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What Not to Read

What Not to Read

Reading for information requires using time judiciously. However, if you only read for information, you are a fool.

So, Richard Hanania has a piece on why most books are a waste of time. I am very much in agreement with his line of thought, but his essay is lengthy. Read this instead.

In my very first graduate seminar, my late advisor Alan Dundes explained how to read to survive in academia. I didn’t last very long in academia, but this advice was the single best thing I learned in college.

A good-sized bibliography contains around three hundred titles, both books and articles. Do learned men and women read it all cover to cover? No, of course not. A few books that others frequently quote and the ones that immediately pertain to one’s research topic should be studied in full. Otherwise, read the acknowledgments and the bibliography to understand what’s going on in the field, and footnotes to get future research ideas — the most ingenious thoughts are often tacked into the footnote section. Then work through the introduction and conclusion and get a few examples in the middle.

The only bibliography no-no is listing a book or an article the researcher didn’t hold in his hands. We have to verify that the item exists in real life because even if it’s cited in multiple other lists of references doesn’t mean that one unscrupulous academic didn’t make it up and others didn’t drag it through their own bibliographies. At least, that’s what Dundes told us. I never ran into a fake title myself.

Don’t feel bad about following this advice. Last year, I put together a book proposal, and now I think I understand not only why books are formulaic — introduction, conclusion, few examples in the middle — but why they kind of suck. A book pitch usually includes a completed introduction with the first chapter, and an outline of the rest. If a publisher picks the pitch, the author receives an advance to complete the work on a schedule. Kind of like finishing the senior year after the college acceptance letter has been delivered. Predictably, everything beyond chapter one is uninspired.

This, of course, applies only to contemporary English language titles. In my experience, old volumes and translations are different. They tend to be structured around the material when we do the opposite, fit knowledge into a pre-existing format.

Writing is a craft. Some exceptional people still pour their hearts into the project, beginning to end, but especially if the author sees it as his task to convey the data, and maybe even be kind of witty while conveying the data, he’ll do a serviceable job to get it over with.

Reading for information requires using time judiciously. Rest assured, the writers don’t take it personal if you don’t contemplate every word that came out of their keyboards. In fact, they will feel guilty if you do — they got their miserly paychecks and comfortable careers, and that was good enough. Knowing how books of this kind are manufactured, only a total sociopath would demand that you read them in full.

The Written word is a great medium for skipping ahead which is why I strongly prefer articles to podcasts. Even the more professional podcasts, the ones where the host doesn’t pontificate endlessly or goes “mmm… mmmm…” between every sentence, are time-consuming. It takes a half an hour to listen to an hour-long recording on double speed. I get restless. In an article, I can navigate to my topic of interest in a matter of minutes and maybe even pick up a few ideas on the way — if they catch my eye. I skip the first “hook” paragraph pretty much always.

However, if you only read for information, you are a fool. Maybe because you are young — I now get why, historical accuracy aside, Ivan Turgenev made the fathers the romantic generation. More on that later. Good writing goes beyond the simple exchange of information. And this is where Hanania goes astray.

Since Hanania prefers contemporary writers, I will say this. In his recent essay on language, foremost contemporary novelist Cormac McCarthy explained that because language is a very recent evolutionary addition to cognition, our unconsciousness frequently communicates with us by other means. McCarthy used the example of the 19th century German chemist August Kekulé who realized that the benzene molecule is structured like a ring after dreaming of a snake eating its own tail. The scientist’s unconscious sent him a message that he later described in words.

Likewise, an intuitive author will use words as an opportunity to probe something hard-felt and infinitely meaningful. Such writing has staying power.

There exist books that are meant to be devoured. Not academic tracts, but primary sources that keep grabbing the reader’s attention. Some of them said to be the word of God. Immersing oneself into that kind of literature is an experience.

Poetry is not the word of God, but its scope is often hard to grasp on the first try. It’s designed for rereading and — even better — memorization. One of the best parts of old-fashioned education, which I was fortunate to receive in the USSR, was the requirement to learn poems by heart and recite them in front of a class. The verses we were asked to memorize contained examples of some of the best usage of the Russian language, connecting students to thoughts and feelings that are both elusive and enduring.

