Doug Casey on Books – Doug’s Ideal Library

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Recently by Doug Casey: Russell Means


L: Doug, I’ve heard from several readers that they are looking forward to our talk about books — books in addition to those on Speculative Fiction which we’ve already discussed. So, have you perused your library and are you ready? Or did you decide not to bother, since the world will end the day our next conversation is to be published?

Doug: Ah, the Mayan Calendar. Nobody except for a few highly specialized archaeologists would know anything about it if it weren’t for books. But the people who take it seriously don’t read books. They almost certainly read about it only in those tabloids you buy at grocery checkout stands — or perhaps from watching TV, where the presenter is encapsulating a tabloid article. Further proof that it’s not what people know that’s the problem, it’s what they think they know that just ain’t so. Anyway, the world is supposed to end on the winter solstice, not December 12, the way I heard it. I’ll be celebrating the winter solstice — actually, the summer solstice down here in Argentina — while that particular class of morons is awaiting the end of the world.

As for books, we can talk about that, but I have to say, much to my shame, that I hardly read books anymore — not since I got a computer. I feel terrible about this — even guilty.

L: I didn’t think you were capable of feeling guilty. Regret, perhaps, but guilt seems most un-Doug-like.

Doug: Well, my dictionary says guilt is a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense or wrong, whether real or imagined. And not using my time in the best way possible to gain more understanding of the way the world works does feel like a wrong against myself. So, although I like to avoid acts of either commission or omission that will make me feel guilty, I think I may stand somewhat guilty here.

But there are significant mitigating circumstances. I’ve gone to reading articles — anything you want is available on the Internet. Although reading books is part of my mental self-image, what I wind up reading most of the time these days is a wide variety of articles online. I read articles about books mostly from dreadfully left-wing magazines like the New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and such. But by the time you finish all these articles, you don’t have time to actually sit down and read a book. Talk about perverse… although, at this moment on my bed stand, there’s a book on the Dowager Empress, and I’m reading that for about a half-hour every night.

L: I can see why you might feel distraught; it’s like going to class after reading the Cliff’s Notes instead of the assigned classics. You might retain the gist, no one might even be able to tell, but you would know, and still feel like you’re cheating. On the other paw, you get the gist of many more books this way, and feed that guru-machine in your head with more ideas. That can’t be all bad. And the fact that you make this choice says you’re getting greater value this way — or you wouldn’t do it.

I also don't read as much as I used to, but it’s not because I read magazine articles about books. It’s because I can get WiFi on airplanes these days and so many other places, that I can now work during times that I was previously forced to pull out a book in order to avoid boredom. I used to read several books a week, and now I’m lucky to get through one a month.

But it’s not just work; you can play chess online with your wife while you’re in the tub and she’s out in the garden. We’ve got instant access, not just to books, movies, and games, but to other people, 24/7. It’s not all crap, as some critics like to say; it’s not even all entertainment. A lot of it is useful, valuable, and even profitable. Still, the quiet times that we used to use to read simply don’t exist anymore — not unless we make a real, conscious effort to carve such time out of our busy days.

Doug: You’re absolutely correct about that. Pareto’s Law operates online, as everywhere: 80% of everything is crap, and the other 20% breaks down ad infinitum with a repetition of the 80-20 rule. As with so many other things, it means that you have to have self-discipline if you want to control the shape of your future self. Anyone can grow in a reliable and coherent way, as opposed to ending up an accidental sum of the random things that happen to them, but it’s hard work. So few people bother.

On the whole, these new connectivity technologies are a mixed bag; the plusses are obvious, but the minuses are serious. I’m not on Twitter, and though I do have a Facebook account, I never ever use it. Generally, these things consume huge amounts of time, usually only to transmit trivial information; it just serves to clutter your mind. The Kindle revolution, on the other hand, offers huge advantages — you can read almost any book you want, anywhere, and never have to remember to take the right one with you. David Galland is a big Kindle fan. But I still don’t cotton to Kindles, as much as I appreciate the concept. Maybe I’m just a dinosaur, but I prefer reading words printed on paper.

L: Well, I’m younger than both of you, and I still prefer physical books. I own thousands of them, lining my shelves, gathering dust … but I just like them. I like the way it feels to hold one in my hands. I like the way they smell. I like the sound and feel of turning a page, all alone, deep in the night.

Doug: Me too. And the books in my library won’t disappear when the power goes out. Electronic forms of data storage seem like an unstable way to try to ensure the survival of civilization in the face of EMPs and cyberweapons that target data itself. This is one reason why, as we finish up building the infrastructure at La Estancia de Cafayate, we’re putting in a significant library of physical books. But it’s also for the same reasons you give; I just want to sit in a comfortable leather chair, smoking a fine Cuban cigar, sipping my wine, and reading a great book in a great library. Just as I insisted we put in a world-class gymnasium and a world-class health spa, I insisted that we’d have a large and well-selected library.

