas contained in their work. Here are 11 authors I would consider to be household names and whose writing will make you a much smarter and interesting person.
Let’s begin our list with aforementioned Jared Diamond, whose trilogy on humanity is compulsory reading for pretty-much everyone. This year he released Upheaval, which received very mixed responses and that I decided to skip after hearing his pitch on Sam Harris’ Making Sense podcast. Diamond’s publisher maintains that this is the third installment of his “monumental trilogy” of how civilizations rise and fall, but to me that was The World Until Yesterday:
- Guns, Germs and Steel is the book that definitely made Diamond a well-known name, the kind of Big Picture civilizational economic history we have recently seen in Yuval Harari’s work – the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, that strangely boring book that everyone seems to be reading these days – or the less well-known but more captivating Columbia professor Ruth DeFries’ The Big Ratchet. If you like, you could describe this Pulitzer prize-winning book as well-written geographical reasons for why the West is rich and the Rest isn’t. If that’s your thing, read away.
- Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, the book that my September piece was mostly concerned with, is a dense story of many different human civilizations falling apart: Easter Islanders, Native Americans in the dry southwest or central America and my favourite chapter: The Greenland Norse. Complemented with the Fall of Civilizations podcast and Dan Carlin’s recent book The End is Always Near would make you ridiculously interesting to talk to in these hyper-catastrophist times. Upheaval is a natural extension of Collapse so if you crave more, that one is for you.
- I would rather point to The World Until Yesterday for Diamond’s third gem as it is a deep dive into the lives of traditional societies in general, but in practice mostly New Guinean societies. Somehow, Diamond made anthropology exciting!
Rapidly moving up in controversy, Paul Collier is an Oxford development economist whose work most intellectuals have a distinctly firm opinion about. His popular claim to fame rests on:
- Exodus, a very cool (and prescient!) take on global migration. Highly recommended.
- The Bottom Billion, for a plunge into global poverty and development economics. It might be slightly outdated (published in 2007) as many of the 60 failing countries he identifies have seem quite some growth in the last decade.
I should also recommend his latest book, Future of Capitalism, but I wasn’t very impressed with it. In these times of political polarization, populist uprisings, urban-rural divides and worries about AI, it is still a relevant read.
Whenever Collier speaks, you want to listen.
The Four Horsemen of Atheism (or “New Atheism”):
Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett
Together, these 5 brilliant minds may have helped many out of their religiosity, but their contributions loom much larger than that. As most of the Western world has gradually abandoned faith, their religious inclinations have turned to other areas: environmentalism (Mike Munger’s take on recycling never gets old!), invented hierarchies or social justice. The writings of these five horsemen can be hugely beneficial here too. Some recommended reading includes:
- Dawkins: The God Delusion (update: Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide, just released last month, apparently at first intended for children/teenagers)
- Hitchens: God Is Not Great
- Dennett: Darwin’s Dangerous Idea
- Harris: The End of Faith (but I like The Moral Landscape even more. Disclaimer: I’m a voracious consumer of his Making Sense podcast)
- Hirsi Ali: Infidel: My Life
- The Ascent of Money, which was my introduction to Ferguson during second year of Uni and still my favourite book of his
- The Cash Nexus, which I confess to not having read. Shame, I know.
- House of Rothschild (Money’s Prophets + The World’s Banker), the massive two-volume biography of the Rothschilds and an absolute treasure trove for 19th century European finance. Whenever I need some background info on that topic – or I find myself bored around a well-equipped academic library – I browse Ferguson’s diligent archival work.
- Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, the controversial “maybe it wasn’t all bad…?” take on British imperialism. Predictably, Ferguson generated some outrage over this.
- Civilization, “a book that belongs at the more populist end of the Ferguson oeuvre” which we can also say about:
- The Great Degeneration (which I didn’t mind reading, but wasn’t overly impressed with).
