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2023 reading list

[This page is best viewed with, which will load all the comnents below.]

Wherein I try to prioritize reading for the limited amount of time I have this year, and to remind myself to read more than just comments on the Internet. Because of problems of time and shifting interests, I will consider this a success if I read a third of the list. I'll reflect on the reading and deviations from the plan in Jan 2024.

{+} = added after initial planning

  • Albert Camus - The Fall/ audio
  • {+} John Kennedy Toole - A Confederacy of Dunces/ audio, go to 6m44s to skip past the introduction spoilers
  • {+} pirate aba - The Wandering Inn/ audio
  • William Olaf Stapledon - Star Maker/ audio, go to 12m35s to skip past the introduction spoilers

  • Tae Kim - A Guide to Japanese Grammar
  • Noboru Akuzawa - Japanese Sentence Patterns Training Book for JLPT N5
  • Noboru Akuzawa - Japanese Sentence Patterns Training Book for JLPT N4
  • Jay Rubin - Making Sense of Japanese: What the Textbooks Don't Tell You/ the romaji is miserable; may have useful grammar insights
  • struggle through Japanese Wikipedia for some topics I know about
  • Daniele Minnone - A learning handbook for Joyo Kanji/ the first third, pg. 1 - 98

(my initial source for learning Japanese is and not any of the reading.)


maybe in 2024? not sure

  • {+} Paul Bourke - Fractals, Chaos, Self-Similarity
  • {+} Alex Komoroske - The Compendium / after I convert the Firebase export in code/websites/compendium-cards-data/db.json to a single HTML page
  • {+} James Betker - Non_Interactive
  • {+} Denny Britz’s Blog
  • {+} Robert Root-Bernstein - Discovering: Inventing and Solving Problems at the Frontiers of Scientific Knowledge
  • {+} Steven H. Strogatz - Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe
  • {+} Lexi Mattick & Hack Club - Putting the “You” in CPU
  • Lou Keep - The Uruk Series
  • Knut Schmidt-Nielsen - How Animals Work (via)
  • Edward O. Wilson - The Diversity of Life
  • James L. Gould, Carol Grant Gould - The Animal Mind (via)
  • Symbols and mental programs: a hypothesis about human singularity/ printed
  • Robert Yarham - How to Read the Landscape
  • Richard Powers - The Overstory/ audio
  • Rigdzin Shikpo - Openness Clarity Sensitivity/ printed
  • Michael R. Canfield (editor) - Field Notes on Science & Nature (via)
  • Sabine Hossenfelder - Existential Physics
  • George Soros - The Alchemy of Finance/ printed
  • Eric Gill - An Essay on Typography/ printed; I know he's bad
  • {+} Richard Hamming - The Art of Doing Science and Engineering

unplanned cool things read

unplanned and abandoned

  • Chuck Klosterman - The Nineties/ audio
  • Rick Rubin - The Creative Act/ audio
  • Mike Rinder - A Billion Years: My Escape From a Life in the Highest Ranks of Scientology/ audio
  • Sarah Steel - Do As I Say: How Cults Control, Why We Join Them, and What They Teach Us About Bullying, Abuse and Coercion/ audio
  • Benjamín Labatut - When We Cease to Understand the World/ audio
  • Kathryn Petras, Ross Petras - Awkword Moments: A Lively Guide to the 100 Terms Smart People Should Know/ audio
  • Adam Galinsky, Maurice Schweitzer - Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both/ audio
  • Han Kang - The White Book/ audio
  • Niccolò Machiavelli - The Prince/ audio
  • Anthony Bourdain - Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly/ audio
  • Kristie Macrakis - Espionage/ audio
  • Christopher Winn - Legal Daisy Spacing (via)
  • Justin E. H. Smith - The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is/ audio
  • Alice Schroeder - The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life/ audio (~77% in)
  • Morgan Housel - Same as Ever/ audio
  • Amanda Montell - Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism/ audio
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ivan commented Jan 10, 2024

The actual moment of my decision to break with the Eastern bloc could be understood, from the psychological point of view, in more ways than one. From outside, it is easy to think of such a decision as an elementary consequence of one's hatred of tyranny. But in fact, it may spring from a number of motives, not all of them equally high-minded. My own decision proceeded, not from the functioning of the reasoning mind, but from a revolt of the stomach. A man may persuade himself, by the most logical reasoning, that he will greatly benefit his health by swallowing live frogs; and, thus rationally convinced, he may swallow a first frog, then the second; but at the third his stomach will revolt. In the same way, the growing influence of the doctrine on my way of thinking came up against the resistance of my whole nature.


