Recent Reading: Rediscovering a Passion for Books

“You know what I miss?” Kim asked last night. We were sitting in bed, reading. “I miss the way we read The Martian together. That was fun.”

Last month, during our week-long quest to find a place to live for the winter, we read/audited Andy Weir’s The Martian as we drove all over Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia. Sometimes I read aloud to us, but mostly we listened to the audiobook. Kim’s right: It was fun.

“I’ll tell you what,” I said. “When you finish the book you’re working on, you can pick something else for us to read together. We can read it to each other. And if the audiobook is good, we can listen to that too.”

We’re both excited about this plan.

You see, Kim and I both used to be big readers. One of my first uses of the internet was to track my reading. When we were married, Kris and I used to spend our evenings reading together instead of watching television. And when I discovered audiobooks about a decade ago, I learned that listening to a book is often better than reading one.

Note: Is “auditing” a book the same as reading it? Folks who’ve never done it say “no”. But to those of us who’ve discovered the magic of audiobooks, auditing can actually be superior to reading. A great narrator reading a great book takes things to a whole new level. Even if the recording is mediocre, the reader still tends to retain more of the material. The biggest drawback? Audiobooks are linear, and there’s no way to take notes. With a paper book, things are more “random access” (which is great for nonfiction) and you’re free to mark the hell out of the pages.

When Kim and I first started dating in early 2012, we’d both been out of the habit of reading for a while. Things didn’t get any better during the next three years. But when we started our RV trip, things changed. Suddenly we didn’t have our old habits to fall back on. We had less access to easy entertainment. We had to entertain ourselves.

As a result, we both began reading again. (In fact, we made that a priority before we left Portland. We each brought a shoebox of paperbacks with us.)

Over the past six months, I’ve read (among others):

  • Colin Woodard’s American Nations. This is an interesting (if flawed) look at how the U.S. is a country made up of eleven smaller “nations”. Each nation is a cultural unit unto itself with it’s own political and social standards. Sure, we as a country share some commonalities, but there’s a reason Kim and I feel like foreigners here in the South. We’re from the Left Coast, and our values are very different from the folks we’re around right now. To my mind, the main flaw with the book is where the author divides his nations. To him, it’s an academic exercise based on statistics. It’s like he hasn’t really experienced the areas he’s writing about. If he had, he’d probably split things up differently. (When taken with Founding Brothers, American Nations has helped me understand that the U.S. was never actually “united”. We’ve always been divided — and probably always will be.)
  • James Michener’s Centennial. Michener is one of Kris’ favorite authors. The entire 23 years we were together, she tried to convince me to read him but I never made the time. My mistake. He’s great! I started reading Centennial as we approached northeast Colorado, where the novel takes place. Over about 1000 pages, the author explores the history of this region in a way that makes it come alive. Great stuff. I now plan to read Chesapeake before we explore Virginia in the spring.
  • Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This is a book I like to revisit every couple of years. I enjoy the whole fiction/philosophy subgenre, and books like Siddhartha and The Razor’s Edge always bring me back for more. (Apparently this genre is called bildungsroman. It’s a thing.) Kim and I listened to most of Motorcycle Maintenance as we drove across Montana and the Dakotas, where the story takes place. For hours at a time, the cab of the RV was quiet as we listened to Pirsig’s discussion of Quality. More fun than you might think.
  • Willa Cather’s My Antonía and O Pioneers!. While stuck in South Dakota, I re-read Cather’s amazing My Antonía, which explores what life was like for immigrant families on the plains of Nebraska during the 1800s. I followed that up with O Pioneers!, which is more in the same vein. I prefer the former with its many anecdotes of death and destruction. These books are bleak, just like the land they describe.
  • Charles Portis’ True Grit. Most folks only know this as a movie. That’s too bad. True Grit is one of the best books I’ve ever read. No joke. It’s fantastic. The main character, Maddie Ross, has one of the strongest narrative voices I’ve ever encountered, with a distinct worldview that just can’t be conveyed on film. This is a short book (I read it once in one sitting) and it’s hilarious. Like Jonathan Strange, the author is funny funny funny although many readers miss the humor by taking everything at face value.

