What I’m Reading: Number 44 – The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain

Number 44: The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain Ah, yes. Finally a bit of light reading – Mark Twain…warning, there be spoilers directly ahead…stop now or don’t blame me. I picked this book up because this winter has been particularly gloomy and grey and rainy and wet and moldy here on the Oregon Coast and … Continue reading “What I’m Reading: Number 44 – The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain”

Number 44: The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain Ah, yes. Finally a bit of light reading – Mark Twain…warning, there be spoilers directly ahead…stop now or don’t blame me.

I picked this book up because this winter has been particularly gloomy and grey and rainy and wet and moldy here on the Oregon Coast and I thought maybe a little bit of Twain’s wit and humor would lighten things up. I probably should have read a review first…essentially, this is a story of Satan coming to a 17th century Austrian printshop and making friends with an apprentice and then teaching him about the futility of life and existence and the awfulness of humanity. Twain wrote this at the end of his life and it is essentially his version of Being and Nothingness – not an uplifting or funny story, but more of a rainy gray day book that you read just before you take out your shotgun and pull a Hemingway. Of course, if you are a Satanist or a fan of hating all of humanity, this tale might make you giddy.

A couple of things stand out – first of all the name Twain gives Satan which sounds more like a computer program or android name than that of the devil – are you ready for it: No. 44, New Series 864962 – the 44 part is partially understandable since Twain is partially exploring the idea of twofold or threefold selves Twain being two double twain would be 44 – so Twain is himself the devil revealing the ills of mankind – but the rest of it…no explanation was ever given. Twain wrote the book between 1890 and 1908 but never completed it nor published it. The other thing was Twain’s idea of there being a waking self, a dream self, and a soul self.

Here’s a trippy video about the name that I couldn’t manage to watch all the way through…

I think I’m going to go back to reading about economics and language…fiction has kind of bummed me out. Or maybe I’ll wait until there is sunshine. I started reading House of Sand and Fog and felt even more bummed out.

What I’m Reading: Money by D.H. Robertson Cambridge Economic Handbooks

I’ve always had an intellectual fascination with money and when I saw an old book on a shelf called “Money by D.H. Robertson“, my hope was that it would be a book about the origins and social dynamics of money through the ages – I have not yet found such a book and this looked like a possible candidate – but once again I was disappointed. Disappointed in not finding what I was looking for but delighted with what I found.

This incredibly readable and interesting little book edited by the famous economist John Maynard Keynes (arguably one of the the most influential economic policy makers of the 20th century – father of Keynesian Economics!) and written by D.H. Robertson is a textbook on (essentially) world banking practices written just prior to the stockmarket crash which led to the worldwide Great Depression and during the hieght of the recovery from what Robertson calls The Great Muddle – which was the confusion of banking practices and economic chaos that led to and followed up upon World War I. This little book was written prior to chaotic events of the Depression and World War II.

The chapters of this seemingly dull book about banking practices are each led off with a quote from Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass – which pretty well convinced me that what was to follow would be trip down the rabbit hole. I was not disappointed. The opening chapters were as close as I was to get to my desired study of the origins of money in that we are given a definition “anything which is accepted inthe payment of goods or in the discharge of other kinds of business obligations” – Robertson makes a good argument that the best argument for money is that it allows manufacturers the ability to acquire raw materials without having to trade their finished product for the materials – which the raw material producers may not need or have a use for. So, essentially, it simplifies things. He argues that for the consumer, it allows a freedom of choice and eliminates a large degree of waste which would follow from payment in kind. Finally, (and this is where this becomes more of a text about banking) the existence of money makes it possible for there to be loans and debts.