The Void

The society portrayed by Witkiewicz is distinguished by the fact that in it religion has ceased to exist as a force. And it is true that religion long ago lost its hold on men's minds not only in the people's democracies, but elsewhere as well. As long as a society's best minds were occupied by theological questions, it was possible to speak of a given religion as the way of thinking of the whole social organism. All the matters which most actively concerned the people were referred to it and discussed in its terms. But that belongs to a dying era. We have come by easy stages to a lack of a common system of thought that could unite the peasant cutting his hay, the student poring over formal logic, and the mechanic working in an automobile factory. Out of this lack arises the painful sense of detachment or abstraction that oppresses the "creators of culture." Religion has been replaced by philosophy which, however, has strayed into spheres increasingly less accessible to the layman. The discussions of Husserl by Witkiewicz's heroes can scarcely interest a reader of even better-than-average education; whereas the peasants remained bound to the Church, be it only emotionally and traditionally. Music, painting, and poetry became something completely foreign to the great majority of people. A theory developed that art should become a substitute for religion: "Metaphysical feelings" were to be expressed in the "compression of pure form"; and so form soon came to dominate content.

Czesław Miłosz - The Captive Mind

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ivan commented Jan 19, 2024

👎 books written for money
🤩 books written only for the sake of their subject
👎 mediocre writers trying to sound smart
🤩 intelligence
👎 information
🤩 insight
👎 specialists
🤩 generalists
👎 reading too much (👽 thoughts in your 🧠)
🤩 thinking for oneself, developing a coherent whole
👎 history of politics
🤩 history of literature and art
👎 the masses
🤩 discernment, recognizing genuine merit
👎 work easily appreciated by contemporaries
🤩 work appreciated after death, across time
👎 sensual pleasures or childish amusements
🤩 intellectual power
👎 "men who are not men"
🤩 men of genius

There are, first of all, two kinds of authors: those who write for the subject's sake, and those who write for writing's sake. While the one have had thoughts or experiences which seem to them worth communicating, the others want money; and so they write, for money. Their thinking is part of the business of writing. They may be recognized by the way in which they spin out their thoughts to the greatest possible length; then, too, by the very nature of their thoughts, which are only half-true, perverse, forced, vacillating; again, by the aversion they generally show to saying anything straight out, so that they may seem other than they are. Hence their writing is deficient in clearness and definiteness, and it is not long before they betray that their only object in writing at all is to cover paper. This sometimes happens with the best authors; now and then, for example, with Lessing in his Dramaturgie, and even in many of Jean Paul's romances. As soon as the reader perceives this, let him throw the book away; for time is precious. The truth is that when an author begins to write for the sake of covering paper, he is cheating the reader; because he writes under the pretext that he has something to say.

Writing for money and reservation of copyright are, at bottom, the ruin of literature. No one writes anything that is worth writing, unless he writes entirely for the sake of his subject. What an inestimable boon it would be, if in every branch of literature there were only a few books, but those excellent! This can never happen, as long as money is to be made by writing. It seems as though the money lay under a curse; for every author degenerates as soon as he begins to put pen to paper in any way for the sake of gain. The best works of the greatest men all come from the time when they had to write for nothing or for very little. And here, too, that Spanish proverb holds good, which declares that honor and money are not to be found in the same purse—honora y provecho no caben en un saco. The reason why Literature is in such a bad plight nowadays is simply and solely that people write books to make money. A man who is in want sits down and writes a book, and the public is stupid enough to buy it. The secondary effect of this is the ruin of language.


Unless an author takes the material on which he writes out of his own head, that is to say, from his own observation, he is not worth reading.


Style is the physiognomy of the mind, and a safer index to character than the face. To imitate another man's style is like wearing a mask, which, be it never so fine, is not long in arousing disgust and abhorrence, because it is lifeless; so that even the ugliest living face is better.