I’ve also begun reading science fiction again after an almost twenty-year lull. I’ve read (or re-read):

Right now, I’m reading Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (fun space opera with excellent character observation) and auditing The Millionaire Next Door. (The latter is homework for future Money Boss articles.)

I’m pleased with how much I’ve read recently. And Kim has read even more than I have! (I sometimes get distracted by blogs and Reddit.) It feels good to re-enter the world of words.

One big difference between how I read today and how I used to read? Most of my current reading is done on the Kindle. Yes, yes. I love paper books too, and I’ll always have them. Paper books are especially good for nonfiction (for reasons mentioned above). But when traveling, my Kindle is a lifesaver. It contains hundreds of books — but is smaller and lighter than even one. In the eight years since the first Kindle was released, I’ve purchased 310 books for the device.

Note: I prefer the “old-fashioned” Kindle Voyage with a black-and-white screen and mechanical buttons for turning pages. I have the Kindle app on my iPad, of course, and I do use it, but when I’m reading for extended periods — especially for bed — I want to not be using a computer or iPad-type screen. The Kindle’s “digital ink” is easier on my eyes and doesn’t disrupt my sleep patterns. (If I read the iPad before bed, I have trouble staying asleep.) Plus, my Kindle Voyage is tiny and light. I love it. It may be my favorite electronic device — and that’s high praise, coming from me!

Also on this trip, I started listening to audiobooks while falling asleep. I generally don’t recommend this. If you listen to books at bedtime, you’ll nod off after a few minutes, and the next night you’ll have to struggle to find the last place you heard. But I sleep well while listening to books, so I’ve found a way to make it work for me.

My secret? I only listen to books I know very, very well. On this trip, for instance, I’ve listened to The Lord of the Rings three or four times. I know the series by heart, so it doesn’t matter where I fall asleep. (Plus it’s fun to wake in the middle of the night and hear more of the narration.) My other go-to is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which is probably my favorite audiobook ever. So good!

There you have it: A run-down of my recent reading habits. Now it’s your turn. Based on what you see here, do you have any recommendations? Because it’s fun to read about the places we visit, I’m looking for books that are able to capture regional character. I also want to continue kindling my passion for science fiction. And, as always, I’m interested to hear about good financial books. (If you have recommendations for great books read by great narrators, that’d be awesome too.) What should I read next?

A Portrait of the Artist: My Development as a Writer

I’ve loved words and books for as long as I can remember. As a boy, I was always eager for my parents to read to me: Harry the Dirty Dog, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Millions of Cats, Tikki Tikki Tembo, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. The Giving Tree, Anything by Dr. Seuss. Like most children, I enjoyed the pictures in these books, but what I really loved was the stories.

In grade school, most kids couldn’t wait until recess. Me? I couldn’t wait until storytime. I was always eager for the teacher to read to us: A Wrinkle in Time, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, TheLittle House on the Prairie series, The Mad Scientists’ Club, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Great Brain, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

Eventually, I began to write my own stories. The first story I can remember writing was “The Meanest Inchworm”. To call it a story is generous, I suppose. I was in the third grade, and my creative ambition far outstripped my narrative abilities. But by the fourth grade, I was regularly writing two-page tales.

Mr. Zagyva had a clever story-generating system. Each week, we had writing time. During writing time, we’d pull story elements from a hat: place, plot, protagonist, and so on. So, for instance, I might draw “the moon” from the places, “someone is lost” from the plots, and “a little boy” from the protagonists. I’d then have to construct a story from these random combinations.