Later in the chapter, Robertson talks about how a downturn affects the businessman – how demand dries, then prices drop, then they drop below the level of profitability and then, and this is interesting how businessmen at different levels deal with a recession:

If he is old and wily and has made his pile he retires from business for a season and goes for a sea voyage or into the House of Commons or Congress. If he is young and ambitious or idealistic he keeps the ball rolling and the flag flying as best he can. If he is an average sort of manufacturerhe explains that while he adheres to his previous opinion that the finances of his business is no concern of the working classes, yet just so much financial knowledge as to see the absurdity of the existing trade-union rate is a thing which any workman should possess. In any case, early or late, he bows to his fate .. and restricts in greater or less degree the output of his product and two things happen…the world adopts a lower standard of comfort cutting off its nose, as it were, to spite its face. And men trained and willing to work find no work to do, and tramp about the streets with the parrot-cries of journalists about increased output ringing in their ears and growing rancor in their hearts.

“Thus money, which is a source of so many blessings to mankind, becomes also, unless we can control it, a source of peril and confusion.”

And with that the book dives into monetary policy, most of which has not been applicable since the gold and silver standards were abandoned and most of the world’s currency became fiat, that is money based on debt but without any actual source of backing. This is interesting reading, written in a lyrical style that is sometimes hard to correlate with economic policy. The chapter about economic policy during “The Great Muddle” is fascinating – looking at the root economic causes of the first world war from an economic rather than a political perspective is enlightening. The following chapter which delves into economic cycles is equally compelling as it most likely is the root of the entire Keynesian school of economic thought – before the events of the depression and World War II had solidified the theories.

Overall, an enjoyable journey down a dry and abandoned rabbit hole which expanded my understanding of economic policy and banking without boring me to tears.

What I’m Reading: Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth by R. Buckminster Fuller

I’m a fan of R. Buckminster Fuller and his work. One of the greatest things I’ve ever read was his admission in Nine Chains to the Moon (which is how many continuous chains of people we could make to the moon by standing arm in arm circa 1971 or so) that he was a failure at everything he ever tried until he decided to do something that didn’t just benefit him or his loved ones, but all of humanity. So, when I see an R. Buckminster Fuller book, I usually buy it and read it – even if, like Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth , I had read it in the past.

This time, however, it just didn’t click with me. I just wasn’t feeling Bucky Fuller. In fact, his style of writing actually grated against my brain – phrases like ‘comprehensively commanded automation’ annoyed me with their pseudo-intellectual vibe and bothersome alliteration – and – and this is probably a big part of it – his annoying optimistic predictions which were completely and totally wrong. He forgot to foresee the greed and stupidity of the baby boomers as they glorified ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’ became completely obsessed with looking at themselves in the disco-ball mirrors, and turned the United States into a country ruled by Falcon Crest, Dynasty, and Dallas. All those well meaning intellectual hippies either got consumed by the culture of greed or were shoved into back corners where they tell themselves that the best thing to do is to let it run its course.

Still, there were tidbits that I found inspiring such as where he describes the true miracle of economic growth that took place after World War II – it wasn’t because of the industrialization of the machines of war or the driving force of industry – it was because after the war there were a bunch of shell shocked young men who were the healthiest and best informed our nation had ever produced and none of them could get a job in the industrialized post war society, so the government, rather than letting them run amok created the G.I. Bill and sent them all to colleges, trade schools, and universities. This emergency measure to prevent chaos created many billions of dollars of new wealth through ‘increased know-how and intelligence thus released’. It was this reckless spending of wealth that produced the greatest prosperity humanity had ever known.

Fuller also talks about how charity is a holdover from the pirate days when it was thought there could never be enough to go around and then he points out that we know better now, there is enough for everyone, but it is being hoarded by those who don’t need it and kept from those who do. Charity, he warns, is necessitated by a working assumption that we cannot afford to take care of all the helpless ones.

Yes, there is so much common sense and goodness in the writing of Bucky Fuller, but something happened to the boomers in the late 1970s and 1980s that has taken humanity on a bad turn. Instead of turning their backs on the competitive society (which is poison for all, but not at the same time) and embracing the cooperative society that the 1960s seemed to be pointing us towards, they did the opposite. I’ve given some thought to this – a lot of thought actually – and it might come down to this.

