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What Did We Learn From Lex Fridman's Book List?
I guess we learned not to do it again.
I’m grateful to Lex Fridman for kicking off an extended round of discourse about whether you should read books, and the precise situations in which it is cringe or based to do so. Book discourse returning to the zeitgeist is good for two reasons: for one, us readers momentarily become a little more high-status, receiving opportunities to flaunt good taste. It’s also good because, somehow, Regress Studies posts blow up when they’re about people arguing about reading books (for ex, Is It Okay To Finish Books?). Don’t ask me why, you’re the ones reading.
The online debate over whether the above tweet is embarrassing took way longer than most cycles, but it’s time to reflect. What exactly did we learn from Lex Fridman and his horrid little list?
Don’t grow up outside the United States high school education system.
This one’s easy: avoid widespread mockery by having attended an institution of secondary education that had you read Animal Farm already.
Don’t aspire to read books other people read in high school.
The days of the broad, middle-brow American education are over. There’s no more alpha in catching up on the canon. You don’t still go to the opera, do you? The whole historical project of a literate middle-class is dead, and here you are scrabbling around in the ruins with Camus and Marcus Aurelius.
Some folks took this opportunity to twist the knife on some old-fashioned classics: The Old Man and the Sea is trite, Animal Farm is overcooked, or fans of Dune and Hitchhiker’s Guide are incredibly annoying (fair enough on the last couple).
Confession: the summer before I went to college, I built myself a reading list that in many ways looked like Fridman’s, albeit shorter. It seemed as though my high school alma mater had left out some key pieces of the American teenage canon, and I expected this would prove embarrassing in college, somehow. On The Road was there. Brave New World was too. Catcher in the Rye was on there, as was The Great Gatsby.
This wasn’t the first time I’d done this, actually. When I was homeschooled for a few years before high school, I worried I wouldn’t know any of the music 9th graders were listening to, so I spent the summer reading Pitchfork reviews. In retrospect this was a massive waste of time, but I did learn about Burial. And avoided breaking the following rule,
Don’t announce your list in advance.
This is a strange rule, since we tend to love lists of planned aspirations for the new year. What is it about the book list that violates a social convention when a list of goals or practices doesn’t? Something about it looks gauche, overconfident maybe. By contrast, doing it after the fact gives you an air of sprezzatura. Here’s a good example.
Announcing your plan also opens you up to criticism about your particular approach, such as:
Don’t read a book a week.
This maneuver brought on lots of the criticism. Why is The Little Prince taking up a full week, while The Brothers K takes no longer? The problem, one surmises, is that Fridman is a content maker, and he’s thinking in terms of his content production schedule. Ideally the videos drop one a week, even if the books don’t.
Or maybe it’s the idea that reading a book a week as a practice is anti-intellectual. Lots of thoughtful people I respect feel this way.
But they’re wrong. Yes, you’re allowed to savor books, to return to them yearly, and mine them in their secret depths, and you probably should. But consider that you will die, and on your bedside table will be a book you’d been meaning to read and didn’t quite get to. Make yearly reading goals and you just might get to it. Metricizing and measuring good things is dangerous, but I do think it’s different when you’re doing it to yourself.
There is a tension here between reading as an act of love and the Goodreadsification that enables some of us to do it. The best readers I know, people who attend deeply to words, are also tracking their metrics religiously. One friend wrote a great essay - in English, cribbing Houellebecq, “when one loves life one doesn’t read.” But she read 95 books last year and counted them all.
Don’t have online enemies.
Be ye therefore wise as snakes and innocent as doves. And avoid creating a persona that relies on an affiliation with higher education that you may not have.
Have some personality.
If you must read the unoriginal list, do it in private. When you announce your reading list, it should be subtly and tastefully esoteric. Don’t go crazy or extravagant: you’re allowed almost anything if you layer in the right amount of normie. Any one of the books on Fridman’s list (maybe not Sapiens) would have been acceptable alongside a 19th-century novel of manners, or a popular yet staid academic history. Witness Tyler Cowen, who, in his own 2023 reading list, includes “Many books in Indian history, for the 1600-1800 period,” “Twentieth century Polish poetry,” and Goethe in the original German.
Cowen is “reading in projects,” as they say, using his love of the written word to propel his own understanding in realms he’s curious about. By contrast, Fridman’s list doesn’t have a coherent theme. It’s literally “anything people highly recommend,” because his job is to create content for a mass audience. This makes him look translucent and wan, but it also strips reading of one of its most important qualities, that it allows one to enter a particular community of readers.
Here’s Machiavelli, writing after his exile from the city he loved, talking about being welcomed into the republic of letters. It’s a quote classicists love because it rings so true to the experience of deep reading as a shared practice.
When evening comes, I return home and go into my study. On the threshold I strip off my muddy, sweaty, workday clothes, and put on the robes of court and palace, and in this graver dress I enter the antique courts of the ancients and am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. And there I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity, reply to me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death: I pass indeed into their world.
W.E.B. Du Bois echoes Machiavelli, 400 years later.
I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil.
One thing both guys are getting at is that reading, for them, isn’t homework. So if you’re going to post about it, it’s gotta look real.
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