Why read bestsellers

Someone wrote to ask why I bother writing about John Grisham’s weaknesses as a writer and implied in it is a second question: why read bestsellers at all? The first is a fair question and so is the implication in it: Grisham’s readers don’t read me and don’t care what I think; they don’t care that he’s a bad writer; and people who read me probably aren’t going to read him. Still, I read him because I was curious and I wrote about him to report what I found.

The answer to the second one is easy: Some are great! Not all, probably not even most, but enough to try. Lonesome Dove, the best novel I’ve read recently, was a bestseller. Its sequel, Streets of Laredo, is not quite as good but I’m glad to have read it. Elmore Leonard was often a bestseller and he is excellent. Others seemed like they’d be bad (Gillian Flynn, Tucker Max) but turned into favorites.

One could construct a 2×2 matrix of good famous books; bad famous books; good obscure books; and bad obscure books. That last one is a large group too; credibility amid a handful of literary critics (who may be scratching each other’s backs anyway) does not necessarily equate to quality, and I’ve been fooled by good reviews of mostly unknown books many times. Literary posturing does not equate to actual quality.

Different people also have different views around literary quality, and those views depend in part on experience and reading habits. Someone who reads zero or one books a year is likely to have very different impressions than someone who reads ten or someone who reads fifty or a hundred. Someone who is reading like a writer will probably have a different experience than someone who reads exclusively in a single, particular genre.

And Grisham? That article (which I wish I could find) made him and especially Camino Island sound appealing, and the book does occasionally work. But its addiction to cliché and the sort of overwriting common in student writing makes it unreadable in my view. But someone who reads one or two books a year and for whom Grisham is one of those books will probably like him just fine, because they don’t have the built-up stock of reading that lets them distinguish what’s really good from what isn’t.

Caught in the nerd-o-sphere or researcher bubble

In a Tweet Benedict Evans mentions, “I’m always baffled when people are surprised by charts like this. What do people think the world was like 250 years ago? Isn’t this obvious?”


I replied, “I teach undergrads; it isn’t obvious to most, and most either don’t think about it or rely on TV-based historical fiction,” but that’s too glib; the chart’s demonstration of growing wealth is obvious to people who’ve read a lot of history and who’re immersed in the nerd-o-sphere or researcher bubble, but that’s a small part of the population. Most people don’t really, really think about or study history, and to the extent they think about it at all they rely on hazy, unsourced stereotypes.

I’ve read lots of student papers (and for that matter Internet comments) saying things like, “In the past, [claim here].” Some will even say, “In the old days…” In the margins I will write in reply, “Which years and geographic areas are you thinking about?” When I ask those kinds of questions in class students look at me strangely, like I’ve suddenly demanded they perform gymnastics.

The past really is a foreign country and unless someone has made the effort to learn about it directly, meta-learn how to learn, and learn how the people in a given time period likely thought, it can look like the present but with different clothes. That’s often how it’s presented in TV, movies, and pop fiction (see e.g. “Rules for Writing Neo-Victorian Novels“). To take one obvious example, characters in such TV shows and movies often have modern sexual and religious mores, ignoring that many of the sexual mores and rules of the last ~500 years of European and American history evolved because a) reliable contraception was unavailable or extremely limited, b) a child born to a single woman could end up killing both child and woman due to lack of money and/or food, and c) many STIs that are now treated with a quick antibiotic were death sentences.

In most countries today, people don’t worry about starving to death, so the kind of absolute poverty that’s stunningly declined in the last couple centuries takes a strong imaginative leap to inhabit. People also seem to experience hedonic adaptation, so the many things that make our lives easy and pleasant become invisible (that’s true of me too).

So the average person probably never thinks about what the world was like 250 years ago, and, if they do, they probably don’t have the baseline knowledge necessary to conceptualize and contextualize it properly. Those of us caught in the nerd-o-sphere and researcher bubble, like myself, do. Our sense of “obvious” shifts with the environment we inhabit and the education we’ve had (or the education we’re continuing all the time).

And about that education system. Years ago I used to read tech sites in which self-taught autodidacts would fulminate about the failures of the conventional school system and prophesize about how the liberation of information will remake the educational sector into a free intellectual utopia in which students would learn much faster and at their own pace, leading to peace, harmony, and knowledge; in this world, rather than being bludgeoned by teachers and professors, students would become self-motivated because they’d be unshackled from conventional curriculums. To some extent I believed those criticisms and prophecies. One day we would set students free and they’d joyously learn for the sake of learning.