Poetry is second only to religion in creating common cultural themes. A few years ago, I wrote in American Conservative about how, when looking at the trees changing colors in fall, every Russian speaker immediately thinks of Pushkin’s

A melancholy time! So charming to the eye!

Your beauty in its parting pleases me.

I love the lavish withering of nature,

The gold and scarlet raiment of the woods.

If contemporary Ukraine demolishes monuments to Pushkin, it’s doing so not because the poet is somehow an agent of imperialism, but because he’s good.

Quality literature enlivens the senses and refines souls. I recently reread Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons for the first time since high school. I was holding up OK, but ended up crying for half an hour after finishing the last paragraph. And that’s knowing full well what the likes of Bazarov, whose early death put me into that mood, did to Russia.

I wish I’d reread the novel earlier. It would have saved me a lot of trouble. When I was a decade younger than the sons’ generation, I saw the characters as two sets of adults and their world was exciting and unfamiliar. Now that I’m slightly older than the fathers, I see how Turgenev’s descriptions of social life in the Russian Empire around the time of emancipation are not unlike our own. Turgenev’s humor feels modern and his characters seem recognizable today.

Similarly, Lev Tolstoy’s retelling of Russia of Napoleonic Wars is full of timeless insights. Some critics dismiss Tolstoy as a mere sociologist; the poet Joseph Brodsky even saw him as a precursor to socialist realism. But somebody has to write sociology, and few can do it like Tolstoy. Of course, collecting and analyzing the data is important, but if a reader is interested in a foundational depiction of mating rituals, Natasha Rostova’s debutante ball is the place to start.

Not because Tolstoy was faithful to detail. He, for instance, had Natasha waltzed by her future husband Andrei Bolkonsky, the scene set to the music of Dmitry Shostakovich in Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1965 film. But waltzes were introduced to Russian high society decades later, the fact that the writer’s contemporaries knew very well. Tolstoy was by no means a failed researcher. He intentionally substituted historical accuracy for a vision of courtship.

And this is why War and Peace is the book worthy of lifelong engagement and most of what is written about it — or written about the Napoleonic Wars or the Decembrists — is for skimming. War and Peace is civilizational text. When most books merely make a point, great ones leave a mark in the reader’s imagination, help him live fully, and generate discussion. Books like that are rare, it’s true. More importantly, they don’t merely generate and interpret data.


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Anything written by Alexandre Dumas needs to be skimmed and then devoured only in certain sections- he was a great story teller but a horrible writer. The reverse for Charles Dickens, whose word smithing is magical yet the stories are a long descent into failure and depression.(Dickens’ editor had him put a happy ending to Great Expectations since they both needed a major seller for cash.)

    rhhardin in reply to Oracle. | May 18, 2023 at 7:32 am

    Alexandre Dumas _fils_ will never, never make a school prize-giving speech. He does not know what morality is. It will not compromise. If he were to make one, he would first have to cross out with one stroke of the pen all he has so far written, starting with his absurd Prefaces.


    LibraryGryffon in reply to Oracle. | May 18, 2023 at 10:20 am

    Dumas didn’t actually write a lot of his stuff. He outlined the chapter and farmed it out, or so I was taught. Many (most?) of his works were serialized, so he probably did this out of time pressure and/or laziness.

    But while the writing isn’t great (or at least the translations aren’t; my French isn’t good enough to read the original) the stories themselves are.

    Over the years I’ve learned that the translator is almost as important as the original author to foreign language texts.

Treat yourself to Philip Larkin’s poem, “A Study of Reading Habits,” which ends, “Books are a load of crap.” You might also read Orwell’s essay in which he says that reading newspapers is almost useless..

E Howard Hunt | May 18, 2023 at 7:43 am

Why would anyone read Fathers and Sons when he could read Dreams from my Father?

…the most ingenious thoughts are often tacked into the footnote section.

Cliff made notes on that observation.

Going after Russian literature because you don’t like Putin’s war would be like banning Mark Twain because you don’t like America’s current woke agenda.

    henrybowman in reply to Danny. | May 18, 2023 at 5:11 pm

    But it’s the wokesters who ARE banning Mark Twain, N-word Jim.

