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What I've Been Reading
Thoughts on the books I read in Q2 2023
“It’s healthy to use books as resistance bands that build different mental muscles, so when I’m not at work I try (with rare exceptions) not to read anything related to investing, finance, or economics. My recreational reading tends instead toward literature, art, science, and history; if I can’t be deep, I can at least attempt to be broad. For me, at least, insights and creativity seem to come out of the intersections among seemingly disparate and unrelated fields; I happen to think that everything in the universe is related somehow (after all, ‘universe’ comes from Latin roots meaning ‘to be turned into one’).”
Author: Peter Attia
Year of Publication: 2023
Length: 416 pages
Immortality has always been a lofty but unreachable dream. There is no doubt that modern medicine has done much to extend lifespans, but the ultimate fate for all human beings remains the same. Silicon Valley billionaires dream of endless life made possible by technology, but for now this is just a dream. However, there is much that we can do to extend not only the duration but quality of our lives into old age.
Peter Attia is so well respected in the field of longevity that the annual cost to be his patient is reportedly $150,000, a price tag that is unreachable for almost everyone. Fortunately, anyone can gain access to his thoughts on living a longer and better life by purchasing his book for under twenty dollars or checking it out at the library.
Imagery is a powerful tool. Attia distills the main causes of death and morbidity into what he calls the Four Horseman, in a clever reference to the Book of Revelation. These adversaries are metabolic dysfunction, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases. We need strategies to lower our chances of falling victim to these dysfunctions and Attia gives us tools that we can use.
Death remains stubbornly undefeated and, I suspect, always will. Ultimately, the goal is to live a longer life while retaining good health until as close to the end as possible.
For a more comprehensive discussion, please read my full review published in April:
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Author: Gregory David Roberts
Year of Publication: 2003
Length: 933 pages
Gregory David Roberts has lived an interesting life, to say the least. As a heroin addict, Roberts engaged in criminal activities to support his habit. However, he tried to be nice about it and was known as the “gentleman bandit” because he was always polite to the people he robbed, always saying “please” and “thank you”. He escaped from prison in Australia in 1980 and lived as a fugitive for several years in foreign countries before finally being recaptured and serving out the rest of his term.
According to Roberts, Shantaram is a work of fiction, but it is clear that the storyline is dependent on the author’s life experiences. Set in 1980s Bombay, Roberts introduces the reader to a motley cast of characters including mafia bosses, drug smugglers, prostitutes, pimps, counterfeiters, jihadists, and more. We also get to know the slum dwellers of Bombay through the eyes of the protagonist who voluntarily lived in the slums while providing much needed medical care despite not having formal training.
This is a story that spans the full spectrum of human emotion and I suspect that most readers remain enthralled with the plot throughout this very long book. If you get to the end of a nearly thousand page epic and still want to read more, the author has obviously done something right. I’ve been to India on business trips twice, but both times I rushed back home without getting to know the country. Shantaram sparked my interest in returning in the future to better understand this fascinating country.
Author: Sam Walton
Year of Publication: 1992
Length: 332 pages
Sam Walton spent the last several months of his life, weakened by cancer and in much pain, putting the finishing touches on his autobiography. For under seven dollars, anyone can read Walton’s amazing story and benefit from his insights. Rising from a very modest background during the depths of the Great Depression, Walton began a retailing career and struggled and scraped his way to the top. Not bad for a man who was told that he was “not cut out for retail” early in his career!
When you read about entrepreneurs, it is striking how often they turn out to be total fanatics with a single-minded focus and drive to succeed. Walton was a man who could never slow down and “failed” at retirement in the 1970s. For the first three decades of its existence, Wal-Mart was synonymous with the personality of its founder and the unique culture that he created and sustained.
If Sam Walton hoped to help future generations of entrepreneurs, the book was a wild success. Jeff Bezos, among many others, internalized Walton’s message. One of my main takeaways from the book is that the culture put in place by a founder is critical and successors must try as hard as possible to sustain it. This is an important lesson for other companies, such as Berkshire Hathaway, with a strong founding culture.
For a more comprehensive discussion, please read my full review published in April:
Author: Henry Ford
Year of Publication: 1922
Length: 187 pages
Henry Ford was one of the most important American industrialists of the twentieth century, but he was also a very flawed man.
There are people who believe that if a human being was flawed in some respect, we should “cancel” them entirely and discard their entire body of work, making no attempt to harvest what is worth knowing from what is clearly deserving of scorn. I reject that philosophy. The world is too competitive to fail to examine the lives of imperfect individuals who nevertheless made an enormous contribution to society.
Studying flawed humans of the past is also a cautionary tale for those of us living today and for future generations. We should never assume that brilliance in one area automatically extends to other subjects. It can sometimes seem like every billionaire feels qualified to opine on every issue under the sun. It’s fine for famous people to have opinions in areas outside their area of expertise, but I see no reason to regard such opinions as having extra merit beyond the quality of the arguments.
For a more comprehensive discussion, please read my full review published in May:
Author: Sam Zell
Year of Publication: 2017
Length: 229 pages
It’s not a great idea to pigeonhole people, but that is what I did for many years when it came to Sam Zell. I thought of him as an eccentric “real estate guy”, more specifically someone involved in commercial real estate, an area that I have never focused on from an investment standpoint. I started to get a better sense of Zell’s overall personality and range of interests when I listened to Episode #269 of Founders Podcast last year, but it was only after Zell’s death in May that I finally ordered his autobiography.
Sam Zell’s parents escaped from their hometown in Poland on the last train to make it out before the Luftwaffe bombed the tracks. After a long and dangerous journey that spanned thousands of miles through four countries over nearly two years, Zell’s parents arrived in Seattle in May 1941, just months before Zell was born in Chicago.