Every mediocre writer tries to mask his own natural style, because in his heart he knows the truth of what I am saying. He is thus forced, at the outset, to give up any attempt at being frank or naïve—a privilege which is thereby reserved for superior minds, conscious of their own worth, and therefore sure of themselves. What I mean is that these everyday writers are absolutely unable to resolve upon writing just as they think; because they have a notion that, were they to do so, their work might possibly look very childish and simple. For all that, it would not be without its value. If they would only go honestly to work, and say, quite simply, the things they have really thought, and just as they have thought them, these writers would be readable and, within their own proper sphere, even instructive.

But instead of that, they try to make the reader believe that their thoughts have gone much further and deeper than is really the case. They say what they have to say in long sentences that wind about in a forced and unnatural way; they coin new words and write prolix periods which go round and round the thought and wrap it up in a sort of disguise. They tremble between the two separate aims of communicating what they want to say and of concealing it. Their object is to dress it up so that it may look learned or deep, in order to give people the impression that there is very much more in it than for the moment meets the eye. They either jot down their thoughts bit by bit, in short, ambiguous, and paradoxical sentences, which apparently mean much more than they say,—of this kind of writing Schelling's treatises on natural philosophy are a splendid instance; or else they hold forth with a deluge of words and the most intolerable diffusiveness, as though no end of fuss were necessary to make the reader understand the deep meaning of their sentences, whereas it is some quite simple if not actually trivial idea [...]


And what is at the bottom of all this? Nothing but the untiring effort to sell words for thoughts; a mode of merchandise that is always trying to make fresh openings for itself, and by means of odd expressions, turns of phrase, and combinations of every sort, whether new or used in a new sense, to produce the appearance of intellect in order to make up for the very painfully felt lack of it.


Horace's maxim that good sense is the source and origin of good style:

Scribendi recte sapere est et principium et fons.


since it is always the case that if a man affects anything, whatever it may be, it is just there that he is deficient.


On the other hand, an intelligent author really speaks to us when he writes, and that is why he is able to rouse our interest and commune with us. It is the intelligent author alone who puts individual words together with a full consciousness of their meaning, and chooses them with deliberate design.


In learning a language, the chief difficulty consists in making acquaintance with every idea which it expresses, even though it should use words for which there is no exact equivalent in the mother tongue; and this often happens. In learning a new language a man has, as it were, to mark out in his mind the boundaries of quite new spheres of ideas, with the result that spheres of ideas arise where none were before. Thus he not only learns words, he gains ideas too.

This is nowhere so much the case as in learning ancient languages, for the differences they present in their mode of expression as compared with modern languages is greater than can be found amongst modern languages as compared with one another. This is shown by the fact that in translating into Latin, recourse must be had to quite other turns of phrase than are used in the original. The thought that is to be translated has to be melted down and recast; in other words, it must be analyzed and then recomposed. It is just this process which makes the study of the ancient languages contribute so much to the education of the mind.


Students, and learned persons of all sorts and every age, aim as a rule at acquiring information rather than insight. They pique themselves upon knowing about everything—stones, plants, battles, experiments, and all the books in existence. It never occurs to them that information is only a means of insight, and in itself of little or no value; that it is his way of thinking that makes a man a philosopher. When I hear of these portents of learning and their imposing erudition, I sometimes say to myself: Ah, how little they must have had to think about, to have been able to read so much! And when I actually find it reported of the elder Pliny that he was continually reading or being read to, at table, on a journey, or in his bath, the question forces itself upon my mind, whether the man was so very lacking in thought of his own that he had to have alien thought incessantly instilled into him; as though he were a consumptive patient taking jellies to keep himself alive. And neither his undiscerning credulity nor his inexpressibly repulsive and barely intelligible style—which seems like of a man taking notes, and very economical of paper—is of a kind to give me a high opinion of his power of independent thought.


An exclusive specialist of this kind stands on a par with a workman in a factory, whose whole life is spent in making one particular kind of screw, or catch, or handle, for some particular instrument or machine, in which, indeed, he attains incredible dexterity. The specialist may also be likened to a man who lives in his own house and never leaves it. There he is perfectly familiar with everything, every little step, corner, or board; much as Quasimodo in Victor Hugo's Nôtre Dame knows the cathedral; but outside it, all is strange and unknown.