The boomers were the first generation to regularly see pictures of themselves. Not moving pictures which showed their fat rolls or double chins or acne, because video reveals our worst, but nice, posed snapshots and portraits. Like Narcissus, they fell in love with their own reflection and mistook the blue of the sky behind them for a halo of their own making. My generation (Gen X) was forced to see awkward videos of our first dance, first day at school, getting our heads shoved into the ground during middle school wrestling, and more. Editing VHS was never easy. The grainy VHS tape video didn’t do anyone any favors – it’s hard to fall in love with yourself when you are on VHS – so there is a realism, a cynicism that is inherent in us – we were born during the years when our parents had ideals and then we got to see them prostitute themselves to money, go through the ugliest selfish mid-life crisis’ in history, and now get to watch them pretend to have a shred of dignity left and if we want to have any sort of relationship with them, not remind them of what assholes they have always been. The millennials, on the other hand, have been filmed from the time they were in the womb and every bit of it has been edited to perfection – they are oblivious to the cameras that are trained on them every moment of the day. The cynicism of their parents (Gen X) seems to have created a sort of optimism in them that we lacked. The fear, of course, is that they are simply Re-Boomers. I don’t think so, I think they are better than the boomers, less innately insecure, but that’s my two cents worth on this.

Back to the book, I can’t really recommend it. It might have turned me off of Fuller for a good while.

What I’m Reading #2 – Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill

Yesterday, I finished reading (for the 3rd time) Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. It’s a worthy book and recommended for anyone and everyone – even if it sometimes goes pretty far afield.

I read this book in my teens and then in my late 20s and recently had it recommended to me by an older man who has achieved some measure of success in the world – where success is measured with wealth – so I picked it up again and gave it another read. First a little background – the book was commissioned by Andrew Carnegie, America’s first billionaire. Napoleon Hill, the author, interviewed 500 of the most successful people in America in doing research for the book and then composed a formula that any person could use to achieve monetary wealth. Among those interviewed were Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Wilbur Wright and every other luminary of the gilded age you can think of (not this gilded age, the one that led to the Great Depression). His book has sold 70 million copies and Hill managed to make several fortunes (and to lose them) with his work.

Hill’s focus on a ‘burning desire for money’ is an annoyance, but it makes sense. His book is the original “Secret” and the best selling self help book of all time. I’ll tell you right now – Hill comes across as what he probably was – a shyster and a confidence man. There are no records that he actually met with all the people he claimed to have met with – in fact, all records (Hill claimed) were burnt in a fire. Hill was convicted of creating a sort of fraudulent ‘Trump Academy’ and then try attempting to sell shares in it using an illegal valuation (Blue Sky Laws). From what I can tell, Hill actually met with Carnegie but the rest may have been imaginary meetings with famous men. A type of meeting which he details in later chapters of his book when he meets with famous men who were long dead.

So, all of that being said – the book is a worthy read. The book shared the spotlight with the book I wrote about yesterday The Art of Thinking by Ernest Dimnet during much of the 1930s -1950s. People were hungry for achievement during this time, but Think and Grow Rich was born of the self help books which started appearing in the late 1870s – Emerson was the best known of these writers, but I’ve come across many – together they are referred to as the New Thought writers.

There were a few very valuable takeaways from Think and Grow Rich which deserve mentioning. The first is the idea that true success can only be achieved by working harmoniously in co-operation with other individuals or groups of individuals and thus creating value and benefit for them to create sustainable achievement for oneself. Hill refers to this as building a Master Mind Group – and other writers I’ve read, notably R. Buckminster Fuller take the idea even further – Fuller states that unless what you are doing will benefit EVERYONE, than you will not succeed.

Another idea which deserves mentioning from Think and Grow Rich is the idea of “transmutation of the sexual emotion” into energy to create wealth with. This idea by itself could probably turn half of the population from failure towards success. Imagine if all of the energy that goes towards getting laid were focused on financial or other achievements? I would have been a millionaire by the time I was twenty, probably a few times over.

The book is worth reading – all of it- even the out there parts or the parts that sound like they are a lecture from Trump University – but for me, I would say the most valuable section came towards the end when Hill details the impediments to success and the symptoms which arise – his insights here are profound – the fear of poverty, fear of ill health, fear of what others think – these are what truly hold people back – it may sound funny that a fear of poverty keeps one from becoming wealthy, but after reading this, I think it is probably the number one reason why people do not succeed.

