My sister in law recently asked what percentage of my time I spend writing and what percentage I spend reading. I said that if she was asking for the ratio of those two activities then I spend at least three hours reading for every hour I spend writing.
And yet I constantly wonder if this is enough. For instance today most of my reading has consisted of listening to this audiobook about Jack Welch (I began and finished it today in four-ish hours of listening) and an audiobook on Lenin. Meanwhile I’m still making my way slowly through Capital. And yet I’m taking time off to write this post.
Writing is the ultimate aim. One wants to produce something that will last. And it’s sometimes pleasant to write, nice to think one has produced something today. But productivity can also lead you astray. Finished a story or essay or blog post or chapter can be a form of instant gratification, and I wonder—is this really necessary? Perhaps I could improve my work more by reading Capital. After all, most of what I write gets thrown out, but what I read never goes away.
And yet I do think, I dunno, that when I die, or when my memory fades, that all this learning will go away. The Soviets for some reason always hated aestheticism in any form, they wanted all knowledge to be in service of the state. And I wonder what’s the point of reading just to know—isn’t it more important to transmute my reading into something more?
But I’ve lately taken a longer view. After all, according to life expectancy tables I can expect to live at least a few more years: twenty or thirty wouldn’t be unreasonable. That means my entire productive life to come will easily equal or exceed what has passed. And I don’t want to read 55 or 65 and think, I haven’t learned anything since I was 36.
In this Jack Welch book they keep talking about how too much pressure, too much interrogation, squelches creativity. To be creative you need the freedom to fail. Jack Welch created an environment where performance was constantly measured and nobody had any room to just play around.
I have seen too many writers though spend too many years in play, writing outlines or doodling or doing research, like a Mr Causabon and never getting down to work.
I’m not sure. I used to think I’d write my great book someday. But if I haven’t written it yet, then I’m at least aware that anything I write at this age needs to have at least some potential to be the great one.
Notes on books:
I realized what’s been bothering me about Capital: it’s the labor theory of value. It states that all the value in a good is produced by labor. As such, profit can only arise from exploiting labor. I’ve been thinking very hard about it, and I realized the problem is Marx has some assumptions he doesn’t make explicit. The main one is he believes in a Malthusian world where wages will inevitably fall to the level of subsistence. The worker will get only as much of the value as it takes to keep them alive and reproduce their labor. He believes it’s the capitalist’s goal to create such a world, in fact. But…that isn’t really what happened. Wages in industrial societies for whatever reason rose instead. This undermines his whole point. Marx argues that the _purpose_ of capital is to give workers less power, to make them more expendable, and thus allow you to reduce their wages. Under capitalism, the workers will thus get to keep a smaller share of their labor than before capitalism. But it’s not entirely clear if that’s true, and there are empirical reasons for thinking it’s not. He makes a very well argued case though.
Periodically I search the Penguin Classics catalogue for interesting books. I sometimes buy them but almost never read them (I’m horrible, I know). But the other day I came upon Path of Glory by Humphrey Cobb. It’s a 1935 novel about WWI that inspired a Stanley Kubrick movie that’s apparently much better known. Anyway it was reissued as a Penguin Classic, and it’s short so I took a look. It’s set on the Western Front, in a French regiment that fails in an assault. Afterwards, the ordinary soldiers are scapegoated by their vindictive general (who likes to boast he’s never once failed to take a position he’s assaulted), and three of the enlisted men are court martialed and executed as an example to the rest. It reminded me strongly of Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, which also used a war setting (WWII, in that case) to dramatize an ethical dilemma and whose second half was a courtroom drama. Oh, Crimson Tide also uses a similar conceit and structure. In both of those cases, the soldier eventually gets off, though there’s doubt about whether they should. This one is bleaker, as befits a WWI novel, and it castigates the entire machinery of war for giving people the ability to duck responsibility for what they’ve done. It was also quite well-written, albeit in an unshowy manner. The lines had natural elegance and rhythm. I finished it in one sitting—two hours.
Articles of Note
- Found lots to love in this article about one of the latest Fields medal winners (it's like the Nobel for math, as anyone who's watched Good Will Hunting will remember): "To hear him tell it, he doesn’t usually have much control over what he decides to focus on in those three hours. For a few months in the spring of 2019, all he did was read. He felt an urge to revisit books he’d first encountered when he was younger — including Meditations by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and several novels by the German author Hermann Hesse — so that’s what he did. “Which means I didn’t do any work,” Huh said. “So that’s kind of a problem.” (He’s since made peace with this constraint, though. “I used to try to resist … but I finally learned to give up to those temptations.” As a consequence, “I became better and better at ignoring deadlines.”)
Since this is basically a newsletter now, I'm putting a submission link below