Then I started teaching and discovered that the conventional school system exists to work on or with the vast majority of the population, which doesn’t give a fig about the joy of knowledge or intrinsic learning or whatever else Internet nerds and PhDs love. The self-taught autodidacts who wrote on Slashdot (back then) and Hacker News or Reddit or blogs today are a distinct minority and at most a couple percent of the total population. Often they were or are poorly served in some ways by the conventional education system, especially because they often have unusual ways of interacting socially.

Now, today, I’ve both taught regular, non-nerd students and read books like Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, and I’ve realized why the education system has evolved the way it has. Most people, left to their own devices, don’t study poetry and math and so on. They watch videos on YouTube and TV and play videogames and chat with their friends. Those are all fine activities and I’ve of course done all of them, but the average person doesn’t much engage in systematic skill- and knowledge-building of the sort that dedicated study is (ideally) supposed to do.

In short, the nerds who want to reform the education system are very different than the average student the system is designed to serve, in a way similar to the way the average person in the nerd-o-sphere or researcher bubble is likely very different from the average person, who hardcore nerds may not know or interact with very much.

I’m very much in that nerd-o-sphere and if you’re reading this there’s a high probability you are too. And when I write about undergrads, remember that I’m writing about the top half of the population in terms of motivation, cognition, and tenacity.

“You can teach a lot of skills, but you can’t teach obsession”

There are many interesting moments in Ezra Klein’s conversation with Tyler Cowen but one in particular stands out, when Klein says that “You can teach a lot of skills, but you can’t teach obsession. There’s a real difference between somebody who is obsessed with the work they’re doing and someone who is simply skilled at the work they’re doing.” He’s right. You can’t teach people to be obsessed and over the medium to long term you can’t even pay them to be obsessed. Look for the people who are obsessed, even if it’s hard.

The larger context is:

Look for people who are desperate to be doing the thing they’re doing. I have often found really great people by finding people who either seemed or were literally doing what they need to be doing for free because nobody was yet paying them for it.

. . . You can teach a lot of skills, but you can’t teach obsession. There’s a real difference between somebody who is obsessed with the work they’re doing and someone who is simply skilled at the work they’re doing. I will take the obsession and teach the skills over getting the skills and having to teach the obsession.

Thinking about this now, it’s odd to me that more people, especially in hiring positions, don’t select more or better for obsession. That’s especially true in academia but it’s also true elsewhere. Now that I think about it explicitly I also realize that my essay “How to get your Professors’ Attention, Along With Coaching and Mentoring” is in part about how to if not fake obsession then at least demonstrate that the person seeking help or advice rises above indifference.

Thoughts on Tolkien’s Letters and ossification by age

I’ve read Tolkien’s letters before, but as with most reading, each reading is different because I know, think, and believe different things. Tolkien’s occasional crankiness stands out in this reading. He doesn’t like cars (or “motor-cars” in his words) or most industrial / mechanical processes. To him the future often seems grimly industrial, and passages like this speak to his view of what would become modern culture:

Music will give place to jiving: which as far as I can make out means holding a ‘jam session’ round a piano (an instrument properly intended to produce the sounds devised by, say, Chopin) and hitting it so hard that it breaks. This delicately cultured amusement is said to be a ‘fever’ in the U.S.A.

letters_tolkienOne wonders what he’d think of computerized music, if such a term has any meaning anymore: Distinction between digital and analogue music is so blurred as to be useless today. And at least the “jam session” Tolkien does not much like demands more skill than a record, CD, or now mp3.

To my mind too a piano is not “properly intended” to do anything: It’s an instrument or tool that people will apply to all sorts of uses, many unforeseen or unintended. Chopin is one but there are many others, not necessarily worse. I imagine Tolkien did not “get” the Beatles.

I wonder if most people are just most comfortable with the technological world that spans from their childhoods to age 30 or 40, and what comes after often seems unnecessary, gratuitous, or even obscene. When I see the apartments many old people live in, I’m often struck by the lack of prominent computers and by the clutter and (to my eyes) ugly bric-a-brac (even T.G.I.F. is shedding clutter in favor of minimalism). What do they do all day? Old people are often in turn surprised by how much I use computers. I, in another turn, find Snapchat to be of little use, although its popularity is undeniable. When students and my cousins have tried to explain it to me the conversation is often comical.

