Reading Lists and Their Detractors

New Year’s resolutions exist, as far as I can tell, as a venue for admitting what we ought to do, while patting ourselves on the back for the acknowledgment without being obliged to accomplish anything at all. It’s an exorcism of sorts: we take something weighing on us—some behavior we’d like to reduce—and acknowledge it, thereby relieving some of the pressure. I should drink less or smoke less, for instance (or smoke more?), but I doubt I will do anything about it. And the game is pretty transparent. No one holds anyone else to a resolution—lest we be held to one ourselves. 

But we still make them, mostly for fun. Two years ago, I resolved to learn how to make proper sesame chicken. Failing utterly at this (actually forgetting the resolution about an hour after I made it), I decided last year to make an easier resolution, one I was sure to fulfill. So, I promised myself that I would eat more stew. More stew in ’22. That was my pledge. And yet, I failed again. I bought a Crockpot, deciding not to make any more resolutions until I had finished with the last one. Stew for me in ’23. That’s my new slogan. And while I doubt I’ll become the Midwest’s greatest stew maker, it seems likely that, at a minimum, I will eat more stew than in previous years.  

The lesson seems to be that it’s still worth making resolutions, as long as we make them in such a way that they can be at least partially fulfilled. Then they function like aspirational lists. We are not required to complete the resolution, but there it is, smiling at us, reminding us that we might at least make a few feeble stabs at improvement. 

Call it cynical if you want, but this is how I approach the question. And it’s how I approached all the lists and single-item resolutions I saw on social media over the last few days. Most were unsurprisingly unremarkable, but a few were vaguely interesting—especially one by podcast host Lex Fridman. He told his many followers that he planned to read “a book a week in 2023. Classics, sci-fi, nonfiction, or anything people highly recommend . . . ”

More interesting than his reading list, however, was the slew of responses, many of which were haughty, condescending, and ultimately embarrassing. Nassim Nicholas Taleb managed to outshine the rest in this category. “If you don’t get why, between 2019 and 2022, I turned down exactly 10 requests to be on his podcast, this will provide a succinct explanation.” As far as I can tell, the audience clambering for a response to this question doesn’t exist. It was just a way for Taleb to puff himself up. 

Eventually, after getting a lot of pushback, including from Fridman himself, Taleb attempted to clarify what he’d meant (or maybe just to make it seem less idiotic): “Anyone who pretends reading, discussing and digesting the Brothers Karamazov is [sic] less than 3-6 months is a total fraud . . . .”

Let’s consider the legitimate point. It took me about three months to read The Brothers Karamazov, and I agree that any kind of thorough read of it in a week is impossible. You would at best be skimming it, which would be pointless. This is probably the worst thing about Fridman’s tweet—the idea that every book could or should be read in the same amount of time; a week in this case. That’s certainly silly and might have warranted a shrug. 

On the other hand, some books, especially when coming to them for the second or third time, might be read in one or two sittings—both of the Camus selections listed, for instance. Indeed, I am fairly certain I’ve read The Plague in a single evening. Similarly, The Old Man and the Sea (which I remember finishing on a train trip between Chicago and New York) and The Art of War. The point, of course, is that if he finishes several of these in a single week, Fridman will have banked the time to devote to more hefty volumes, like The Brothers Karamazov

Is it still silly to try to approach reading in this way? Sure, more or less. It would have been better to simply make a list of books worth reading (or rereading) and say that he would get to as many of them as time and energy permitted. But even after acknowledging this minor flaw, we’re still left with a tweet that reached a large fanbase celebrating reading as a worthwhile endeavor on which to center an entire year. 

That bears repeating: all the insults and mockery were directed against a reading list. And it was a list that, however “basic” from one perspective, was at least a list of mostly adult books. In a country with over half the population barely reading at a seventh-grade level, we can use every positive example we can get. If tweets like this one, however clunky in wording, turn out to be a positive influence on our barely literate public, I’m all for them. We’re still playing at self-government here, and self-government requires citizens who are at least capable of looking into the issues of the day. And more to the point: general literary literacy guarantees citizens who can reason from a variety of perspectives and appreciate a variety of life situations, whether based on class, upbringing, job type or any number of other examples. 

Most of the insults and dismissals of Fridman’s list were some version of a claim to have read and finished with all of the books by the time they’d finished high school. But it’s not at all clear that most of these books are still being taught in our high schools to begin with—though some of them once were. The type of person criticizing Fridman strikes me as the same type who would criticize the current woke purges of the canon, libraries, and curricula. In other words, to show how much they despise woke gatekeepers, they react with gatekeeping of a different kind. Except this kind of gatekeeping is in some ways more vulgar than the type they oppose—because it is based on self-aggrandizement, on the idea that if someone like Fridman hasn’t caught up to their reading yet, he’d might as well just give up the whole endeavor. 

But as anyone as well read as his detractors claim to be should know, you don’t incentivize an activity by insulting those who are still at an intermediate or beginner level in that activity. This type of exclusivity and snobbery serves no purpose other than shaming people who aren’t as well-read. Again, this type of elitism isn’t particularly helpful in a society that is supposedly based on principles of self-government. We should want as much reading as possible by as many people as possible. Period. 

I expect the Left to disincentivize the reading of classics and “basic” books alike (meaning basic Western canonical texts and basic Western modern classics, in this case). I look to the Right for a more sensible approach. We know that genuine literacy is never going to be altogether widespread, for the same reason that we know too many people are going to college today, for instance. But we also have the pragmatic good sense to know that the uneducable element will remain uneducable whatever we do—there is no need to try to put them off reading. They manage that well enough on their own.

But how about those who are on the fence in terms of both interest and aptitude? And how about those who are more than properly equipped for the task but have simply found no good models in the absolute cultural wasteland of contemporary American life? 

I would argue that this latter group makes up a significant portion of the podcast audience, particularly for shows like Rogan’s and Fridman’s. Often, young men are convinced to live more self-respecting, focused lives by seeing those behaviors modeled for them by people on social media. It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s the one we have right now, and we ought to make the most of it. 

There’s this final point to consider as well: classics are classics not only because each generation can come to them and find something worthwhile, but because the same person, at different points in his or her life, can come back to them and find something new and equally worthwhile. You are never done with the classics. And if you are, you don’t deserve them.

Fridman explicitly mentioned re-reading some of his list. Most commentators ignored that bit and laid into him for having not yet read what they had supposedly read “in high school” or “by the time I was 16,” in my favorite formulation. But this isn’t the point at all. If the last time you read Orwell, say, you were 16 (or 18 or, hell, 28!), you are, in that case, more than due to go back to him and see what else there is to learn. If nothing else, it would be a better use of your time than mocking reading lists and New Year’s resolutions on Twitter.

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