I should also mention his two-volume biography of Henry Kissinger (first volume 2015, next probably finished next year), which I ignored (politics is boring) and his recent book The Square and the Tower, which I heard very bad things about – and so downgraded for now.
Ah, this Harvard cognitive scientist and linguist-turned-public-intellectual is a must-read. His top trilogy, which I voraciously consumed last fall, includes:
- The Blank Slate, the best description of this book that I ever heard came from Charlotta Stern, sociologist at Stockholm University: every sound argument against the “Nurture Only”-idea that biology doesn’t matter compiled into a single book. Yes, you want to read it.
- The Better Angels of Our Nature, a Big Picture humanity-scale look at violence, resurrecting Norbert Elias’ Civilizing Process theory to explain why we hurt and kill each other less than at probably any point in human history. Nassim Nicholas Taleb (see below) is decidedly not convinced.
- Enlightenment Now! The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, as if Better Angels wasn’t Big Picture enough, here’s the ultimate case for why humanity is doing pretty well, why doomsday sayers are wrong on every count and why we shouldn’t despair. Many of the topics of Better Angels re-occur in Enlightenment Now!, but I don’t regret reading both as Pinker’s prose is easy to follow and his content well-sourced should you require more convincing. Originally a cognitive scientist, he has a ton of more books you might wanna check out – The Language Instinct, for instance, ranks pretty high on my Next Up list:
- The Language Instinct
- How the Mind Works
- The Stuff of Thought
Speaking of optimistic people taking a Big Picture view of humanity, zoologist and science writer Matt Ridley is a must. Tall (like me!), Oxford-educated (like me!) and techno-optimist (like me!), no wonder I like him.
- Rational Optimist, a book in the same style as Pinker’s Enlightenment Now!, Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, Johan Norberg’s Progress, and Angus Deaton’s The Great Escape, briefly summarised as: Shit is getting better. Accept it.
- The Origin of Virtue, one of his earlier books in the 1990s that I haven’t read yet (together with Genome and The Red Queen), but I imagine is similar in content to Nicholas Christakis 500-page Blueprint from earlier this year (which I have read).
- Ridley’s most recent book is from 2015 Evolution of Everything and we’ll blame his House of Lords duties for distracting him from his forthcoming book on Innovation that I’ve written about before (How Innovation Works and Why It Flourishes in Freedom).
At last, How Innovation Works is schedule for May 2020.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Oh, boy – here’s a controversial one. Frequently does he get into loud and hostile arguments with other high-profile intellectuals, and rarely does he pull any punches. His popular writing is found in the “Incerto” serie – the Latin term for ‘doubt’ or ‘uncertainty’ that capture Taleb’s core work. The set of books are together described as “an investigation of luck, uncertainty, probability, opacity, human error, risk, disorder, and decision-making in a world we don’t understand:”
They are intended to push One Big Idea: that we frequently overlook how random the world is, ascribing causality where none belongs and overestimate what we can know from (relatively recent) past events. Black Swans, the proverbial unpredictable event, dominates the social sciences in Taleb’s view. While the 2000-odd pages worth of the Incerto series may seem daunting, the books (and even the individual chapters) are designed not to fall very far from each other. The interested reader can, in other words, pick any one of them and work backwards in accordance with whatever is of interest. You wanna read all – or any – of them.
Having read Fooled by Randomness first, I’ve always held that highest. Be ready for a lot of sarcastic and frequently hostile (but thoughtful) objections of things you took for granted.
In sum: just bloody read more
Any selection of important contemporary intellectuals is arbitrary, highly skewed and super-unfair. There are more, many more, whose fantastic writings deserve attention. As I said, the eternal curse of modernity is our laughable inability to keep up with avalanche of cool stuff written every year.
As readers, we are overrun – and the only thing you can do to keep is is to read more. Read widely.
Schnitzler’s Masterpiece “Dream Story” for sure is a contender for the best-written dialogues and endings in the history of literature. Nobody manages it to merge dream and reality in such a sophisticated yet subtle way as Schnitzler.
