Why you should never read a classic book

Read Books 

Generals, Investment bankers, Presidents, Kings…

What’s the one recurring (good) advice you get from the rich and powerful (and from me too)?

-Read great books. Read slowly and thoughtfully. Never rush; never, ever ‘speed read’. Then read them again.

 

-That’s it. This article doesn’t need to be any longer than that – Sprezzaturian making hard look easy all the time (BTW, my two top picks are Post-Human and How an Economy Grows and Why It Crashesbut more about that further down)

post-human

Sciff's masterpiece: How An Economy Grows

Schiff’s masterpiece: How An Economy Grows

 

The trouble, however, lies in identifying great books and avoiding reading crap. Unfortunately, you can find a hundred “hundred classic reads” lists on the internet in a heartbeat:

Here are a few from Time, Telegraph, Guardian, Modern Library and some other guy. Some of the books on these lists are worthwhile, but most are obsolete relics that have stayed on these lists for all the wrong reasons. They are boring, slow-paced, irrelevant, don’t teach you anything valuable and they don’t at all resemble the tight information sources you are used to in social media, or reflect the present in a relevant manner. The “classics” were meant for a different generation.

It’s okay for a book to be tough, just like pasta that should be al dente, but at all times a book must still be mesmerizing and magnetic. If a book doesn’t call out to you and draw you in, but rather feels like a chore, then put it away. Except for stuff you are forced to read by someone with real power over your life (like a teacher or employer), never finish books that don’t interest you.

Reading is like exercising; you should start fun and easy, and before you know it you want more of a challenge – and that is what by then is enjoyable and exciting.  Don’t try to force it or speed read; it’s unnecessary and counterproductive. You won’t remember or learn as much and you’ll dislike reading. On the other hand, if you start easy, the more you read, the more your taste and personal style will develop.

So don’t cram “classics” down your throat in a desperate attempt to be something you aren’t. It won’t work (and won’t be any fun either)

 

Top 100 lists -yuck

Going through various top-100 lists, I noticed some really good reads, some that was once useful and others that are simply slow and dull and not meant as literature for a modern human being. Here are a couple of spontaneous thoughts about a few of the items on popular top-100 lists:

 

TIMES Top 100:

The Animal Farm has one important thing to say about politics, but you could get a much better understanding, faster and more entertaining, on blogs and even on Facebook or Twitter.

I personally enjoyed Catch-22 and remember laughing out loud many times, it’s a fun and absurd criticism of war but nothing you have to read. Watch an episode of South Park if you don’t feel for this ‘classic’.

A Clockwork Orange? Really? A must read? Maybe if you’ve grown tired of watching Dumb and Dumber over and over again, but not before then. Try American Psycho instead for at least a semi-modern work on ultra-violence. Why not watch “Seven” or “Saw I”…?

Lolita – WOW, an older man and a 12 year old! Shocking. Love is all you need. End of story.

Lord of the flies – Oh, so young boys can grow feral and become super bullies when left to their own devices?! Have you seen the TV show Survivor? One episode and you’ve learned that lesson.

The Lord of the rings a top 100 classic? That must be because it was one of the first with orchs in it. The book is fine for a young teenager and the movies are great craftsmanship, but you can read exactly anything that entertains you and get exactly the same value from it. LOTR in a nutshell is war, good people, bad people, confused people, and power corrupts, live ecologically. Full stop.

Neuromancer – I would include it on my top 100. It’s one of the first great novels about virtual reality and strong AI. To me it was an amazing experience to read, not to mention the epic hair raising ending. Do read it. There might even be some lessons in there about humanity and racism if you look closely, but why is it here on a top 100 classic list by TIME? David Simpson’s Post-Human is so much better and updated regarding newtech like virtual reality, artificial intelligence, the Singularity etc.

Slaughterhouse five – I can see why this one found it’s way in here. I loved it, but why should everybody be recommended reading about a guy “unstuck in time”, jumping between making love under a glass dome observed by aliens and world war II (or was it I?). Read directly about the wars of the 1900s instead if that interests you more, or play a shoot’em up about WWII. Just because I and TIME liked it doesn’t make it a must read classic.

Snow crash – one of my top 100 books, no question about it, but it’s really just a cool sci-fi story about a VR virus that feeds back death to the human agents. Read it if you like stuff like that. Put it away if you don’t feel it. There is nothing “must” about this one, not more than watching the movie Matrix is a must. On second thought, watching Matrix is a must. By the way, why read “firsts” when many modern books are so much better, not to mention updated. Go for Reamde by the same author, if you want to learn something, as well as get a good story about virtual worlds.