In fifth and sixth grades we wrote stories too. As I wrote (and read) more, my skills improved. So did my ambition. I remember once in Miss Bell’s class we were supposed to write a two-page story about a trip to the zoo. My story was ten pages long and I turned the topic on its head. I wrote about being kidnapped by an alien named Gloops who wanted to make me a part of his interstellar menagerie. (Geeks in the crowd will recognize this as the plot to an episode of Star Trek. My homage was unintentional.)

As I got older, I wrote more. In junior high school, I wrote stories for the school paper. (My grandest effort was a multi-part cliffhanger about Donald McRonald, a serial killer who poisoned people with fast-food hamburgers.) I also began dabbling in poetry. By the time I reached high school, I often wrote in my spare time — just for kicks.

It was in high school that I got serious about writing. The English department at Canby High School was phenomenal. Not only were the teachers supportive but they actively encouraged me (and other kids) to push beyond my expectations. Mr. Nichols pulled me out of sophomore English and had me write independently. I designed my own curriculum. Mr. Sanvitale recruited me to work on the school literary magazine, and eventually I became the editor. And Mr. Dage took on a handful of us writing nerds to help foster our development for an entire semester.

Compared to high school, my college English classes were a disappointment. Not only were they less rigorous, but the teachers seemed less practical — more, well, woo-woo. I’m sure that Willamette had some good English professors during the late 1980s, but (with the exception of Mr. Strelow) I didn’t end up in their classes. Still, I continued to write. I continued to work on (and edit) the school literary magazine. Gradually, however, my writing moved from fiction and poetry to personal essays.

After I graduated, I entered a period of hibernation. From 1991 until 1997, I wrote very little. Very little. It wasn’t until I started my web journal during the summer of 1997 that I began to write in earnest again. I re-discovered how much I loved telling stories.

To revitalize my skills, I took writing classes at the local community college. Most of the other students were kids and not serious about writing. (Many were looking for an easy class to pad their GPA.) But a handful of older folks were serious about writing and producing serious work. The instructors knew who we were and would ask us to stay after class to provide personal feedback. It was in these classes that I wrote some of my best short stories. (While cleaning house earlier this year, I found a bunch of these stories buried in the bottom of a box. I spent a couple of hours reading them and was impressed. They were better than I had remembered.)

A large part of my development as a writer has been my development as a reader. When I was younger, I mostly read fantasy and science fiction. I’m still fond of speculative fiction, but as I’ve grown older my tastes have changed. Now I like historical fiction and historical non-fiction. I like philosophy and pop psychology. And after working with professional editors over the past five years, I’ve come to appreciate carefully crafted magazine articles written for mass consumption. Writing simply is tougher than it looks!

Here’s another thing that’s helped my development as a reader over the past eighteen years: Our book group. In 1996, Kris and I formed the Elm Street Book Group with one of my former English teachers (Mr. Dage) and his wife. The group has met every month since November 1996. Along the way, we’ve read a crazy variety of books. Some of them (House Made of Dawn, Mutant Message Down Under) have sucked. Others (Mutiny on the Bounty, How Green Was My Valley) have been shockingly good. But each has helped me grow as a reader — and a writer.

This month, to celebrate our eighteenth anniversary, our book group has come full circle. We’re reading Trout Kill by Paul Dage, one of our founding members and my former high-school English teacher. It’s sort of a surreal experience, actually, to be a professional writer who is reading a novel from one of the men who taught you to write. (Not to mention that Paul has become a real-life friend over the past thirty years.) It’s even more surreal to be marking up the book with the same sorts of comments the author used to put on the papers I submitted in his class: “too many adjectives”, “too much repetition”, “this may be a crutch word”, “show, don’t tell”.

Here’s the most important thing I’ve learned during my almost forty years (!!!) as a writer: You never stop growing. Yes, you’re a better writer now than you’ve ever been. Yes, you can look back on your older work and wonder why you saw fit to publish it. Yes, your style has evolved over time. But the process isn’t finished. Good writers continue to grow. They read writing manuals. They take writing classes. They read good books (and bad) and try to figure out what works (and what doesn’t). Real writers don’t shy from criticism and feedback. In fact, they revel in it.