      Danny in reply to henrybowman. | May 18, 2023 at 8:00 pm

      Good point.

      To clarify it would be as if Poland (not a woke country) banned Mark Twain because it doesn’t like the woke agenda.

      There is no great work of American literature the wokesters aren’t trying to get rid of.

Scene citation by Get Smart (2008)

“I knew a man his brain so small,
He couldn’t think of nothin’ at all;
He’s not the same as you and me,
He doesn’t dig poetry;
He’s so unhip that when you say Dylan,
He thinks you’re talkin’ about Dylan Thomas;
Whoever he is,
The man ain’t got no culture…”
– A Simple Desultory Philippic by Paul Simon, 1965

I second what was said about academic reading–I never would have gotten through my history PhD program if I’d read every page of everything.

    Dimsdale in reply to Virginia42. | May 20, 2023 at 8:33 pm

    Yeah, I have to agree. I really loved abstracts on manuscripts; they gave you a concise summary that allowed you to decide if the paper was worthy of citation. Scientific papers are also good in that you can get the interpretation of the results by going directly to the discussion section.

    Of course, in the good old days, we had to photocopy almost every paper to have on hand when writing dissertations or grant proposals. None of this online search engine sissy stuff!!

Some of you will scorn this. but one of the best writers and storytellers of all time was Louis L’Amour. his writing had the ability to pull you into the story as if you were there. To date he is probably one of the most underrated authors of our generation. For the pure enjoyment of reading books written by authors that were true story tellers. very few compare. The original Tom Clancy works comes in a close second. Don’t get me wrong,,, I still have all of the classic literature in my library. But when I want to just curl up and read something that takes me away from the stress of life… Louie is my go to author.

    CincyJan in reply to starride. | May 18, 2023 at 11:38 am

    I am in total sympathy. My comfy author is Agatha Christie. I am fascinated by how succinctly she sets the scene and draws her character.s She uses quick stereotypes which lull the reader into a familiarity that is not wholly justified. One character is lying. One character is an expert at projectring a false persona. But, ah, which one is it? Agatha Christie would have made an excellent psychologist. Much like her own Miss Marple, she noticed everything and fully trusted no one.

    GWB in reply to starride. | May 18, 2023 at 11:56 am

    one of the best writers and storytellers of all time was Louis L’Amour
    Concur! And the prices of his books show it.

    But let’s not leave out pulp writers: R.E. Howard, E.R. Burroughs, DashiellHammett, etc. Very powerful writers as concerns laying out a scene for the mind’s eye to see.

      Ruckweiler in reply to GWB. | May 19, 2023 at 9:23 am

      One of my favorites is “A Canticle for Liebowitz” which I’ve read and re-read many times for the sheer inventiveness of Walter Miller, Jr.

Good comments!

Golly I got a comment to show up!

    henrybowman in reply to Whitewall. | May 18, 2023 at 5:17 pm

    This is hard to understand. The rest of us have seen like, five “TESTs” from you.

      Whitewall in reply to henrybowman. | May 19, 2023 at 8:24 am

      Odd, I haven’t been seeing them. Maybe whatever happened has sorted itself out. I had a 5 day battle with reCaptcha. Here’s hoping.

I was always a big fan of “Classics Illustrated” “graphic novels” as I guess they really weren’t comic books. Gave me a much better understanding of A Tale of Two Cities when I could see the resemblance between the characters.

As an aside, the heat wave in Portland has really brought out the sports bras on the trannys. Phil Knight markets from the street.

OnTheLeftCoast | May 18, 2023 at 11:28 am

McCarthy used the example of the 19th century German chemist August Kekulé who realized that the benzine benzene molecule is structured like a ring after dreaming of a snake eating its own tale tail. The scientist’s unconscious sent him a message that he later described in words.

My organic chemistry professor told us this tale, told us that Kekulé had solved the problem, then said that due to the limited technology of the time Kekulé was unable to tell whether the electrons were going clockwise or counterclockwise around the ring. For various reasons, it was necessary pick one or ther other, though if he had made the wrong choice it would not have been a fundamental error. Then the professor’s eyes lit up, and he said in his heavy German accent: “And do you know? He made the right choice.