The spy who came in from the cold, The sun also rises, To kill a mockingbird, Tropic of cancer (!) – give me a break! Stop brainwashing kids into thinking these are classics they have to read to learn about the world. Some like them, some don’t and there is nothing particularly good, interesting or important about these books.

 

At least the Telegraph’s list includes Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy, which is a work of genius. It’s funny and much smarter than most people realize. I’ve read it twenty times! But you really could just check out Stephen Hawking’s books instead or watch a science show with Brian Cox. Or even visit xkcd.com or WaitButWhy for some dry scientificky humor.

Telegraph unfortunately then fucks up immediately with Thousand and one nights – a pointless collection of short stories. Sure, The trial by Kafka is interesting but read Hayek instead if you want real information about communism and bureaucracy. Gulliver’s travels, Huckleberry Finn and The hound of Baskervilles – allow me to laugh. HA HA HA.

Frankenstein, War of the worlds, Don Quixote, Moby Dick and to really top it all off, the utterly unreadable In search of lost time – the list of absurd recommendations goes on and on.

These were special works, “firsts”, had some interesting ingredients or ideas as foundation, but they are too slow for a modern person, they have too little to teach per page of reading.

They are like reading the Bible which has nothing more than this to say: “God is mysterious and erratic but believe and repent – oh, and love your enemy – and all will be well in the next life” (yes, I’ve read it, it’s right at the bottom of my list of things I forced myself to finish, before learning not to do that)

 

The guardian top 100:

Robinson Crusoe: It was a great novel when it came out, but we all know the story and its lessons. To add insult to injury, the movie is just as boring and slow as the book.

The count of Monte Cristo: Oh, God please help me! It’s been touted as one of the greatest adventure books of all time, the ultimate revenge book. There actually are a couple of decent movies based on Monte Cristo, but the book in itself is hopelessly amateurish and just too bloody drawn out with irrelevant side stories.

Alice in Wonderland (a “first”, a it bizarre, children’s lit. that’s it, move on, nothing to see here).

Jekyll and Hyde: I’m sure it was scary and fascinating at the time. but don’t waste time reading it in the 21st century.

The call of the wild: a wonderful children’s book about the love between a dog and his master (and a pack of wolves). I loved it as a small child, but if all those books were to go on “classic 100” lists we would find Biggles there as well.

Modern Library advocates much the same books as the other papers, including Ulysses, but also Invisible man which is just unexplicable.

I’m slightly more impressed by their “Readers’ list” which includes Atlas shrugged, Fountainhead, Anthem, The moon is a harsh mistress, Brave new world, Hitchhiker’s guide, Ender’s game and Garp, but still skeptical as to why these are called the 100 best or most important reads.

 

After all that badmouthing of other people’s lists, here are my own

My 100 essential books

-and other sources of inspiration for riches, happiness, intelligence and brain plasticity

The one book you must read to see the New World Order of politics, currencies and war in a new light – and it’s not Death of Money or Currency Wars; it’s…

How an economy grows and why it crashes by Peter Schiff. It’s extremely easy to read and equally important and informative. It’s part witty and sarcastic cartoon, part economics textbook, packed with insights about cooperation, productivity, wealth and the insidious evil of central bankers just to mention a few things. You can finish the entire book in a few hours, LOL:ing every now and then. Just as Baz Luhrmann adviced everyone to at least wear sunscreen, you should read How an economy… and then tell everybody else. Despite the humor and simplicity, Schiff goes from modelling a 3-person fishing economy to a complex, fully globalized world with inflation, trade and central banks, while still hammering the points of a)productivity and b) sound money

 

Reading is so important to me, that the number one reason for retiring at 42 was being able to read what I want, when I want. As a hedge fund manager and CEO I did a lot of studying, reading and writing but almost none of it anything I liked. To a book-lover that is similar to being a street-hooker (albeit a very expensive one).

Until a few years ago I read exclusively non-fiction, mostly economics and technology but also astrophysics, futurology, psychology, history, politics and human relations. During a vacation a few years ago, I ran out of things to read and just took whatever my girlfriend finished. Thus, I ended up reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo trilogy. I didn’t like the first book but read the other two anyway there on the beach.