For true culture in the humanities it is absolutely necessary that a man should be many-sided and take large views; and for a man of learning in the higher sense of the word, an extensive acquaintance with history is needful. He, however, who wishes to be a complete philosopher, must gather into his head the remotest ends of human knowledge: for where else could they ever come together?

It is precisely minds of the first order that will never be specialists. For their very nature is to make the whole of existence their problem; and this is a subject upon which they will every one of them in some form provide mankind with a new revelation. For he alone can deserve the name of genius who takes the All, the Essential, the Universal, for the theme of his achievements; not he who spends his life in explaining some special relation of things one to another.



A library may be very large; but if it is in disorder, it is not so useful as one that is small but well arranged. In the same way, a man may have a great mass of knowledge, but if he has not worked it up by thinking it over for himself, it has much less value than a far smaller amount which he has thoroughly pondered. For it is only when a man looks at his knowledge from all sides, and combines the things he knows by comparing truth with truth, that he obtains a complete hold over it and gets it into his power. A man cannot turn over anything in his mind unless he knows it; he should, therefore, learn something; but it is only when he has turned it over that he can be said to know it.

Reading and learning are things that anyone can do of his own free will; but not so thinking. Thinking must be kindled, like a fire by a draught; it must be sustained by some interest in the matter in hand. This interest may be of purely objective kind, or merely subjective. The latter comes into play only in things that concern us personally. Objective interest is confined to heads that think by nature; to whom thinking is as natural as breathing; and they are very rare. This is why most men of learning show so little of it.

It is incredible what a different effect is produced upon the mind by thinking for oneself, as compared with reading. It carries on and intensifies that original difference in the nature of two minds which leads the one to think and the other to read. What I mean is that reading forces alien thoughts upon the mind—thoughts which are as foreign to the drift and temper in which it may be for the moment, as the seal is to the wax on which it stamps its imprint. The mind is thus entirely under compulsion from without; it is driven to think this or that, though for the moment it may not have the slightest impulse or inclination to do so.

But when a man thinks for himself, he follows the impulse of his own mind, which is determined for him at the time, either by his environment or some particular recollection. The visible world of a man's surroundings does not, as reading does, impress a single definite thought upon his mind, but merely gives the matter and occasion which lead him to think what is appropriate to his nature and present temper. So it is, that much reading deprives the mind of all elasticity; it is like keeping a spring continually under pressure. The safest way of having no thoughts of one's own is to take up a book every moment one has nothing else to do. It is this practice which explains why erudition makes most men more stupid and silly than they are by nature, and prevents their writings obtaining any measure of success. They remain, in Pope's words:

For ever reading, never to be read!


Reading is thinking with some one else's head instead of one's own. To think with one's own head is always to aim at developing a coherent whole—a system, even though it be not a strictly complete one; and nothing hinders this so much as too strong a current of others' thoughts, such as comes of continual reading. These thoughts, springing every one of them from different minds, belonging to different systems, and tinged with different colors, never of themselves flow together into an intellectual whole; they never form a unity of knowledge, or insight, or conviction; but, rather, fill the head with a Babylonian confusion of tongues. The mind that is over-loaded with alien thought is thus deprived of all clear insight, and is well-nigh disorganized. This is a state of things observable in many men of learning; and it makes them inferior in sound sense, correct judgment and practical tact, to many illiterate persons, who, after obtaining a little knowledge from without, by means of experience, intercourse with others, and a small amount of reading, have always subordinated it to, and embodied it with, their own thought.

The really scientific thinker does the same thing as these illiterate persons, but on a larger scale. Although he has need of much knowledge, and so must read a great deal, his mind is nevertheless strong enough to master it all, to assimilate and incorporate it with the system of his thoughts, and so to make it fit in with the organic unity of his insight, which, though vast, is always growing. And in the process, his own thought, like the bass in an organ, always dominates everything and is never drowned by other tones, as happens with minds which are full of mere antiquarian lore; where shreds of music, as it were, in every key, mingle confusedly, and no fundamental note is heard at all.