L: Which brings us to the heart of the question: what does Doug Casey’s ideal library look like? I’m sure there’ll be a humidor…

Doug: No question about that! I probably own well over 5,000 books. Enough that there isn’t a snowball’s chance I’ll ever get to read but a fraction of them.

L: [Chuckles] And maybe over in the corner, a chair by an outlet for David’s Kindle. But the real question is: what would the selection of books look like? I guess you’d start with the classics, and maybe the first book on the list would be Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Doug: Yes, definitely. Gibbon’s book is not only fantastic literature, a great read, and very educational, but it’s also a laugh riot; the man had a real sense of humor. Who says ancient history has to be dry? It’s a perfect example of my favorite sort of reading — despite our conversation on speculative fiction, I actually prefer nonfiction to fiction. Good fantasies can be thought-provoking — my favorite certainly being The Lord of the Rings, which I read straight through in one weekend because I simply couldn’t put it down — but understanding what real people have done and are doing in the real world in more valuable and interesting to me. This is one reason why I’m such an avid student of Roman history. But Greek and medieval history too.

L: So what else, besides Gibbon?

Doug: Well, Gibbon was not an ancient himself, but I’d make sure we have annotated volumes of all the ancients we can get hold of, from Homer to Aristotle to Cato the Younger. Every educated person should read the Iliad and Odyssey. They’re rather long, about 15,000 and 12,000 lines respectively, but I find it quite… cosmic… to relate to minds from roughly 2,700 years in the past. And everyone should read Caesar’s De Bello Gallico. It’s simple enough that second-year Latin students read it in the original. And there are many books that have come out in recent years that take advantage of archaeological discoveries to better reconstruct the classical era.

L: I confess I have not read many of those; I think I’ll have to expand my own library.

Doug: Fewer things count as money more well spent. But I don’t read only ancient literature; more recent classics are an important cornerstone in the foundation of a good education. I’d start with a complete set of the works of Shakespeare and move forward from there. It sometimes seems to me you can almost absorb things from a book by osmosis, without even reading it — just by handling the volume.

L: I have an enormous and abiding respect for The Bard — it never ceases to amaze me how he could see human nature so clearly, write about it so powerfully, and do it all in rhyme. But I confess I’ve always found it hard work to actually sit down and read Shakespeare. And Chaucer I couldn’t read at all. I also tried reading Cervantes in the original Spanish, Don Quixote being such a hero of mine, but found it quite impenetrable.

Doug: Well, different strokes for different folks. I know you’re fluent — my Spanish is just a grade above what’s needed to deal with waiters and taxi drivers. But that’s a good point about classic works in other languages and translations into English… including Chaucer, which is slow going in the original. We’d want them all.

We’ll have a history section with all the greats, like Gibbon. Speaking of the value of books, I was just looking at compendium of quotes by Gibbon — his master work was originally published in eight fat volumes — and came across this: “The Germans, in the age of Tacitus, were unacquainted with the use of letters; and the use of letters is the principal circumstance that distinguishes a civilized people from a herd of savages incapable of knowledge or reflection. Without that artificial help, the human memory soon dissipates or corrupts the ideas entrusted to her charge; and the nobler faculties of the mind, no longer supplied with models or with materials, gradually forget their powers; the judgment becomes feeble and lethargic, the imagination languid or irregular.”

He was, incidentally, notwithstanding their illiteracy, a big fan of the Germans of that era. I suspect, however, that he’d compare today’s Germans to the Romans of the late empire — not nearly as admirable as their ancestors. Giants walked the earth in those days… but people have always believed that about the past.

L: Okay… I guess there’d be a pre-history section as well, though I’ve no idea what the most authoritative and respected works of paleoanthropology would be.

Doug: Yes, but I’m at a loss to name names. My library is scattered around the world — in Aspen, Auckland, and Buenos Aires — and I'm currently in a hotel room in Sao Paulo, which I’d describe as a super-sized version of LA, but without the charm. Hmmm… a Kindle would actually look pretty good at the moment.

But that brings us to the science section — or sections. There will be a comprehensive set of the best books on all the hard sciences, from basics to advanced study material, and cutting=edge research, as well as popular treatments like Erik Drexler’s seminal book on nanotechnology and Richard Dawkins’ books on genetics and reason. There are hundreds in that class.

L: Subscriptions to Scientific American and peer-reviewed journals?

Doug: Maybe some, but magazines pile up pretty quickly — that might be the sort of thing best left for the one computer we will allow in the corner. We’ll need one so people can browse a complete selection of The Teaching Company’s offerings. They are fantastic. I wish I’d bought shares in that company when I first discovered it… even though it’s private and has no need for capital, I’m sure. They’ve found the very best professors in the world in their respective subjects, and recorded command performances of their best lectures. These courses are so good, they by themselves are a major reason why going to college these days is such a waste of money. After all, the point of going to college is supposed to be to learn something, not just get a piece of paper that says you sat — or slept — through a bunch of typically second-rate classes. Being able to take these courses on your own, whenever you’re wide awake and rested, sitting in a perfect environment that suits your own needs, is just about the best way to educate yourself there is today.