I used to think made up stories were a waste of time, but reading about the elaborate revenge stirred something in me and suddenly I started reading fiction again. I also all but gave up buying physical books and bought a Kindle Paperwhite instead, to make sure I never ran out of books on vacation again.

There are so many lists of what to read and why, so many books nobody has the time to read, so many different tastes that you never can trust a recommendation anyway. E.g., is it a good sign that many has read and reviewed a particular book or is it just another carbon copy murder story of a Swedish writer like Läckberg, Mankell, Kallentoft, Larsson, Kepler, Nesser, Sjöwall, Eriksson, Marklund, Jansson, Tursten and others?

Many books, many lists… these are the most important ones
To make the recommendations below easier to understand, I’ve created several overlapping lists, such as my personal all-time favorites, books I think everybody should read, and genre-based lists. First, my all time favorites that I recommend to everybody.

drexler rand morris hofstadter norretranders schiffblackswanBill_bryson_a_short_historytomorrows goldhow-to-create-a-mindabundancebrief history of timeRoad_to_SerfdomThe-Singularity-Is-Nearpost-human

 

My 15 all-time favorite books (in no particular order):

  1. How an economy grows and why it crashes
    1. (easy read, important, micro and macroeconomy, part cartoon – the best book on economics ever written)
  2. The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology
    1. (easy read, predicts technological evolution, important long-term)
  3. The user illusion – Cutting consciousness down to size
    1. (psychology, difference between me and I, the conscious self and the subconscious, an eye-opener on the human condition)
  4. Gödel Escher Bach
    1. (a very difficult and heavy book, challenging but rewarding, it took me a full year to read and understand this Pulitzer-winning tome; about self reference, consciousness, art, music, mathematics and artificial intelligence illustrated by ant hills. Terry Pratchett invokes GEB in his Discworld series)
  5. The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal
    1. (entertaining, easy about the human condition, bonding, psychology, physiology etc)
  6. Atlas Shrugged
    1. One of only two fiction book on my list. (A bit hard to get into but once you do it’s amazing. On the surface an addictive political thriller set in a time similar to the one of Rockefeller, Ford, Edison etc. In reality a comment on the dangers and evils of socialism and communism). It’s long and it’s fiction but the average person needs to get these lessons hammered into them over and over again over 1000 pages to get it.
  7. Engines of creation
    1. (The book that popularized the promises and dangers of nanotechnology some 25-30 years after Richard Feynman’s talk about Plenty Of Room)
  8. The Road to Serfdom
    1. Hayek’s readable and scary version of Mises’ more dense work on communism
  9. A Brief History of Time
    1. The original Hawking book about the universe, now updated several times and illustrated in The Universe in a Nutshell (which is the one you really should read)
  10. Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think
    1. An optimistic run-through of available or near-available technology that promises to solve the five big challenges of water, energy, hunger, pollution and death. Yes, death.
  11. How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed
    1. Kurzweil’s thought provoking work on brain structure and the roadmap to strong general artificial intelligence and the logical next step to a run-away technological singularity that seeds and wakens up the entire universe with intelligence
  12. Tomorrow’s Gold
    1. A much needed perspective of empires, hegemonies, leaders, cities, currencies and countries that come and go over the course of human history. It would be very unusual for the US dollar, New York and the U.S. to remain global leaders for an other hundred years.
  13. A Short History of Nearly Everything
    1. An entertaining and inspiring book about more or less everything, from the big bang to present day, including the origin of species and why the moon is so important. This is one of very few books that should be mandatory in school – if anything should be mandatory.
  14. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable
    1. Taleb’s classic that reveals the dangers of sloppy statistical analysis and cognitive biases. You’ll never view your investments or brokers in the same way after this masterpiece
  15. Post-Human by David Simpson: A super high paced story in 5 (so far) installments about a future society populated by enhanced humans, artificial intelligences. Simpson’s imagination knows no limits and neither do his characters (that keep changing from friend to villain and back again)

 

7 Additional good and useful reads:

  1. Lords of Finance: 1929, The Great Depression – and the Bankers Who Broke the World
  2. The Real Crash: America’s Coming Bankruptcy—How to Save Yourself and Your Country
  3. Intelligent Universe: AI, ET, and the Emerging Mind of the Cosmos
  4. The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor
  5. Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You A Better Friend to Your Pet
  6. The Fountainhead: Easier than Atlas shrugged but almost as strong in its message that every man is an island
  7. The great crash: The one and only objective description of what actually happened in the US in 1929-1932
  8. Thinking fast and slow: You may have read all of this at college (economic psychology classes) but TFAS provides an entertaining and much needed rehearsal of the lessons about how poor our minds are at some things
 