History, which I like to think of as the contrary of poetry [Greek: istoroumenon—pepoiaemenon], is for time what geography is for space; and it is no more to be called a science, in any strict sense of the word, than is geography, because it does not deal with universal truths, but only with particular details. History has always been the favorite study of those who wish to learn something, without having to face the effort demanded by any branch of real knowledge, which taxes the intelligence. In our time history is a favorite pursuit; as witness the numerous books upon the subject which appear every year.


There are two kinds of history; the history of politics and the history of literature and art. The one is the history of the will; the other, that of the intellect. The first is a tale of woe, even of terror: it is a record of agony, struggle, fraud, and horrible murder en masse. The second is everywhere pleasing and serene, like the intellect when left to itself, even though its path be one of error. Its chief branch is the history of philosophy. This is, in fact, its fundamental bass, and the notes of it are heard even in the other kind of history. These deep tones guide the formation of opinion, and opinion rules the world. Hence philosophy, rightly understood, is a material force of the most powerful kind, though very slow in its working. The philosophy of a period is thus the fundamental bass of its history.

The NEWSPAPER, is the second-hand in the clock of history; and it is not only made of baser metal than those which point to the minute and the hour, but it seldom goes right.

The so-called leading article is the chorus to the drama of passing events.

Exaggeration of every kind is as essential to journalism as it is to the dramatic art; for the object of journalism is to make events go as far as possible. Thus it is that all journalists are, in the very nature of their calling, alarmists; and this is their way of giving interest to what they write. Herein they are like little dogs; if anything stirs, they immediately set up a shrill bark.


The disastrous thing for intellectual merit is that it must wait for those to praise the good who have themselves produced nothing but what is bad; nay, it is a primary misfortune that it has to receive its crown at the hands of the critical power of mankind—a quality of which most men possess only the weak and impotent semblance, so that the reality may be numbered amongst the rarest gifts of nature. Hence La Bruyère's remark is, unhappily, as true as it is neat. Après l'esprit de discernement, he says, ce qu'il y a au monde de plus rare, ce sont les diamans et les perles ("After the spirit of discernment," he says, "what is rarer in the world than diamonds and pearls?"). The spirit of discernment! the critical faculty! it is these that are lacking. Men do not know how to distinguish the genuine from the false, the corn from the chaff, gold from copper; or to perceive the wide gulf that separates a genius from an ordinary man. Thus we have that bad state of things described in an old-fashioned verse, which gives it as the lot of the great ones here on earth to be recognized only when they are gone:

Es ist nun das Geschick der Grossen fiier auf Erden, Erst wann sie nicht mehr sind; von uns erkannt zu werden.

When any genuine and excellent work makes its appearance, the chief difficulty in its way is the amount of bad work it finds already in possession of the field, and accepted as though it were good. And then if, after a long time, the new comer really succeeds, by a hard struggle, in vindicating his place for himself and winning reputation, he will soon encounter fresh difficulty from some affected, dull, awkward imitator, whom people drag in, with the object of calmly setting him up on the altar beside the genius; not seeing the difference and really thinking that here they have to do with another great man. This is what Yriarte means by the first lines of his twenty-eighth Fable, where he declares that the ignorant rabble always sets equal value on the good and the bad:

Siempre acostumbra hacer el vulgo necio De lo bueno y lo malo igual aprecio.

So even Shakespeare's dramas had, immediately after his death, to give place to those of Ben Jonson, Massinger, Beaumont and Fletcher, and to yield the supremacy for a hundred years. So Kant's serious philosophy was crowded out by the nonsense of Fichte, Schelling, Jacobi, Hegel. And even in a sphere accessible to all, we have seen unworthy imitators quickly diverting public attention from the incomparable Walter Scott. For, say what you will, the public has no sense for excellence, and therefore no notion how very rare it is to find men really capable of doing anything great in poetry, philosophy, or art, or that their works are alone worthy of exclusive attention.


This lack of critical insight is also shown by the fact that, while in every century the excellent work of earlier time is held in honor, that of its own is misunderstood, and the attention which is its due is given to bad work, such as every decade carries with it only to be the sport of the next. That men are slow to recognize genuine merit when it appears in their own age, also proves that they do not understand or enjoy or really value the long-acknowledged works of genius, which they honor only on the score of authority.