And if you are a cinematic enthusiast, Stanley Kubrick’s filming of the novel called “Eyes Wide Shut” is well worth a glimpse.
She smiled, and after a minute, replied: “I think we ought to be grateful that we have come unharmed out of all our adventures, whether they were real or only a dream.” (My emphasis.)
“Are you quite sure of that?” he asked.
“Just as sure as I am that the reality of one night, let alone that of a whole lifetime, is not the whole truth.”
“And no dream,” he said with a slight sigh, “is entirely a dream.”
She took his head and pillowed it on her breast.
“Now I suppose we are awake,” she said, —” for a long time to come.” He was on the point of saying, “Forever,” but before he could speak, she laid her finger on his lips and whispered, as if to herself: “Never inquire into the future.” So they lay silently, dozing a little, dreamlessly, close to one another—until, as on every morning at seven, there was a knock on the door; and, with the usual noises from the street, a victorious ray of light. Through the opening of the curtain, and the clear laughter of a child through the door, the new day began.
As always, I wish you all a pleasant Sunday.
Note: I wish you all a prosperous, healthy, and writerly year 2019. (No wishes for happiness, it will come from all the above.)
I have a French nephew who is super-smart. Not long after graduating from the best school in France, he moved to Morocco where he married a super-smart Moroccan woman. He is so smart that he asked me for my intellectual will before I depart for another planet. It’s below.
Here are my qualifications: I taught in universities for thirty years, including twenty-five years in a business school in Silicon Valley. My doctorate is in sociology. (Please, don’t judge me.) My fields of specialization are Organizational Theory and the Sociology of Economic Development. My degree is from a very good university although I am a French high school dropout. My vita is linked here (pdf). Its academic part is respectable from a scholarly standpoint, no more. There is much additional info in my book: I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography, available from me, and on Amazon Kindle, and in my electronic book of memoirs in French: “Les Pumas de grande-banlieue: histoires d’émigration”, also on Amazon Kindle.
1. When the facts don’t fit your perspective you should change …. ? (Complete sentence.)
2. One basic complex idea worth knowing that resists learning: natural selection.
Note: the effective mechanism involved is multi-generational differential reproduction. You don’t understand natural selection until you can put a meaning on all three words.
3. Another basic idea worth knowing, a counter-intuitive one, that also resists learning: the principle of Comparative Advantage: If you are not working at what you do the very best, you are impoverishing me. There is a ten-lesson quick course on my blog to explain this. Look for short essays with the word “protectionism” in the title. A longform version can also be found, here.
4. Taking from the poor is a stupid way to try to become rich when you can invent a new world – like Steve Jobs – and be immensely rewarded for it. Or open a decent restaurant and be well rewarded, or learn welding. There isn’t much you can take from the poor anyway because they are poor. Plus, the bastards often resist!
5. Culture is in the heads (plural). Everything else isn’t “culture.”
6. How a body of people act is not simply the addition of the thinking of its individual human members. (There is a sociology!)
7. Beware those pesky fractions. Quick test: Five years ago, my income was 40% of yours. Now, my income is only 20% of yours. Am I earning less than I did five years ago?
8. Correlation is not causation but there is no causation without some sort of correlation.
9. Statistical significance is significant even if you don’t quite know what it signifies. Find out. It’s not hard.
10. Use statistical estimation methods even if you don’t understand them well. It will improve your reasoning rigor by confronting you brutally with the wrongness of your guesses. And you can only become better at it with practice.
11. There is not text that’s not improved by extirpating from it half of all adjectives and adverbs.
12. Reading is still the most efficient way to improve your comprehension of the world.
It seems to me that if you understand these twelve points inside out, you are well above average in general culture; that’s even true on a global scale.
Below are some intellectual anchoring points of my life. They are subjectively chosen, of course. Don’t lend them too much credence.