The usual explanation goes something like, Snapchat lets you tell people what you’re doing; for example you might take a video of yourself on the way to the store, or to the beach, or a concert. I usually then ask, “Why would anyone care?” The conversation breaks down towards mutual incomprehension: They cannot explain the role of this very important tool in their lives, anymore than I could explain video games when I played them as a teenager; I’m too old or set in my ways to understand on a sub-verbal level Snapchat’s uses.

There is an interesting parallel between technology ossification and the way many people seem to lose friends and stop making new friends around age 30. Maybe some common root lies at the bottom of both phenomena.

To return to Tolkien and his dislike of motor-cars, though, Tolkien also got to experience the worst of mechanization in WWI, so his dislike has strong roots, given that virtually everyone he knew was killed using mechanized weapons and the generals who fought WWI had no idea how technology had changed warfare. If virtually everyone I know had died in mechanized warfare I might not love mechanization or machines either.

Like all leter collections the best parts of the letters are scattered amid a lot of material that’s unlikely to be of interest to most people. Unlike most letter collections this one is uncommonly deep and contains uncommonly deep analysis of the author’s own works. To most people who are uninterested in The Lord of the Rings or the Edwardian era the letters will be of no interest. To those who find either fascinating the letters may fascinate.

People vote with their feet, and also the U.S. is not Sweden

Two pieces about Anu Partanen’s book The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life say much about the blindness of some writers: “Stockholm Syndrome: Spotify threatened to abandon Sweden if the government didn’t address over-regulation and sky-high taxes” is poorly titled and more interesting than the title suggests, and so is “What’s So Special About Finland?” Neither says much about the book itself but both together say much about the U.S. media interest in Nordic countries.

Following the Nordic model would make large parts of the U.S. population worse off; that’s why people are moving away from Nordic-model cities and states and towards inexpensive, laissez-fair cities and states.

Let me elaborate. Partanen and most media people are not normal and have not normal needs, desires, and willingness to pay for big-city amenities. But most people aren’t willing to pay for those things that’s why sprawly cities, especially in Texas, are the ones that’re experiencing the fastest population growth in the U.S. People choose to move to them much more so than New York or L.A. or a handful of other media capitols. Partanen and her husband live in NYC as writers. I get the appeal, but they’re relatively low-earners in the second-most-expensive city in the country, and New York is in many ways least like the rest of the country. Partanen even says:

First of all, the taxes are not necessarily as high as many Americans think. One of the myths I encounter often is that Americans are like, ‘You pay 70 percent of your income in taxes.’ No, we do not. For someone who lives in a city like San Francisco or New York City—where you have federal taxes, state taxes, city taxes, property taxes—the tax burden is not very different [than the tax burden in Finland]. I discuss my own taxes in the book and I discovered this to be true: that I did pay about the same or even more in New York than I would have paid on my income in Finland. I’ve talked to many Nordics in the U.S. who say the same thing.

So SF and NYC are already paying these crazy taxes… and apparently not getting much in return. Why then should the rest of the U.S. seek to emulate them? When I’ve said that I think Seattle is a much better value than NYC, in part because of crazy tax issues, people often respond, “So you don’t like public schools or fire fighters?” But Seattle, Austin, Nashville, and other similar cities seem to have those public services too, without anything like NYC’s cost of living. So the solution to high taxes and not-great services in those cities is to pay even more? If so, I’m not too surprised most of the US does not want to be more like Scandinavia (or SF).

To be fair, it would be interesting to see what happens if SF, NYC, and LA disempowered municipal unions and liberalized their zoning codes, both of which would lower costs substantially. For now, though, we’re seeing all three cities systematically drive people out. They’re choosing places that are not very Scandinavian.

Partanen and her husband are not very representative of the overall American experience. It’d be interesting to read a story about Finnish people who move to relatively inexpensive suburbs, don’t spend an overwhelming amount on housing, and basically like their lives. A European friend of mine, for example, has a sister who was born in a medium-sized European country and is basically doing that in Florida, and she seems to like it.

People who live in NYC are self-selected to be obsessive weirdos (who also often want to write books). Which is fine. I’m one of those people but I’m also aware that I’m atypical.

In short, revealed preferences show that most Americans prefer a non-Nordic model. They also show why state-level taxation is better on average than federal-level taxation, since at least people who don’t like state-level taxation regimes can easily move to another state. Score one for the Exit, Voice, and Loyalty world.

Links: Old people vote, three-party systems, Facebook dangers, academic norms, marijuana, and more!

* “The boomer supremacy: The dominance of baby boomers is becoming total,” although I think “old people vote” matters most here.

