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What I've Been Reading
Thoughts on the books I read in Q4 2021
I have read twelve books so far this fall and should be done with one more by the end of the year. Since my post on books that I read over the summer was popular, I figured that I would write a similar post for the final quarter of the year.
But before getting into the list of books, I would like to address a question that I often get regarding how I am able to read so many books.
It is simply a matter of establishing the habit and sticking to it.
Several years ago, I read an article on the Farnam Street website that pointed out the power of reading just twenty-five pages per day. At that pace, you can read 750 pages per month which adds up to 9,000 pages per year. This year, I’ve read close to 17,000 pages which sounds like a lot but represents an average of around forty-five pages per day. At my typical reading pace, that is a commitment of about two hours per day. (I am not a fast reader and have no interest in “speed reading”.)
How do I find two hours per day to read? That’s an interesting question because few people think of asking someone how they find two hours a day to watch television or endless hours to scroll through social media feeds. Yes, two hours per day is a commitment but it is hardly insurmountable. There is no reason to be intimidated by big books either. Even Robert Caro’s epic books on Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson can be finished in a little over a month, on average. How one approaches reading also matters but the important thing is to just get started.
Once you establish good habits, the rest takes care of itself.
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon. I highly recommend the six-volume set published by Everyman’s Library which comes in box sets for Volumes 1-3 and Volumes 4-6. I read the first three volumes earlier in the year and then took a break before finishing up the set over the past three months. Edward Gibbon was an English historian who wrote in the late eighteenth-century, dedicating two decades of his life to the study of the Roman Empire. At nearly 3,700 pages, approaching Gibbon’s work is intimidating, not only due to the length of the work but his eighteenth-century writing style. However, I found that his style grew on me as I made my way through the first volume. There is no way I can do justice to his history in this brief mention, and I am uncertain how I can “review” it properly even in a full-length article. I am glad I read it and will probably have more thoughts on it that I’ll incorporate into future articles.
The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. I would have never heard of this book if I had not read Gibbon. In volume four, Gibbon tells the story of Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, a prominent public figure who lived during the reign of Theodoric. His rise to power and prestige came to an end in 523 AD and he was brutally executed a year later. Gibbon’s high praise of the character of Boethius was notable because most of the characters of that era were anything but admirable. Gibbon mentioned The Consolation of Philosophy, calling it a “golden volume”. Written in prison awaiting execution, Boethius ponders subjects such as free will, good and evil, and the nature of happiness. Although a devout Catholic, Boethius does not base his philosophy on tenets of the Christian faith which makes his outlook more universal in nature. According to Gibbon, “a strong cord was fastened round the head of Boethius, and forcibly tightened till his eyes almost started from their sockets; and some mercy may be discovered in the milder torture of beating him with clubs till he expired.” There was no prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment in the ancient world…
Stories by O. Henry. I typically like to have some fiction that I can dip into quickly if I have just fifteen or thirty minutes to read, or if I want to read briefly before going to bed. This compilation of short stories is really good for that purpose. Almost everyone is familiar with O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” but the rest of the stories are more obscure. Set mostly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the setting of ordinary people going about their lives in an era of horse drawn carriages and gas lighting was a nice change of pace.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Who hasn’t read the Sherlock Holmes stories? Pretty much everyone has been exposed to at least a few, but it was interesting to read them again after several decades. I only remembered a few of the plot lines and most of the stories were new to me even though I know I’ve read all of them before. Like the O. Henry stories, these are great short stories that do not require a significant time commitment.
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. This is a story of a sixteen-year-old who gets kicked out of his elite prep school right before Christmas and decides to spend a few days roaming around New York City rather than going home to face the music. Even though the book is set in the late 1940s, teenage readers have always related to Holden Caulfield, at least at some level. What attracted me to this book decades ago is the fact that it was censored. I remembered the plot line well as I read it again last month. But this time, all I could think about was the contrast between Holden’s incessant negativity and the massive opportunities that awaited young people as the United States entered the post-WWII years. Also, Holden wasted a huge amount of money in New York over those three days that he should have invested in the stock market.
Who's on First by William F. Buckley. I was exposed to William F. Buckley’s political writing as a young person and only later discovered that he also wrote a series of eleven detective novels set in the early Cold War era. The protagonist, Blackford Oakes, is a young man who returned from the war, attended Yale, and joined the CIA in the early 1950s. Oakes has many biographical details suspiciously similar to Buckley himself, leading me to believe that the author lived his vicarious fantasies through the life of his fictional creation. An entertaining page turner if you’re into detective novels of the Cold War era.
The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World by David Deutsch. I hesitate to mention this book because, although I read it carefully and re-read a couple chapters more than once, I found much of the contents perplexing, and I do not feel like I fully comprehended the author’s message. I picked up the book after listening to @naval’s podcast discussing the book. I do not feel qualified to comment further on this book so if you are interested in it, I suggest listening to the podcast or reading the transcript. I plan to re-read the book next year. Slowly.
The Aeneid by Virgil. An epic poem chronicles the story of Aeneas as he departs the ruins of Troy and begins the journey that will finally culminate in the founding of Rome. Virgil wrote during the final years of the Roman Republic and witnessed its fall. The Aeneid was reportedly commissioned by the first Roman Emperor, Augustus. Although we view it as one of the greatest works of literature, at the time it also served as political propaganda since it glorified the founding of Rome and fostered a sense of nationalism. I read the book as part of a Western Civilization course in college but did not appreciate it at the time. I am glad that I took the time to read it again in October.
James Madison: America’s First Politician by Jay Cost. I posted a review of this book on The Rational Walk earlier this month. I recommend it for anyone interested in early American history, especially the period surrounding the Constitutional Convention and ratification.
The Revolution That Wasn’t by Spencer Jakab. I posted a review of this book on The Rational Walk earlier this month. Written by the editor of The Wall Street Journal’s Heard on the Street Column, this book is a must-read for anyone interested in GameStop specifically, meme stocks in general, and crypto sagas of early 2021. The book will be released on January 25 and can be pre-ordered now.
The Complete Financial History of Berkshire Hathaway by Adam Mead. I mentioned this book in last week’s newsletter. I am still going through the book and am up to 2005. As I get into the period that covers my own ownership of the stock (starting in 2000), the book has become even more interesting since I lived through the years that are being covered as an owner. One aspect of the book that I like more and more as I continue reading is the analysis of how Berkshire’s shareholders’ equity has increased in ten-year increments. The author analyzes the sources of the gains in Berkshire’s equity over time in a way that I have not seen presented elsewhere.
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