My favorite singer-composers: Jacques Brel; the Argentinean Communist Atahualpa Yupanqui. (I can’t help it.)
My favorite instrumental musics: baroque music, the blues.
My favorite painters: Caravaggio (link); Delacroix (Eugene); Delacroix (Krishna).
I don’t have a favorite book because I read all the time without trying to rank books. These three books have made a lasting impression, changed my brain pathways forever, I suspect: Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe; George R. Stewart, Earth Abides; Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.
The only two intelligent things I have said in my life:
“Once you know a woman well vertically, you know nothing about her horizontally.”
“There is not bad book.”
- Isolated in Africa, Chinese workers get religion en masse Yuan & Huang, Global Times
- Explaining Hazony’s nationalism Arnold Kling, askblog
- A prison journalist doing work — from the inside Daniel Gross, Literary Hub
- Character-based voting and the policy of truth Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
- Why don’t Japanese and Taiwanese militaries talk to each other? Katsuya Yamamoto, National Interest
- The fraud of foreign aid Kenan Malik, Guardian
- What V. S. Naipaul taught me about posturing P. Kishore Saval, American Affairs
- India’s stealth war on liberal democracy Shikha Dalmia, the Week
I was alerted to this piece in n+1, a left-wing publication, on the decline of reading and writing in Western societies thanks to the newfound power of Twitter and the prominence this power gives to the op-ed (h/t John Holbo over at Crooked Timber).
There is one really good point in an otherwise predictable piece, but first I’d like to highlight why I continue to maintain that the Left is still the reactionary ideology of our times. The editorial’s complaints about technology (Twitter) giving a voice to radical factions (right-wingers like Andrew Sullivan and the Fox News brigade) are just the same ol’ excuses served up by the Leftists of yore to censor views they don’t like. It’s ho-hum all the way down.
At any rate, here is the part that really grabbed me:
Back then, we could not have imagined feeling nostalgic for the blogosphere, a term we mocked for years until we found it charming and utopian. Blogs felt like gatherings of the like-minded, or at least the not completely random. Even those who stridently disagreed shared some basic premises and context — why else would they be spending time in the comments section of a blog that looked like 1996? Today’s internet, by contrast, is arbitrary and charmless.
I find myself in aesthetic agreement with these reactionaries, again. I’ve always found myself more drawn to the tastes of leftists than conservatives, whose tastes are often too crass for me. (A dead animal’s head on your wall? Really?) And today, I find the internet arbitrary and charmless. Op-eds, and their charmless cousin, the jargon-laden academic paper, are everywhere.
This is part of the reason why I continue to blog. I know that blogging is becoming less and less popular. I understand that clicks and traffic and attention are more important to most people who take time out of their lives to write. I get it.
The intimacy that a blog affords, though, is too good to pass up, especially for someone like me. I like reading voices from Argentina like Federico’s. I enjoy Jacques’ posts on sex and politics. (A true Frenchman, that one, no matter how hard he tries to be otherwise.) Rick, the Canadian-turned-American living in New York, always manages to bring a smile to my face. I like being able to read Michelangelo, an authentic voice from Los Angeles, the crown jewel of the American Empire.
The conversational nature of the blog is not in vogue right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Indeed, if anything, it means that the conversations that continue to play out over what’s left of the blogosphere will be far more important to far more people in far more places than the latest Twitterstorm. Twitter is an incredibly useful place for mining knowledge, but it’s worthless for shaping that knowledge into something useful and precious for today and tomorrow. Only writing can do that.
Op-eds aren’t going anywhere. There’s no use trying to delegitimize them, or ban them. You can choose to ignore them. That’s what I do. Instead of reading an op-ed, I continue to browse the blogosphere, where conversation about ideas and events remains as boisterous, and relevant, and as ever.
PS: I hope you are enjoying my “nightcaps.” The Notewriters have all reached out to me to let me know they’ve got something in the pipeline. Life gets hectic. People get busy. But writing notes on liberty will never get old.