To sum up, this seems to be the gist of the book: Find an idea you are passionate about, write it down, create a burning desire to achieve it, obsess about it, don’t let fear stop you, trust your instincts, never give up.

What I’m Reading – The Art of Thinking by Ernest Dimnet

I don’t read as much as I used to, but I still usually have about a dozen books going at a time – they just don’t turn as frequently as they used to. It occurred to me that not only might it be useful to my readers to share what I am reading and any insights gained from particular books or authors – but it will probably be useful to me as well. Now that I don’t have Facebook to remind me “We care about you and what you share, this is what you shared on this day..blah blah blah” it makes sense to share more of the things I learn and think about here – which is what I’ve been doing more of lately.

Last week I picked up The Art of Thinking by Ernest Dimnet – I really enjoyed this book! It is a small volume packed with insights that pretty clearly define the problems of our world – and it was written in 1928 – when the problems were far less severe than they are today. Take this quote from Chapter 6 which is titled ‘Thought Weakened by Life’

Over against the calmness, security and concentration of the life of a Spinoza, set the existence of the people we know. They speak of themselves, rich or poor, as driven slaves, drudges, who “cannot call their souls their own.”

Dimnet, an educator and priest goes on in this section to describe how the life has been sucked out of us, both rich and poor – and to his credit he smashes the ridiculous myth that rich people have more cares than the poor by pointing out that golden cross large enough to be crucified upon can be melted and sold to solve the woes of many.

This little book provides a wealth of information about how to use your brain more effectively for what it was made for – thinking – and how to escape the many irrelevant detours that ‘modern’ human existence have blocked our path to thinking with.

Dimnet defines genius as ‘primarily power resulting in ease’ especially in regards to thinking. He advocates not spending time on the objects which require the greatest amount of study, but instead to focus on those that we handle with a combination of the greatest ease and the greatest enjoyment. Genius lies in doing what one loves to do and would not be willing to forego – and as an example, he points to Newton, who for seventeen years worked ceaselessly to develop what we call Newtonian Physics – not work, but a labor of love and obsession. An enjoyment.

Granted, there is a near-hatred and disdain for those who read pulp novels – and today, no doubt he would enlarge that to include trash-tv, tabloid news, Facebook, most of the internet and more. In the first part of the book, he tackles the obstacles to thought and this passage struck me “…our mind is peopled with more incipient obsessions than ideas, and their presence is largely the cause of our impotence.”

Here are a few more notable insights from the book – in Greek the words ‘to see’ and ‘to know’ are one and the same. The word ponder actually means ‘to weigh’, logic and speech are the same word as are idea and image! Which allows Dimnet to bring the reader to the realization that thinking is actually a process of watching an inward cinema – or every cinema in a multi-plex at the same time. Our brains do not ‘think’ in sentences, the sentences are similar to the five minutes it takes to explain a 30 second scene that someone else missed and all that you miss while you do so (which, along with the multi-plex, is my analogy, not Dimnet’s).

It would be a better world if everyone in it could take a week off to read this book and learn to think. On a personal note, Dimnet clarified something which I have long wondered about – he provided me with the reason why I arrive to appointments far too early, get to the airport early, enjoy long train rides, and generally don’t mind being made to wait – this is time that belongs completely and totally to myself. I am expected to be where I am (the waiting room, the airport lounge, the train) and there is no expectation that I should be somewhere else or doing something else. This is thought time. It is the time that my brain is allowed to fully engage with books, thoughts, images, ideas, or just to exist. Just to clarify, I hate waiting in lines, but once I am through the lines and seated somewhere, a stranger, alone and waiting, that is my paradise time. It turns out that I love purgatory.

I should note that at times Dimnet (who was American but had immigrated from France) places French culture upon a pedestal – often for what I would call the wrong reasons – and on a more disturbing note, he seems to have a great admiration for Benito Mussolini – but since the book was written in 1928 before the onset of WWII, I think that history will forgive him for misunderstanding a fascist monster.