The credit you allow to another man engaged in work similar to your own or akin to it, must at bottom be withdrawn from yourself; and you can praise him only at the expense of your own claims.

Accordingly, mankind is in itself not at all inclined to award praise and reputation; it is more disposed to blame and find fault, whereby it indirectly praises itself. If, notwithstanding this, praise is won from mankind, some extraneous motive must prevail.


Further, it is a suspicious sign if a reputation comes quickly; for an application of the laws of homogeneity will show that such a reputation is nothing but the direct applause of the multitude. What this means may be seen by a remark once made by Phocion, when he was interrupted in a speech by the loud cheers of the mob. Turning to his friends who were standing close by, he asked: Have I made a mistake and said something stupid?


My remarks are, as I have said, confined to achievements that are not of any material use. Work that serves some practical end, or ministers directly to some pleasure of the senses, will never have any difficulty in being duly appreciated. No first-rate pastry-cook could long remain obscure in any town, to say nothing of having to appeal to posterity.

Under fame of rapid growth is also to be reckoned fame of a false and artificial kind; where, for instance, a book is worked into a reputation by means of unjust praise, the help of friends, corrupt criticism, prompting from above and collusion from below. All this tells upon the multitude, which is rightly presumed to have no power of judging for itself. This sort of fame is like a swimming bladder, by its aid a heavy body may keep afloat. It bears up for a certain time, long or short according as the bladder is well sewed up and blown; but still the air comes out gradually, and the body sinks. This is the inevitable fate of all works which are famous by reason of something outside of themselves. False praise dies away; collusion comes to an end; critics declare the reputation ungrounded; it vanishes, and is replaced by so much the greater contempt. Contrarily, a genuine work, which, having the source of its fame in itself, can kindle admiration afresh in every age, resembles a body of low specific gravity, which always keeps up of its own accord, and so goes floating down the stream of time.

Men of great genius, whether their work be in poetry, philosophy or art, stand in all ages like isolated heroes, keeping up single-handed a desperate struggling against the onslaught of an army of opponents.[1] Is not this characteristic of the miserable nature of mankind? The dullness, grossness, perversity, silliness and brutality of by far the greater part of the race, are always an obstacle to the efforts of the genius, whatever be the method of his art; they so form that hostile army to which at last he has to succumb. Let the isolated champion achieve what he may: it is slow to be acknowledged; it is late in being appreciated, and then only on the score of authority; it may easily fall into neglect again, at any rate for a while. Ever afresh it finds itself opposed by false, shallow, and insipid ideas, which are better suited to that large majority, that so generally hold the field. Though the critic may step forth and say, like Hamlet when he held up the two portraits to his wretched mother, Have you eyes? Have you eyes? alas! they have none. [...]


The effectiveness of an author turns chiefly upon his getting the reputation that he should be read. But by practicing various arts, by the operation of chance, and by certain natural affinities, this reputation is quickly won by a hundred worthless people: while a worthy writer may come by it very slowly and tardily. The former possess friends to help them; for the rabble is always a numerous body which holds well together. The latter has nothing but enemies; because intellectual superiority is everywhere and under all circumstances the most hateful thing in the world, and especially to bunglers in the same line of work, who want to pass for something themselves.

This being so, it is a prime condition for doing any great work—any work which is to outlive its own age, that a man pay no heed to his contemporaries, their views and opinions, and the praise or blame which they bestow. This condition is, however, fulfilled of itself when a man really does anything great, and it is fortunate that it is so. For if, in producing such a work, he were to look to the general opinion or the judgment of his colleagues, they would lead him astray at every step. Hence, if a man wants to go down to posterity, he must withdraw from the influence of his own age. This will, of course, generally mean that he must also renounce any influence upon it, and be ready to buy centuries of fame by foregoing the applause of his contemporaries.

For when any new and wide-reaching truth comes into the world—and if it is new, it must be paradoxical—an obstinate stand will be made against it as long as possible; nay, people will continue to deny it even after they slacken their opposition and are almost convinced of its truth. Meanwhile it goes on quietly working its way, and, like an acid, undermining everything around it. From time to time a crash is heard; the old error comes tottering to the ground, and suddenly the new fabric of thought stands revealed, as though it were a monument just uncovered. Everyone recognizes and admires it. To be sure, this all comes to pass for the most part very slowly. As a rule, people discover a man to be worth listening to only after he is gone; their hear, hear, resounds when the orator has left the platform.