L: You’re going to have a computer in your library? I think I’m shocked…

Doug: Well, there are such things as earphones. And we’ll have a wide selection of Teaching Company courses in the media theater for viewing or listening, along with hundreds of well-selected movies. A really good movie can actually outdo the book it’s scripted from. A lot of data is subtly presented on the silver screen. It’s quite true that one picture can be worth a thousand words. Movies are underrated as a means of transmitting culture.

L: Well, I’m glad the media theater won’t be in the library. Even with headphones, some people turn those things up so loud, you can hear their brains frying halfway down a packed 747. As for the one computer you allow in the library, maybe we could put it under one of those “cones of silence” like in the old Get Smart TV show.

Anyway, what about the so-called social sciences? Do you include only Austrian economists, maybe some Chicago School, and others you agree with? Or do you include works of the enemy, so you can better know him? Where others might hide sexually explicit material in a back room, does your “adult” section have Keynes and Marx?

Doug: We’ll have them all. It’s very dangerous to oppose something reflexively, if you’re not personally familiar with it. That’s one reason I subscribe to the magazines I mentioned earlier. It may entertain many people to actually try to read Das Kapital and see what all the fuss is about. Although I’ve only met one person who even claims to have made it through all three volumes…

L: You’re one up on me, then; I’ve never met such a person. Most seem content to point at it on the shelf, and assert that all is proven. Hm. We’re focusing on nonfiction, but your library will have all our favorite Speculative Fiction as well, won’t it?

Doug: Absolutely. What I’m really after, primarily, is to create a comfortable place where I can relax with a good book on any subject that might interest a renaissance man. Or maybe play a game of chess, or go, to mellow out with a friend. I may not solve any of the cosmic problems that have puzzled thinkers for thousands of years, but I’ll have fun passing the time until technology and magic become indistinguishable. Life consists, after all, of basically two things: thinking and doing. You have to keep a balance between them.

L: Perhaps you won’t resolve any ancient paradoxes, but you’ve said many times that as broad and deep an education as possible is an essential part of the education of a speculator. I think this is what distinguishes Casey Research from other market-analysis shops. Many people see patterns and build models that seem to have enough predictive power to make it worth betting on them — and I don’t just mean chartists — without reference to a deeper understanding of what’s going on in the world. The problem is that those patterns do seem to work, but only work as long as nothing changes. They can’t warn you when they are about to become obsolete. If you don’t have a really sound grasp of what’s going on in genetics, nanotech, communications tech, as well as global geopolitics, and current trends in psychology and social phenomena, you really open yourself up to being blindsided.

Doug: That’s exactly right. It’s much as we discussed on education in general. The more knowledge you have in your head, the better the chances that you’ll be able to transform that knowledge from a random accumulation of facts into wisdom and good judgment that can enable you to act profitably — and I don’t mean only in a financial sense. This is why I try to continue building up my knowledge and forging connections between the many things I learn about. For one thing, it makes life more interesting. For another, knowledge is a key to simple survival. You never know when you might be walking along a road and meet a sphinx who asks you three life-or-death questions.

L: [Chuckles] This is another way of looking at what we’ve been saying is the essence of successful speculation: turning intellectual capital into financial capital. The greater the intellectual capital, the greater the capacity to deploy it generating financial capital. Period.

Doug: Yes, intellectual capital can definitely be transformed into financial capital. And financial capital is helpful in gaining intellectual capital. Oddly enough, I don’t tend to read books on finance and investment. Almost everything you really need to know about these fields was summed up by Benjamin Graham in his classic masterpiece, The Intelligent Investor, over 60 years ago. Almost everything since has been a morass of contradictory and mostly worthless opinion. It’s better to grasp the fundamentals, study the world, draw your own conclusions, and seek to deploy your knowledge — far better than chasing after whatever the latest fashion in trading is. I’m not saying there aren’t excellent investment books — simply that you have to budget your time. Even a serious reader would be lucky to get through a thousand books in his life.

L: That’s interesting about not reading investment books. People often ask me if I read books to learn my trade — if there’s a book that can teach them to evaluate mineral-exploration companies as I do. There are some relevant titles out there, but there really isn’t anything that fully sums up what’s most important, in my view. Maybe I’ll write one someday, but right now, I’m too busy doing it to write about it.

Doug: Actually, you could take the past editions of the International Speculator, arrange them by subject, edit them, expand on them where necessary, and you’d have an excellent book on investing in mining. I’m twisting Marin Katusa’s arm to get him to do the same thing on energy. And actually, this constitutes a defense for not reading as many books as I once did. Reading well-done articles is like reading books on the installment plan. Articles tend to be tighter and more to the point than books. It’s arguable that you can acquire more knowledge reading 1,000 articles than you can reading 100 books of the same length, for that reason. Too many books tend to be padded articles.

L: Okay then. Thanks for a fun conversation — a bit less grim than usual.

Doug: You’re welcome.

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