These books (most of them are included above) have had the largest impact on me

  1. Atlas Shrugged turned my view on right and wrong, fair and unfair upside down
  2. Gödel Escher Bach took me a year to finish but instilled a dramatically different perspective on math, symbol language, self-reference, consciousness and artificial intelligence. The ant hill analogy to the human brain and consciousness is brilliant (and is a recurring feature of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld magicians)
  3. The User Illusion shows very convincingly (with references to scientific experiments) how small and deceitful the mind is and how powerful and capable the subconscious is
  4. Engines Of Creation explains why a super high tech future is inevitable. Whatever can be done will be done, and it starts with nanotechnoogy
  5. The Singularity Is Near shows step by step how technology evolves from punch cards (and actually far before that), via vacuum tubes to semiconductor based super computers and possibly mechanical nanocomputers, to strong artificial intelligences that self-evolves to billion times more intelligent than a human being
  6. Your Competent Child is a testament to the wonders of children’s minds, and how robustly the will evolve to independent grown-ups with a strong self-esteem, as long as you basically stay out of their way, act as a witness, an inspiration and a role model, rather than a hindrance, a punisher or a nanny.

 

I think everybody should read these – for themselves (as well as for the good of society, i.e., indirectly for my sake). Most are included above:

  1. How An Economy Grows And Why It Crashes – to understand money and the economy
  2. A Short History Of Nearly Everything – Everything you need to know about history. Forget Caesar, Hitler, the US civil war and the stone age. This is the history that made us what we are.
  3. Abundance – this is where the world is heading in 2040. make sure you and your children are change resistant
  4. Your Competent Child – don’t spoil or ruin your child. We all have the capacity for strong self-esteem, brilliance, love and independence as long as our parents stop messing things up by being overprotecting, judging or just mean 
  5. The Road To Serfdom – a true economic horror story about why communism failed and why it still lingers behind every altruistic corner

 

Technology, nanotech and artificial intelligence
  1. Engines Of Creation – the original book about the risks and promises of nanotechnology
  2. Abundance – an update of how close humanity is to solving the problems with poverty, starvation, illnesses, pollution and death
  3. The Singularity Is Near – Ray Kurzweil, futurist extraordinaire, demonstrates the inevitable path to artiicial superintelligence and our merging with computers
  4. How To Create A Mind – Pattern recognition lies behind human intelligence. This is how it works
  5. Physics Of The Future – Popular and accessible science; tells you what there already is and what most likely will be available in 10, 20, 50 and 100 years
 
Knowledge, communication, science theory, intelligence
  1. Gödel Escher Bach
  2. A Short History Of Nearly Everything
  3. The User Illusion

 

The origins of the universe, astrophysics

  1. The Universe In A Nutshell
  2. (A Brief History Of Time – a bit dated now, however)
  3. (The Grand Design – an update to nr 1 and 2, but quite unnecessary after “nutshell”)

 

The economy and financial markets

  1. How An Economy Grows And Why It Crashes – The best book on economics. Illustrated, funny, entertaining and incredibly pedagogic and smart
  2. The Black Swan – About the risks we are ignorant of
  3. Tomorrow’s Gold – Don’t think the US hegemony will last forever
  4. The Road To Serfdom – How socialism leads to slavery
  5. The Most Important Thing – Down to earth rules of thumb and thoughts about investing by one of the best
  6. Bull! – The epic tale about the IT mania, the stock bubble and the consequent crash
     
People (remember that dogs and apes are people too)
  1. The Naked Ape – A zoologist’s take on human customs, culture and drives
  2. Ditt Kompetenta Barn – Why and how you should witness your child growing up, not raise it
  3. Men are from Mars, women are from venus – Yes, men and women are different
  4. Dog Sense – what science actually says about dogs and wolves. This is how you should socialize with your dog, not master it.