Shantaram – A Book I was Meant to Read

I want to tell you a story –

A little more than a decade ago, I was a tanned beach boy living in Hawaii. I met a tourist girl and she was looking for an island romance so she invited me to dinner. I wanted to sleep with her – I thought – so I accepted her invitation. In those days I was desperate for intimacy but I was under the mistaken impression that meaningless uncommittal sex and intimacy could be the same thing. I was finding a good bit of the former and very little of the latter – to some extent because often when I would find the latter – I would push the former onto it and likewise I missed a good bit of the former by burdening it with the latter.

What I truly sought was spiritual, emotional, and intellectual intimacy but I kept messing it up with sexual intimacy. This isn’t a story of that – it’s just the oppossite. This particular girl was on vacation and she wanted a no strings attached sexual romp but I screwed that up – over dinner I dove into deeper and heavier subjects- loosened with a few drinks I waxed philosophical/spiritual – she had a deeper nature which she didn’t want to share – I dug and pushed and finally exasperated she suggested a moonlit walk down a deserted beach – the perfect last night in Hawaii for her and now I realize she wanted nothing more than to make love on the beach before getting on a plane and going back to her real life. She had opened up to me too much though and I found myself more excited to learn from her spiritual and philosophical insights than to kiss her delicioius lips.

I think she gave up and we sat under a coconut tree in the moonlight talking until it was time to go. I invited her to my apartment but by this point, I had gone too far in finding out who she really was for her to let me see her being someone she really wasn’t. And the next day we left – and we never met again. I don’t remember her name and she most likely doesn’t remember mine. I don’t even remember all that we talked about – but I remember her saying she had started to read a book in Hawaii and was so captivated by the opening paragraph that she had committed it to memory.

“It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realized somehow, through the screaming in my mind that even in that shackled bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them.”

It impacted me as well, but to be honest, I didn’t remember the quote or the name of the book, but only the spirit of the quote – so – later, when she was gone with no contact information and I was looking for the book that had so affected her – I was unable to find it. Instead, more than a decade later – the book found me. My aunt, the one who has given me so much thought and spirit provoking literature through the years handed me the book with several others and without comment. It was a large book – nearly a thousand pages and with a 2-year old and the struggle to make ends meet in our new home country – the USA (my old home country, by the way) – I didn’t touch it for more than a year – finally, looking for something to read I picked it up and flicked to the first page and there it was – those words – those powerful, important words.

“It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realized somehow, through the screaming in my mind that even in that shackled bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them.”

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts is a roller coaster of a book filled with hard won wisdom and insight from a man who has led a life that most people only think happens in movies – not heart warming movies, but powerful movies. This is a novel but there is more truth to it than most novels can claim. Like the protaganist, Roberts escaped prison in Australia and fled to India where he worked with the Bombay mafia and eventually was caught and returned to prison where he served out his sentence and wrote Shantaram.

I am grateful to that girl for priming my brain with his words, grateful to my aunt for delivering the book, and grateful to the universe for finding the right time to deliver it. There was so much in this book that spoke to me – not just the opening line and the theme of forgiveness but also the theme of redemption and the idea that sometimes we can do the right thing for the wrong reason or the wrong thing for the right reason. I could go on – but I won’t. I only recommend that you read it.

Here is a link to get Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts


Note: I intentionally wrote the above without having read any reviews or looked at the author’s website or even to have read more about the author than his dust jacket bio – now I’ve done a bit of digging. It’s astounding how many people HATE this book – but they have some valid points – none the less – the book is too long, the characters are mostly one dimensional, and there are some serioius prose problems. The biggest reason why most of them seem to hate it though is because of Roberts himself and how he wrote this work of fiction as a way of aggrandizing himself with an alternate fictional history – I make no beef with the valid points – but I only want to add – this is a work of fiction, not a biography. As such, I think it paints those themes of redemption and forgiveness beautifully. I would not want to live the life of Roberts nor the life of his character Lin. I still think the book is a worthy read.