* The three party system:

There are three major political forces in contemporary politics in developed countries: tribalism, neoliberalism and leftism (defined in more detail below). Until recently, the party system involved competition between different versions of neoliberalism. Since the Global Financial Crisis, neoliberals have remained in power almost everywhere, but can no longer command the electoral support needed to marginalise both tribalists and leftists at the same time. So, we are seeing the emergence of a three-party system, which is inherently unstable because of the Condorcet problem and for other reasons.

I don’t buy the entire analysis, but the ideas are excellent.

* It’s not smart to post lots of shit to Facebook.

* The Second Avenue Subway is actually happening. Slowly, oh so slowly, but happening.

* Mathematician Timothy Gowers is bent on proving academic journals can and should cost nothing. This ought to be obvious by now.

* “Laura Wasser Is Hollywood’s Complete Divorce Solution,” hilarious (and depressing) throughout, with the real takeaway hidden at the end:

Wasser never remarried. Instead, she prefers long-term, live-in boyfriends. She’s no longer with either of her sons’ fathers, with whom she shares verbal custody agreements that she’s never felt the need to put on paper. “Is it a little bit of the cobbler’s son not wearing shoes? Maybe,” she says. “But I don’t want to get married. I don’t like the idea of entering into that contract.”

This is becoming the new normal, though laws and norms haven’t caught up.

* “Can NATO and the EU survive Donald Trump, French nationalists, and a Brexit?” A much scarier article than I imagined reading. We are our own worst enemies.

* Why public sector unions are poisonous; one can only hope that the Supreme Court limits this kind of folly in the future.

* “It’s time to give up the fight against grade inflation.” See also me, “What incentivizes professors to grade honestly? Nothing.”

* Amazing:

And it’s not just price — Mexican growers are facing pressure on quality, too. “The quality of marijuana produced in Mexico and the Caribbean is thought to be inferior to the marijuana produced domestically in the United States or in Canada,” the DEA wrote last year in its 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment. “Law enforcement reporting indicates that Mexican cartels are attempting to produce higher-quality marijuana to keep up with U.S. demand.”

“From Pickup Artist to Pariah” buries the lead

In “From Pickup Artist to Pariah: Jared Rutledge fancied himself a big man of the ‘manosphere.’ But when his online musings about 46 women were exposed, his whole town turned against him,” oddly, the most interesting and perhaps important parts of the article are buried or de-emphasized:

In 2012, he slept with three women; in 2013, 17; in 2014, 22. In manosphere terms, he was spinning plates — keeping multiple casual relationships going at once.

In other words… it worked, at least according to this writer. And:

I met four women at a downtown bar. All were on Jared’s List of Lays. Over cocktails and ramen, the women told me about Jared’s sexual habits, his occasional flakiness, his black-and-white worldview. [. . .] They seemed most troubled by just how fine he had been to date. “I really liked him,” said W. “And that’s what makes me feel so gullible.”

In other words… it worked, at least according to the women interviewed as framed by this writer.

How might a Straussian read “From Pickup Artist to Pariah?” Parts of the article, and not those already quoted, could be inserted directly into Onion stories.

The first sentence of Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take On Each Other and the World is “Dear Bernard-Henri Lévy, We have, as they say, nothing in common—except for one essential trait: we are both rather contemptible individuals.” Is being contemptible sometimes a sign of status? As BHL implies, the greatest hatred is often reserved for that which might be true.*

In other news, the Wall Street Journal reports today that “Global Temperatures Set Record for Second Straight Year: 2015 was the warmest year world-wide since reliable global record-keeping began in 1880.”

In Julie Klausner’s book, I Don’t Care About Your Band: What I Learned from Indie Rockers, Trust Funders, Pornographers, Felons, Faux Sensitive Hipsters, and Other Guys I’ve Dated, she writes at the very end, “Around this time of graduation or evolution or whatever you call becoming thirty, I started fending off the guys I didn’t like before I slept with them. It was the first change I noticed in my behavior that really marked my twenties being over.” Maybe Rutledge’s mistake is of tone: Comedians are sometimes forgiven and sometimes thrown into the fire. No one is ever forgiven seriousness.

Houellebecq also writes, “there is in those I admire a tendency toward irresponsibility that I find only too easy to understand.” He is not the first person to admire irresponsibility. In Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!“, Richard Feynman says:

Von Neumann gave me an interesting idea: that you don’t have to be responsible for the world that you’re in. So I have developed a very powerful sense of social irresponsibility as a result of Von Neumann’s advice. It’s made me a very happy man ever since. But it was Von Neumann who put the seed in that grew into my active irresponsibility.

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