Kathleen and I have begun working on a joint writing project. “How do you feel about me editing your work?” I asked during one of our first meetings. “Some writers get uptight about it.”

Kathleen laughed. “J.D.,” she said. “Edit away. I’m not precious about my words. And I know you’re not either.” She’s right. I used to be precious about my words — I hated to be told that something didn’t work or that my sentences were sloppy — but now I welcome constructive criticism. My goal is to entertain and inform my readers, and to become a better writer. If I don’t listen to what my readers have to say, I’ll never improve as a writer. I’ll stagnate. I don’t want that.

I’ve loved words and books for as long as I can remember. I want other people to love words and books as much as I do. The best way for me to be an effective evangelist for the written language is to become more proficient with it each passing week. And so I’ll continue to take classes, to read books (both good and bad), to write stories, and to listen to my editors. There’s no such thing as a perfect writer — but I want to be the best writer I can be.

Lost in Translation

All day long, I think about Spanish. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I think in Spanish (though this never lasts for long). When I’m not working on my Spanish, I wish I were. And sometimes, like last night, I’ll stay up long after Kris has gone to bed just so I can read more Spanish or do more flashcards.

My favorite activity is translation. I love taking a Spanish-language book or poem or song or comic and working out the English translation. It’s such lovely, imprecise work. (Aly and I have had some good conversations about how translation is never an exact thing because words in different languages never have direct analogs, and because of cultural nuances.)

Here’s a poem I’ve been working on today, a poem by Amado Nervo, a Mexican writer from a hundred years ago. This poem is called “En Paz“, or “At Peace”. It’s about a man nearing the end of his life.

En Paz por Amado Nervo

Muy cerca de mi ocaso, yo te bendigo, vida,
porque nunca me diste ni esperanza fallida,
ni trabajos injustos, ni pena inmerecida;

porque veo al final de mi rudo camino
que yo fui el arquitecto de mi propio destino;

que si extraje la miel o la hiel de las cosas,
fue porque en ellas puse hiel o mieles sabrosas:
cuando planté rosales, coseché siempre rosas.

…Cierto, a mis lozanías va a seguir el invierno:
¡mas tú no me dijiste que mayo fuese eterno!

Hallé sin duda largas noches de mis penas;
mas no me prometiste tú sólo noches buenas;
y en cambio tuve algunas santamente serenas…

Amé, fui amado, el sol acarició mi faz.
¡Vida, nada me debes! ¡Vida, estamos en paz!

And here is my very amateur translation, with an attempt to keep things poetic:

At Peace by Amado Nervo

As I approach my twilight, I bless you, Life,
because you never gave me false hope,
nor unjust labor, nor undeservéd pain;

because I see at the end of my long journey
that I was the maker of my own destiny;

that if I’ve taken sweetness or bitterness from things,
it was because I put sweetness or bitterness in them:
when I planted roses, I always harvested roses.

Indeed, my blossoms will continue into winter:
Although you never promised me an eternal spring!

It’s true that I’ve had long nights filled with pain and sorrow;
but you never promised that I’d only have good nights;
and in exchange, some nights were holy and serene.

I loved, was loved, and the sun caressed my face.
Life, you owe me nothing! Life, we are at peace!

I’ll freely admit that I may have messed up this translation in places. I’m not familiar with many Spanish idioms, and I suspect there are a few phrases here that I’ve translated literally but which ought to be taken in another way. (“Trabajos injustos“, for instance, and “pena inmerecida“.) But I’ve done my best to convert a beautiful Spanish poem into English.

Note: Here’s another example of translation difficulties — at least for me. There are several subtle different ways to translate the line “cuando planté rosales, coseché siempre rosas“. Rosales could be “roses” or it could be “rosebushes”. Rosas could be “roses” or it could be “pink” (or “pinks”). The latter may always imply the color — I’m not sure. So, how does one translate this? For me, to get the meaning that I think the author is going for and to remain poetic, I used the English word “rose” in both cases. But I could be wrong.