Works of the ordinary type meet with a better fate. Arising as they do in the course of, and in connection with, the general advance in contemporary culture, they are in close alliance with the spirit of their age—in other words, just those opinions which happen to be prevalent at the time. They aim at suiting the needs of the moment. If they have any merit, it is soon recognized; and they gain currency as books which reflect the latest ideas. Justice, nay, more than justice, is done to them. They afford little scope for envy; since, as was said above, a man will praise a thing only so far as he hopes to be able to imitate it himself.


There is also some comfort to be found in reflecting upon all the whims and crotchets which had their day and have now utterly vanished. In style, in grammar, in spelling, there are false notions of this sort which last only three or four years. But when the errors are on a large scale, while we lament the brevity of human life, we shall in any case, do well to lag behind our own age when we see it on a downward path. For there are two ways of not keeping on a level with the times. A man may be below it; or he may be above it.


The brain may be likened to a parasite which is nourished as a part of the human frame without contributing directly to its inner economy; it is securely housed in the topmost story, and there leads a self-sufficient and independent life. In the same way it may be said that a man endowed with great mental gifts leads, apart from the individual life common to all, a second life, purely of the intellect. He devotes himself to the constant increase, rectification and extension, not of mere learning, but of real systematic knowledge and insight; and remains untouched by the fate that overtakes him personally, so long as it does not disturb him in his work. It is thus a life which raises a man and sets him above fate and its changes. Always thinking, learning, experimenting, practicing his knowledge, the man soon comes to look upon this second life as the chief mode of existence, and his merely personal life as something subordinate, serving only to advance ends higher than itself.


The difference between the genius and the ordinary man is, no doubt, a quantitative one, in so far as it is a difference of degree; but I am tempted to regard it also as qualitative, in view of the fact that ordinary minds, notwithstanding individual variation, have a certain tendency to think alike. Thus on similar occasions their thoughts at once all take a similar direction, and run on the same lines; and this explains why their judgments constantly agree—not, however, because they are based on truth. [...]

A genius is a man in whose mind the world is presented as an object is presented in a mirror, but with a degree more of clearness and a greater distinction of outline than is attained by ordinary people. It is from him that humanity may look for most instruction; for the deepest insight into the most important matters is to be acquired, not by an observant attention to detail, but by a close study of things as a whole. [...]


It is otherwise with ordinary people: for them leisure has no value in itself, nor is it, indeed, without its dangers, as these people seem to know. The technical work of our time, which is done to an unprecedented perfection, has, by increasing and multiplying objects of luxury, given the favorites of fortune a choice between more leisure and culture upon the one side, and additional luxury and good living, but with increased activity, upon the other; and, true to their character, they choose the latter, and prefer champagne to freedom. And they are consistent in their choice; for, to them, every exertion of the mind which does not serve the aims of the will is folly. Intellectual effort for its own sake, they call eccentricity. Therefore, persistence in the aims of the will and the belly will be concentricity; and, to be sure, the will is the centre, the kernel of the world.

But in general it is very seldom that any such alternative is presented. For as with money, most men have no superfluity, but only just enough for their needs, so with intelligence; they possess just what will suffice for the service of the will, that is, for the carrying on of their business. Having made their fortune, they are content to gape or to indulge in sensual pleasures or childish amusements, cards or dice; or they will talk in the dullest way, or dress up and make obeisance to one another. And how few are those who have even a little superfluity of intellectual power! Like the others they too make themselves a pleasure; but it is a pleasure of the intellect. Either they will pursue some liberal study which brings them in nothing, or they will practice some art; and in general, they will be capable of taking an objective interest in things, so that it will be possible to converse with them. But with the others it is better not to enter into any relations at all; for, except when they tell the results of their own experience or give an account of their special vocation, or at any rate impart what they have learned from some one else, their conversation will not be worth listening to; and if anything is said to them, they will rarely grasp or understand it aright, and it will in most cases be opposed to their own opinions. Balthazar Gracian describes them very strikingly as men who are not men—hombres che non lo son. And Giordano Bruno says the same thing: What a difference there is in having to do with men compared with those who are only made in their image and likeness![1] And how wonderfully this passage agrees with that remark in the Kurral: The common people look like men but I have never seen anything quite like them.