    Typos fixed, thanks!

    henrybowman in reply to OnTheLeftCoast. | May 18, 2023 at 5:27 pm

    Procrastination is more than a vice — it’s a valuable engineering and planning tool.
    I can’t count the number of times I have balked at a necessary job that just scared the crap out of me, something I had never done before, with lots of opportunity to screw things up expensively. (Last week’s excursion into chain link installation was one.) The longer I let it percolate in my subconscious, the more straightforward the job becomes, with tactics, approaches, snakechecks, and fallbacks just falling into place from nowhere.

Knowing how books of this kind are manufactured, only a total sociopath would demand that you read them in full.
Well, we ARE talking academia, so….

My mother found comfort in her final days by reciting the last paragraph of William Cullen Bryant’s Thanatopsis, “So live, that when thy summons comes to join the inummerable caravan, which moves to that mysterious land …”. I envy her that. I have never been able to memorize. I always end up rephrasing the quote. (I had to look up the lines above, just to be sure.). Memorizing means you always have the words available. Even if you memorized them as a teenager, some six decades earlier.

    Stuytown in reply to CincyJan. | May 18, 2023 at 4:33 pm

    I had a girlfriend long ago whose French professor advised the students to memorize various poems. The professor said that if you ended up in prison you would still have the poems. I thought I was good advice and I memorized a few. So far, no prison. But there’s still time.

chrisboltssr | May 18, 2023 at 1:49 pm

Three observations I have made in my short life when it comes to reading (you may not agree, but that’s the beauty of being free men):

1) Only one collection of books is worth reading in its entirety and that’s the Bible. All other books basically derive from that (even though it is not the oldest book).

2) Not everything needs to be read, as the author of this post alluded to. In fact, a lot of contemporary writing should be completely ignored because too many authors today are given to modern bullshit and since it’s bullshit you will not need any of thus knowledge in future years.

3) Do more thinking, listening and observing and less reading. Ultimately, when you are reading you are digesting another person’s thoughts and ideas. Read to complement your own thinking but do not let it be a substitute for your thinking or your ability to think.

Katya Rapoport Sedgwick | May 18, 2023 at 1:50 pm

I am enjoying every single comment! Thank you, guys.

“Rest assured, the writers don’t take it personal if you don’t contemplate every word that came out of their keyboards.”

Since the author reads and posts here, it would be rather gauche of me to comment “TL;DR,” wouldn’t it?

What to read.

Biography – Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century (2019). Excellent.

Vasily Grossman’s books: Everything Flows, Life and Fate and Stalingrad (for a just cause,) and The Road (short stories,)

Looking forward to reading “The People Immortal,” a paean to the Russian peasant-warriors.

All translated by Robert Chandler.

What not to read?

Antony Beevor’s “A Writer at War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red Army, 1941-1945.” Beevor is a hack. A cheap, transparent, bourgeois-bolshevik Oxbridge hack.

Reading is a proven way get smarter. It is not the only way, but it may be the best way. The fact that a lot of books aren’t all that useful and some of the “classics” don’t hold up all that well isn’t a good reason not to read, it’s just a reason to be selective.

Also, as someone who works in computers & finance, I am very grateful to the professionals who write books. Writing doesn’t pay all that well in comparison, but professionals still take the time to write and explain difficult concepts and provide practical examples.

Peter Lynch, for example, detailed his entire stock selection process as head of Magellan’s Fidelity fund. Surely he had better uses of his time, and of course he got something out of writing (another proven way to make yourself smarter, due to the need to organize and present your thoughts), but still if you research stocks, you owe him a debt, and would be a fool not to take a few hours to go through it. Maybe the book would work as well as a series of articles, but maybe not. It certainly wouldn’t work as just one article or one chapter.

I think it is also important to face the fact that we are not as smart as our ancestors when it comes to reading and writing. The Federalist Papers are a good indication of this – most people aren’t capable of reading and understanding them, but at the time they were published in newspapers and debated over dinner tables. Even the Gettysburg address would be incomprehensible to most people today. The last chapter of the Philadelphia Negro is a great text on race relations and extremely relevant, but even written in 1901, it is still incomprehensible to most people just because of the vocabulary, style, sentence structure. When something is challenging to do, people find excuses not to do it, and reading is no exception. At a certain point, “the classics don’t have any value” argument is more an indictment of ourselves than a commentary on those authors. I think we owe it to ourselves and both past and future generations to at least put in the effort to understand these writings before rejecting them outright, because we may not get another chance, i.e. we’ll have fallen too far intellectually to make sense of anything that came before us.