Back when our book group read the first volume of Proust, I remember that Pam complained that the translation was imprecise. She wanted it to be literal. The translation we read was the classic from C.K. Scott Moncrieff, who translated for mood and feeling and not exactly word for word. This bugged Pam. It didn’t bug me.

Note: For instance, the literal translation of the title to Proust’s huge novel is In Search of Lost Time, but Moncrieff translated it as Remembrance of Things Past, which was more poetic, a reference to Shakespeare, and attempted to capture the mood of the work. The modern, literal translation of the second volume’s title is “In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower”, which is hideous. Do the literalists actually like this? Moncrieff translated it as “Within a Budding Grove”, which is poetic and hints at the sexual awakening without being so overtly clinical.

The more I learn about languages, the less I like word-for-word translations. They may capture the technical meanings, but they don’t convey the deeper dimensions, the wonder behind the words.

I still have a lot of Spanish to learn — I’ve barely begun my journey — but I look forward to lots and lots of future translating. It’s my favorite part of this process.

Jane Austen’s Fight Club

I love it when two great (but unrelated) things get mashed together. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Jane Austen’s Fight Club.

It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty damn close. (For those of you who need some context: Fight Club is one of my favorite movies, and not because of the fighting — it’s about much much more than that. I think you can figure the Jane Austen stuff out for yourself.)

Food Rules

Tonight I read Michael Pollan’s latest book, Food Rules which is a short list of 64 guidelines for eating right. These are based on the findings in his last book, In Defense of Food, the thesis of which was:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Pollan’s food rules build on these three main points to create a sort of blueprint for right eating. “Think of these food policies as little algorithms designed to simplify your eating life,” he writes. “Adopt whichever ones stick and work best for you.” (This sounds remarkably like my personal motto: “Do what works for you.”)

After spending an hour reading Food Rules (I told you it was a short book!), I’ve decided to try incorporating the following policies in my own life. Some will be more difficult than others:

  • 3. Avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry.
  • 4. Avoid food products that contain high-fructose corn syrup.
  • 5. Avoid foods that have some form of sugar (or sweetener) listed in the top three ingredients.
  • 11. Avoid foods you see advertised on television.
  • 12. Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.
  • 13. Eat only foods that will eventually rot.
  • 17. Eat only foods that have been cooked by humans.
  • 22. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.
  • 23. Treat meat as a flavoring or special occasion food.
  • 27. Eat animals that have themselves eaten well.
  • 30. Eat well-grown food from healthy soil.
  • 35. Eat sweet foods as you find them in nature.
  • 39. Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.
  • 43. Have a glass of wine with dinner.
  • 44. Pay more, eat less. (By which Pollan means pay for quality.)
  • 45. Eat less.
  • 46. Stop eating before you’re full.
  • 49. Eat slowly.
  • 53. Serve a proper portion and don’t go back for seconds.
  • 56. Limit snacks to unprocessed plant foods.
  • 59. Try not to eat alone.
  • 60. Treat treats as treats.
  • 64. Break the rules once in a while.

For me, 2010 is the year of fitness. While writing my book, I sat at my desk all day, ate junk food from the minimart next door, and as a result gained 20 pounds. (And I was none too healthy before that.) As a result, I started this year at 213 pounds, chronic insomnia, and a complete lack of physical aptitude.

I lost five pounds last month, and I have good momentum moving into February. My breakfasts are good right now (1/3 cup Bob’s Red Mill whole grain cereal with flaxseed, 1/2 ounce of raisins, pinch of salt, 2 packets of Sugar in the Raw, and 1/4 cup of skim milk), but I haven’t found a routine with everything else. I want to work on that. In particular, I want to move toward eating far more fruits and vegetables than I do now. (Which shouldn’t be too difficult since that number is near zero.)