 

Fictional books that I think have important things to teach about the political system:

  1. Withûr Wé – An epic space adventure in libertarian spirit
  2. Atlas Shrugged – A fantastic and yet believable tale about a free economy spiraling into communism
  3. The Moon is a harsh mistress – The colony on the moon is just as unhappy about things as the US was under British rule

 

And finally just a couple of good reads with no purpose or message:

  1. Prey – Prey (nanotech gone wrong; a very well researched book by Crichton)
  2. Neuromancer – AI and digital agents, one of the first and still highly relevant
  3. Post-Human – Ultra-modern sci-fi, fast-paced multifaceted story about hard core nanotech and AI. Three out of five books (so far) are fantastic, two are “just” very good. All are extremely entertaining page turners. Beware, many, many have claimed to skip several nights of sleep once they got hold of Simpson’s books
  4. The Diamond Age – Inspiring and well written about a nanotech book raising a little girl
  5. Reamde – computer viruses, virtual world crimes and some other stuff
  6. The Hydrogen Sonata – a space epos
  7. Marooned In Real Time – oldie but goldie about a conceivable form of time travel
  8. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (all five) – so fun, so smart!
  9. Nexus/Crux – Hard core tech books
  10. Discworld – just fun fantasy; not all the 40 books but several of the first ten are …magical – not least “Mort”
  11. Ender’s game – the book has an incredibly strong message about revenge that is almost totally overlooked in the movie. I can’t remember ever feeling so engaged and alive reading a book as I did during some specific scenes in Ender’s. Unfortunately the author dropped the ball after the follow-up (Speaker for the dead – which I also recommend reading)
  12. Atopia and Dystopia – Cultural clashes between the nanotechnological and virtual reality seasteading paradise and the rest of humanity

 

Podcasts

  1. NPR TED Radio hour
  2. Brain Science
  3. Discovery
  4. Nature
  5. Freakonomics
  6. Science talk
  7. 60-seconds science

 

Websites and blogs

  1. Zerohedge – counterweight to the polyannish financial commercial media
  2. Hussman – weekly objective comments on the stock markets by one of the best asset managers
  3. Contrarian edge – market philosophy by Vitaliy Katsenelson
  4. Financial Orbit
  5. http://disciplinedinvesting.blogspot.co.uk/
  6. KurzweilAI – technological progress
  7. Singularity Hub – technology watch
  8. Science News – technology watch
  9. Clarifying concepts – science explained
  10. Kelly Starrett – mobility
  11. Wait But Why – a lot of fun and perspective
  12. xkcd – satirical and sciency cartoons
  13. SMBC – satirical cartoon
  14. Dilbert – satirical cartoon about the drudgery in a large company cubicle landscape

 

Popular books I think you should skip:

  1. The count of Monte-Cristo – don’t get me started! This is not the adventure it promises to be. Read a synopsis or see one of the recent movies instead
  2. The bible – long, boring, poorly written, paradoxical and with exactly zero value as an inspiration, guide, entertainment or whatever you can think of. Simply a collection of garbage
  3. What’s wrong with right now – I am all for mindfulness, but this one was just awful
  4. Choose yourself – I just didn’t get what was so great. It’s fine, sure, and probably inspires a lot of people, but I didn’t get one single impulse from it
  5. The foundation (it was a good adventure story back in the days, but everything else is so much better these days. Read David Simpson, Robert Heinlein, Neal Stephenson or Iain Banks for epic sci fi instead)
  6. Rama (utterly pointless and slow-moving B-movie drama sci-fi)
  7. Micro by Crichton/Preston (see Rama above)

 

I constantly add books to my Amazon wish list, most of which I will never read, but I like to keep a list to choose from whenever I run out of things to read. Anyway here is the very short version of what’s going on my virtual nightstand soon:

Books on my to read list:

  1. Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman (February 2015, Done! Very Inspiring)
  2. Post human 6,7, … (still waiting)
  3. The Preferred Observer (still waiting)
  4. How to win friends and influence people (May 2015, Done! A bit inspiring. See my thorough review and summary here)

 

I agree with pundits and power brokers of all time. Read. Read thoughtfully and slowly. Then re-read.

However, I disagree with all those advocating “the classics”. There is absolutely nothing inherently good in reading something just because it’s old or was the first of its kind, or was revered 50 or 100 or 150 years ago. Read a lot, but read for excitement and enjoyment, not to impress. Most likely, what excites you will more and more turn out to be useful, albeit somewhat al dente, books that teach you important things – like the best book of them all, the one book to rule them all:

 

How An Economy Grows And Why It Crashes, by Peter Schiff

Read it!

And then order the Post-Human series. You’ll thank me afterward, just like the reader and frequent commentator Zoloo did the other day