[Ariosto's simile:] Natura lo fece e poi ruppe lo stampo. After Nature stamps a man of genius, she breaks the die.

Arthur Schopenhauer, T. Bailey Saunders (translator) - The Art of Literature

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ivan commented Jan 20, 2024

"If you don't look, you won't find."


I would argue that in practical life, you want to succeed. You got to do two things. You got to have a certain amount of competence and you have to know what you know and what you don't know. You have to know the edge of your competency. And if you know the edge of your competency, you're a much safer thinker and a much safer investor than you are if you don't know it. And I constantly meet people, better to have an IQ of 160 and think it's 150 than an IQ of 160 and think it's 200. That guy's going to kill you because he doesn't know the edge of his own competency and he thinks he knows everything.


The reason capitalism works as well as it does is so much of it is win-win, but there are all kinds of people that are looking for ways to cheat people. We had a guy with us when I was in the military, everybody called him Honest John, and of course, they called him that because he was totally crooked. And if it wasn't dishonorable and crooked, he didn't make a sound. He wouldn't consider any proposition that wasn't sleazy and never really been crooked. He was trying to screw people out of money. But how much better if you have a voluntary transaction where both sides are happy on a win-win basis? That's perfect. And capitalism in such a system causes this flourishing civilization. Of course, that's the way to go.


That's the beauty of capitalism. It makes win-win transactions very easy and almost automatic. It's such a hugely important idea and people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both of whom I regard as quite talented in some ways, but they just don't get it.


And so we have to go to something else, and of course, that's harder. A lot of people have that problem, and yet they go to new systems and new ways. I've always liked the quote, "Capitalism is how we take care of people we don't know." It's utterly remarkable how it works.


Collison: It feels like a lot of the objections you have to, say, professional money managers or Wall Street or whatever can be summed up by people should be more cognizant of principal-agent problems. Is that fair?

Munger: You can hardly imagine a field more full of principal-agent [problems] more than wealth management. Of course the wealth managers take care of themselves. That includes the foundation manager. A foundation manager is basically - he wants to get $400,000 a year when a professor gets $110,000. He's got one way of picking money managers who get 3% off the top.


Collison: Is the secret of Berkshire's culture just the anti-bureaucracy bent? Could you sum it up in that way?

Munger: Berkshire's pretty extreme in culture. We are deeply aware of how bureaucracies tend to create their own internal dynamics so that everybody protects everybody else and nobody changes anything, ruffles any feathers. And the net result is that a lot of bureaucracies make some very stupid decisions, and we try and avoid that. But the way we've done it mostly is by not having anybody around. They can't be bureaucratic if they're not there. There is nobody in the head office. So we avoid the bureaucracy. We just don't want people to do it. Nobody else is as extreme as we are in that. A huge advantage to us. And another thing is we like very trustworthy people. I'd rather have a brief telephone [with] somebody I trust than I would have a 40-page contract prepared by the finest law firm in the world with somebody I don't trust. And so we like to deal with trustworthy people and to be able to count on their oral promises.


Poor Charlie's Almanac is a lot like the guy who created modern Singapore. And what he always said was, "Figure out what works and then do it. Figure out what works and then do it." And he just did that more relentlessly than anybody else and more intelligently. And he was probably the greatest nation builder that has ever existed in terms of quality of leadership. He's probably the greatest nation builder that ever existed, including Pericles and everybody in all history. And it's very much like Poor Charlie's Almanac, "Figure out what works and do it. Figure out what doesn't work and avoid it." And he just was relentless. That's all he did. And he started as a left-wing labor lawyer. And to start as a left-wing labor lawyer, he ended up creating modern Singapore just by, "Figure out what works and do it. And figure out what doesn't work and avoid it." Just keep doing that over and over again. So as far as I'm concerned, the politician who looks the most like Poor Charlie's Almanac is Lee Kuan Yew. And I'm not surprised that he got ahead better than any other nation builder that ever lived. That was all he did. It was pretty goddamn simple. 'Charlie Munger - A Conversation with Charlie Munger & John Collison'

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