This ought to be interesting. I’ve never actually had rules for my eating before. (Have you? Do people actually set food rules for themselves?) Maybe I should print out my policies and carry them with me!

Note: I remember reading the article(s) Pollan wrote while prepping for this book. One of the rules that didn’t get included here (because it’s not about eating) is “don’t yuck somebody else’s yum”. I’ve really tried to adopt this. I’m a notorious yucker of other people’s yums. But I’ve also had fun scolding others for making faces at the food I like…

Benevolence and Enlightened Self-Interest

Over the weekend, I posted an article at Get Rich Slowly about the guilt of wealth. I was nervous about the piece, and almost didn’t share it. It felt too personal. In the end, though, I’m glad I did. It spurred one of the best discussions we’ve had at GRS in a very long time.

I find it curious that the conversation has veered toward a discussion of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. Rand wrote dreadful novels (in the sense that they were poorly written) filled with great ideas (in the sense that they sparked intellectual debate). Her ideas were brilliant, but she was repudiated by both the Left and the Right. Because Rand was a touch messianic, this caused her a bit of consternation.

Now, however, a curious thing has happened. One segment of the American conservative community has openly embraced Rand as an inspiration. They cling to that part of her ideology that rejects the notion of working for the benefit of others. In it they find reason to argue against the liberal agenda. (At the same time, these conservatives choose to ignore that Rand was about as atheistic as they come. She would be just as angry at their belief in god as she would be at the liberal desire for universal health care.)

Note: Most people pronounce “Ayn” like “Ann”. Most people are wrong. “Ayn” is actually pronounced to rhyme with “mine”.

When I was young — just out of college — I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and many of Rand’s other works. I had a vast library of Rand materials, much of it obscure. There’s no question that her work had a profound effect on my life. It continues to have such an effect to this day. Much of my personal philosophy is based on her work.

Much of my philosophy — but not all of it.

In particular, I’m troubled by what my cousin Nick calls the “Eddie Willers problem”. In Atlas Shrugged, the great men and women of the world go on strike. They follow the great John Galt to a secluded spot in the Rocky Mountains where they establish a sort of industrialist Utopia in which no man lives his life for any other man. And when they go on strike, the world stops. It cannot function without them.

One of these great men is Dagny Taggart, the main character of the book. (And yes, I know she’s not a man. But using this terminology is hilarious to me, especially given Rand’s thoughts on the subject. (She believed no woman should ever be President of the United States.)) Taggart is the manager of a railroad empire and one of the great industrialist thinkers who goes on strike.

When she leaves, though, she leaves behind her loyal friend and assistant, Eddie Willers. Willers is no great thinker. He’s no rich capitalist. He’s just a hard-working loyal man. And he’s left behind. He’s not good enough to be included in the little “industrialist club”. As Nick says, this is a Problem.

It’s also a problem that Rand argues against altruism. She believes that altruism is evil, the direct opposite of enlightened self-interest. Good objectivists abhor altruism. This has always bugged me.

To return to where I started, in the thread over at GRS, a commenter named Amy pointed to an article on the benefits and hazards of Ayn Rand by Nathaniel Branden. Branden was once a close associate with Rand. She considered him the embodiment of her ideals. But after nearly 20 years together, they had a split in 1968, and Branden went his own way. In 1984, after Rand’s death, he gave a talk, and this paper is the written version of his lecture.