The first book I remember reading was “Peter Pan and Wendy,” when I was 8. Since the day I started that book, and until life made responsible for others, I was the definition of a ‘bookworm’. Of course, as I grew up so did my choices in literature.
Now I don’t read as much as I used to, not literature anyways. Most my reading is technical stuff, online news and some blogs.

My all time favorite is probably ‘One Hundred Years Of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I am not sure how good it is in English. Every single time I’ve read it, it has been in Spanish. And I don’t think I’ll ever dare to even try to read it in any other language.
Now, Garcia Marquez has always been a raging leftist, and he was friends with the butcher of Birán, so you can imagine the love-hate conflict.

Also, laugh at me all you want, but ‘Animal Farm’ is another book that marked me. I was already in my twenties when I had the opportunity to read it for the first time. I had to read it in hiding because in Cuba at that time, the mere possession of that book could have meant years in prison. It was shared by someone who managed to sneak it in from another country, and we passed it from friend to friend in the most absolute secrecy. It seems absurd, but if you pay attention to what’s going on in America today, very soon you’ll understand.

    henrybowman in reply to Exiliado. | May 18, 2023 at 5:23 pm

    “It was shared by someone who managed to sneak it in from another country, and we passed it from friend to friend in the most absolute secrecy.”
    Ha ha! Reading Animal Farm while living Fahrenheit 451!

Best authors that I have read: Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Shakespeare; all dead white males, probably not taught much today.

Durak Kazyol | May 19, 2023 at 11:14 am

Ukrainians are not tearing down Pushkin statues because he’s good. It’s because the Russian invaders are tearing down statues of Ukraine’s national poet Taras Shevchenko in their quest to exterminate Ukrainian culture. Ukrainians do this to add insult to the injuries they are inflicting on the Russian invaders. I don’t think it is a good idea to do this, but they are simply following the Russian lead. And I imagine if a nation of thugs was waging a genocidal war against me I too would find it difficult to look very favorably on their culture.

    Katya Rapoport Sedgwick in reply to Durak Kazyol. | May 20, 2023 at 12:14 am

    The USSR built Shevchenko statues, including the one in Kharkov where I was born. Probably the best Shevchenko monument in the world.

    I never heard of Russians tearing down Shevchenko statues, but I’ve read enough about the Ukrainian motives — and even written about it. Not a word from Ukraine about tit-for-tat you are alleging here.

Suburban Farm Guy | May 21, 2023 at 10:00 am

I’m reading lots of books lately, seemingly disparate and unrelated but ideas from each are leading me to some unusual syntheses. The broad range of topics, finding commonalties, a lot of ‘aha!’ moments, well worth my time, not a waste at all. I get that many authors just follow a structural program but luckily I seem to avoid them

Katya Rapoport Sedgwick: Quality literature enlivens the senses and refines souls.

We agree about the power of great literature and art, and how it can touch universal themes. However . . .

Katya Rapoport Sedgwick: If contemporary Ukraine demolishes monuments to Pushkin, it’s doing so not because the poet is somehow an agent of imperialism, but because he’s good.

No. It’s because Russia used Pushkin as a marker of Russian imperialism. Renaming streets may seem innocuous, but for those who feel occupied, it feels as if Russia is trying to erase the memory of native children whose names once adorned those streets.

Meanwhile, on July 9, 1776, a statute of King George III was toppled in New York.

    Katya Rapoport Sedgwick in reply to Zachriel. | May 26, 2023 at 7:01 pm

    “It’s because Russia used Pushkin as a marker of Russian imperialism.” This is an interesting way to deny the significance of Pushkin.

    “ Renaming streets may seem innocuous, but for those who feel occupied, it feels as if Russia is trying to erase the memory of native children whose names once adorned those streets.”

    Pushkin is the poet who gave meaning to the lives of tens of millions of Ukrainians and inspired anti-Soviet resistance.