This began an amazing American success story that Zell recounts in a direct and candid style. From a modest start managing apartments in his college town, Zell built a multi-billion dollar business empire. As he says at the start of the book, “It just never occurred to me that I couldn’t do it. If you’re not aware that you’re not supposed to be able to do something, the barriers to doing it are dramatically lessened.”
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Translators: Louise Maude, Aylmer Maude, and Nigel J. Cooper
Years of Publication: 1851 to 1906
Length: 998 pages
Over the past eighteen months, I have read Leo Tolstoy’s major works as well as two collections of shorter fiction. As I wrote in December, Tolstoy did not just magically wake up one day to write epics such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina. He had to practice his craft diligently for decades before taking on such masterpieces.
Everyman’s Library divides Tolstoy’s shorter fiction into two volumes. Although the second volume generally presents fiction he wrote later in life, there are also a few earlier stories. At the risk of making a generalization, I would say that much of Tolstoy’s early fiction centered on his experiences as a young officer in the Crimean War whereas his later work is more focused on religious and philosophical themes.
The most famous story in this volume is certainly The Death of Ivan Ilych which was published in 1886 when Tolstoy was fifty-eight. It’s a distressing story of a man with an illness that first seems minor and slowly becomes clearly terminal. But the distressing part isn’t necessarily an imminent death (although it proved to be an awful death) but the cautionary example of a life poorly lived with enormous regrets.
An obscure story, but probably my favorite, is The Forged Coupon, a tale that started with what seems like a minor moral infraction that triggers a cascade of events leading to terrible outcomes before coming full circle. This story, published during Tolstoy’s old age in 1904, is typical of the message he was trying to send in his later years. The moral and religious currents are deep and wide, and worth contemplation.
Author: Mark W. Moffett
Year of Publication: 2018
Length: 366 pages
In this fairly dense treatise, biologist Mark W. Moffett presents the reader with an interesting account of how societies, specifically anonymous societies, develop, split apart, grow, and eventually fail. Human beings are almost unique in our ability to function in a society in which we personally know very few of the people we encounter on a daily basis. Unlike other primates, we can walk into a coffee shop or a crowded subway train and coexist. If you tried to do this with chimpanzees unfamiliar with each other, there would be a bloodbath in short order.
Although human beings are rare in our ability to exist in anonymous societies, we are not completely alone. Surprisingly, the humble ant also lives in an anonymous society in which every individual is a stranger but, together, their society can accomplish a great deal. The reader who is looking for a discussion primarily of human societies might be surprised to find himself reading about ants, but the author feels this is necessary to set the stage for later chapters that get into human societies as they have evolved from what we consider primitive cultures to modernity.
In comparison to Yuval Noah Harari’s better known book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which I reviewed in 2018, The Human Swarm is less accessible and a tougher slog at times. I think that most readers will probably prefer Sapiens, although The Human Swarm does have more detail and goes into more depth, particularly on non-human societies, probably because of the author’s background as a biologist.
Author: H.G. Wells
Year of Publication: 1897
Length: 178 pages
I purchased this classic several years ago but it sat on a shelf for a long time before I picked it up on a whim last weekend. I’ve never been much of a fan of science fiction, but this book is a classic and short enough to read in just a few sittings.
As I read the book, I kept thinking about the importance of “second level thinking”, a concept popularized by Howard Marks in recent years, albeit from an investing point of view. Those who consider just the immediate effect of their action without pondering broader implications are likely to make some serious errors of judgment.
Whether you are an investor thinking about buying a stock or a mad scientist trying to make yourself invisible, you’re best served to consider the important question: “And then what?” Griffin, the mad scientist in the mind of H.G. Wells, could only think of the benefits of being invisible in society but never considered the downside. It turned out that the downside far outweighed the upside.
Author: Derek Baxter
Year of Publication: 2022
Length: 344 pages
Thomas Jefferson loved living at Monticello. But in the early 1780s, Jefferson was going through a low point in his life. Recently widowed and following a less than successful term as governor of Virginia, Jefferson reluctantly accepted an appointment as Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of Versailles. From 1784 to 1789, Jefferson lived in France and traveled widely in Europe, enjoying himself immensely while furthering the interests of his young country in European capitals.
I was hoping for a book that would go into much detail about Jefferson’s European travels, but this book is more of a personal memoir of the author who traveled to Europe several times with his family with the purpose of following Jefferson’s footsteps. Although the book has its charms, particularly when the author describes the reaction of his children to various sights and events, I felt that it was more of a memoir of the author as he (slowly) came to terms with Jefferson’s contradictions.
Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder like many of his generation in the South, but we rightly hold him to a higher standard because he knew that slavery was indefensible. His writings in early adulthood make it obvious that he understood the evils of slavery. As he aged, Jefferson became less of an abolitionist and more of a fatalist, eventually concluding that abolition would have to fall upon future generations.
Jefferson could have done more to free his slaves and he should have done more, particularly because his uncontrolled spending later in life contributed to the financial difficulties that precluded freeing his slaves upon his death in 1826. I can understand the author’s discomfort, but I felt that he spent far too much time on slavery and not enough time on the purported topic of his book: Jefferson in Europe.
Readers who are interested a contemporary travel memoir and a critical assessment of Jefferson as a slaveholder might be interested in this book, but I would pass if you are mainly interested in Jefferson’s years in Europe. For those readers, I would suggest Volume 2 of Dumas Malone’s six volume biography: Jefferson and the Rights of Man.
This article is part of a quarterly series of “mini reviews” of my reading. Recent installments in the series appear below:
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