First, he covers an overview of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, enumerating ten main points:

  1. That reality is what it is, that things are what they are, independent of anyone’s beliefs, feelings, judgments or opinions—that existence exists, that A is A;
  2. That reason, the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by the various senses, is fully competent, in principle, to understand the facts of reality;
  3. That any form of irrationalism, supernaturalism, or mysticism, any claim to a nonsensory, nonrational form of knowledge, is to be rejected;
  4. That a rational code of ethics is possible and is derivable from an appropriate assessment of the nature of human beings as well as the nature of reality;
  5. That the standard of the good is not God or the alleged needs of society but rather “Man’s life,” that which is objectively required for man’s or woman’s life, survival, and well-being;
  6. That a human being is an end in him- or herself, that each one of us has the right to exist for our own sake, neither sacrificing others to self nor self to others;
  7. That the principles of justice and respect for individuality autonomy, and personal rights must replace the principle of sacrifice in human relationships;
  8. That no individual—and no group—has the moral right to initiate the use of force against others;
  9. That force is permissible only in retaliation and only against those who have initiated its use;
  10. That the organizing principle of a moral society is respect for individual rights and that the sole appropriate function of government is to act as guardian and protector of individual rights.

Next, he summarizes the benefits of Rand’s world view and explains why it holds such a powerful draw for so many young people. Including me. If you want to know the origins of my personal philosophy, you can see them in the ten points above.

Note: Although these points form the basis of my philosophy, they don’t describe it fully. For one, I’m still informed by the religions of my youth. For another, Rand is an absolutist. I am not. The older I get, the more of a relativist I become. At Get Rich Slowly, my motto is “do what works for you”. In truth, that is my motto for life. Rand would hate that.

Branden’s article/lecture continues, however, by describing the problems with Rand’s philosophy. Eventually, he makes the brilliant point that Rand conflates sacrifice and benevolence (emphasis added):

I am referring to the principle of benevolence, mutual helpfulness and mutual aid between human beings. I believe it is a virtue to support life. I believe it is a virtue to assist those who are struggling for life. I believe it is a virtue to seek to alleviate suffering. None of this entails the notion of self-sacrifice. I am not saying that we should place the interests of others above our own. I am not saying that our primary moral obligation is to alleviate the pain of others. I am not saying that we do not have the right to place our own interests first. I am saying that the principle of benevolence and mutual aid is entirely compatible with an ethic of self-interest and more: An ethic of self-interest logically must advocate the principle of benevolence and mutual aid.

Given that we live in society, and given that misfortune or tragedy can strike any one of us, it is clearly in our self-interest to live in a world in which human beings deal with one another in a spirit of mutual benevolence and helpfulness. Could anyone seriously argue that the principle of mutual aid does not have survival value?


There are too many immature, narcissistic individuals whose thinking stops at the point of hearing that they have no obligation to sacrifice themselves to others. True enough, they don’t. Is there nothing else to be said on the subject of help to others? I think there is and I think so precisely on the basis of the objectivist standard of ethics: man’s/woman’s life and well-being.

Go, Nathaniel Branden!

One topic that I would love to research more (and write about more) is social capital, the idea that there’s a sort of hidden economy of neighborliness and mutual aid. In Robet Putnam’s influential Bowling Alone, he argues that the decline in social capital in this country is responsible for many of its social ills. Social capital is a sort of glue that bonds society together. (Note that social capital is not always good. Think of the KKK.)

Rand would reject the notion of social capital. It doesn’t fit her philosophical system. Yet social capital is very real and very important. As Branden says in the quote above, the principle of mutual aid has survival value. When we give without expectation of return, we’re improving our community and our society. We’re making the world a better place. And that is in your self-interest. Just because you cannot see an immediate benefit from some action does not mean it’s not in your interest.

I think this point is lost on a lot of businesses. For the past six months, I’ve been working closely with a business that is moving into a new realm. This business is expert at doing one thing, and is trying to leverage new technology to do it in a new way. (Sorry to be vague; it can’t be helped.) But this business has repeatedly demonstrated an inability to look beyond the immediate benefits. If they can’t see a payoff today, they’re not going to take action or make a deal. This is unfortunate. As a result, they’ve missed several opportunities to improve their environment. And they’ve missed out on possible future rewards.

I don’t know where I’m going with all of this. I just thought the discussion at Get Rich Slowly was interesting, and I had more to say, but this seemed like a better forum than over there. I’m glad to have found the paper from Nathaniel Branden. I’ve bookmarked it for future reference.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll return to my life of enlightened self-interest (with a touch of benevolence)…


Kris and I spent the weekend in Lincoln City with Michael and Laura and their two children, Ethan and Sophia. We had a fine relaxing time, including good conversation — and a round of miniature golf.

One strange thing we noted: Up the beach from the rental house were several large pieces of driftwood. Driftlogs, if you will. And one of them was burning. There were no flames jutting up from the thing, but it was smoldering with hot embers. This was an enormous log — 20-30 feet long and maybe 8 feet in diameter (though there was a U-shaped gouge down its length) — and it was hot and smoking at both ends. What gives?

Over the course of the weekend, I was able to ply my trade: indoctrination of children. Here we see Ethan and Sophia falling under the sway of a bad, bad man:

Maybe next time I can introduce them to Advanced Comics. Heh.

Speaking of comics indoctrination, Lisa e-mailed me last week and actually asked me to help her indoctrinate Albert. Like I’m going to refuse that? Albert doesn’t know it, but he has some Tintin in his future. And some Little Lulu. And some Disney ducks from Carl Barks.

While we were at Lincoln City, I checked out a couple of bookstores. The first is actually about 20 miles from the coast, almost at the casino. I don’t know what it’s called, but I remember that longer ago — ten years? twenty? — it was a decent bookstore with a fine collection of comic books. It’s not longer a decent bookstore (if it ever was), but it does have some comics.

Unfortunately, they’re all kept in a glass display case. The woman who helped me seemed intent on showing them to me one at a time. Since there were a couple of hundred, I gave up rather quickly. There were some comics I wanted, but they were priced way too high (four times what they ought to have been), and I wasn’t about to spend all day with an old woman piecing them out to me.

Another used bookstore — near the outlet mall — was only rather average. It did have copious collections of railroad and radio books, though. Strange subjects for specialization, but there you go.

But there was one bookstore that took my breath away. It’s amazing. Robert’s Bookshop is located south of the downtown area near the theater multiplex. (Kris says it’s across from the Christmas store.) It doesn’t look like much from outside, but inside it’s a labyrinth of old books. There are paperbacks and hardbacks. There are comics and magazines. There are science fiction books and personal finance books and children’s books and cookbooks.

It’s been a l-o-n-g time since I let loose in a bookstore, but I let loose in Robert’s Bookshop. And I don’t regret it. This store is sort of like what Powell’s used to be back when the latter was a decent bookstore. (Powell’s is a hollow shell of its former self nowadays.)

Our trip to Lincoln City was about more than books and comics, though. I do have some video recorded. If I can find time to edit it, I’ll post a bit to YouTube.

Take What You Want, Leave All the Rest Behind

On Twitter, Laura Roeder recently pointed to a short blog post from Derek Sivers, founder and former president of CD Baby. Sivers says that books (or articles) are like mirrors: They reveal more about you than they do about the author:

After I interviewed Tim Ferriss, some people said, “But he comes across too cocky.”

After I interviewed Amber Rubarth, some people said, “But she’s only successful because she’s so pretty.”

After I interviewed Tom Williams, some people said, “But there’s some controversy about his new company.”

I hear that as, “Now that I’ve proven they’re not perfect, I don’t have to apply any of the lessons from their story.”

But that’s missing the point that those articles are really about you, not them…All that really matters is what you do with the ideas there. Apply them to your own life in your own way. It was never about them. It’s about you.

I agree.

I’ve heard too many people lately willing to discard the good that somebody has produced just because they disagree with other parts of that person’s life. Is Michael Jackson’s brilliant work invalidated simply because of allegations that he was a pedophile? Is the power of Dave Ramsey’s debt-reduction techniques any less just because his religious views are different than yours? Is Herge’s Tintin any less wonderful because he was a Nazi sympathizer?

It’s possible to hate the artist but love the art.