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Summer Reading, with City Journal

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Summer Reading, with City Journal

August 8, 2018
Arts and Culture

City Journal editor Brian Anderson joins Vanessa Mendoza, executive vice president of the Manhattan Institute, to discuss Brian’s summer and vacation reading list.

Summer is traditionally a time when Americans can catch up on books that they’ve been meaning to read (or reread). We asked Brian to talk about what books are on his list this year, how he decides what to read, and more.

Check out Brian’s summer reading list, in the order discussed:

Audio Transcript

Vanessa Mendoza: Welcome back to another edition of 10 Blocks, the official podcast of City Journal.  You probably don’t recognize my voice.  I am Vanessa Mendoza.  I am the executive vice president at the Manhattan Institute, and a proud City Journal publication committee member.  I have had the pleasure of getting to know your regular host, Brian Anderson, for many years and Brian, today we are going to turn the podcast tables on you.  So, welcome to your own podcast.

Brian Anderson: Thanks, Vanessa.

Vanessa Mendoza: So, one thing that our listeners may not know, but certainly if you work with Brian, you definitely know that Brian is a man of eclectic tastes.  If you walk into his office you will find a well curated mini-library next to a bunch of Marvel comic books including several figures, next to 20th Century exercise equipment, next to architecture books, next to tons of brightly colored pencils and Brian, if we were not always working so hard I imagine you would also have a bottle of some very fine wine on your desk to top it off.  Did I miss mentioning anything important in your office?

Brian Anderson: No, I think that covers many of my interests…

Vanessa Mendoza: Good.

Brian Anderson: …including the wine.

Vanessa Mendoza: Well, I’m glad I painted…

Brian Anderson: If you look hard enough you might find a bottle in there.

Vanessa Mendoza: I’m glad that I’ve painted the picture correctly.  Well, because you are a man of such varied tastes, every single summer I bother you for your summer book list.  And it’s always a good one.  And it is one that you actually don’t really put together until the end of July.  Is that right?

Brian Anderson: Usually, yes.  I start thinking about August, really August into early September, which is a down period for the magazine to get a lot of reading done on the beach and it’s something I look forward to every year.  When you are running a magazine a lot of what you are reading is manuscripts every day.  And then you are reading the media and press.  So, the kind of reflective reading, the sitting back and enjoying some reading, this is something, you know, I really try to pack into six weeks in the summer, and I look forward to it immensely every year.  It’s a way of resetting and thinking about bigger themes for the magazine and, you know, my own life.

Vanessa Mendoza: Well, I bother you every year for your list because it’s always very good and what takes you six weeks to read probably takes me at least two months, but with that we thought today we would jump in and tell our listeners what you plan on reading this August.  And so, why don’t we just start off with the very first one in your pile, The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief, by V.S. Naipaul.

Brian Anderson: Right, well V.S. Naipaul is one of my favorite writers.  He’s an Indo-Caribbean writer, won the Nobel Prize some years ago for his kind of unflinching literary portraits of societies in transition, former colonial societies.  He was born in Trinidad with a British citizenship.  He became well known initially for his comic novels.  He wrote a series of early comic masterpieces that were set in Trinidad and Tobago.  But then he began writing these really powerful novels about the poison of resentment and the dangers of a kind of revolutionary consciousness in books like A Bend in the River.  These are just amazing novels that everybody should read who is interested in life in our world today.  This book, The Masque of Africa, is probably his last great work, or his last major work.  It came out a few years ago and it’s a look at how religion has affected Africa – not only its indigenous religions, its animisms, but also the foreign impositions of Christianity and Islam.  And I imagine, like his other works, it’s going to be written in the spare unflinching, again to use that word, prose.

Vanessa Mendoza: You know Brian, you and I missed out on an opportunity to meet him.  He came in 1990 to the Manhattan Institute and actually delivered a Wriston Lecture.  For our listeners, the Manhattan Institute has two very large black-tie events every year.  The Wriston Lecture is one of them, named after Walter Wriston, one of our former board members.  And Naipaul gave one of the very first lectures when we started the series.  And Larry Mone, our president, says it is probably one of the most influential of all the Wriston Lectures.  And you can reflect on it today.  If you Google it, a shortened version of it is on The New York Times website.  They reprinted his speech.

Brian Anderson: Well, it’s actually in City Journal, so you can…

Vanessa Mendoza: Oh, there you go.

Brian Anderson: …find the entire speech on our website.  We published it before I got to City Journal in its entirety and it’s on Western civilization.  I believe the title was Our Universal Civilization.

Vanessa Mendoza: That’s right.  That’s right.

Brian Anderson: And it is a brilliant meditation on what separates the West and democracy from, you know, other forms of government and life.

Vanessa Mendoza: And despite being written and thought about now so long ago, it’s worth reflecting on.  I read it this morning and I thought it speaks to today’s, to many of the things we are thinking about today.

Brian Anderson: I think all of these books by Naipaul are worth looking at to understand our contemporary world.  He wrote, I think, he’s very elderly now.

Vanessa Mendoza: He’s 85.

Brian Anderson: Yeah.  He stopped writing, as many people do when they reach that age.  But he’s got over thirty books of, you know literature and then travel journalism, and this book would fall in to that category of travel journalism.  So, I’m looking forward to it.  I have not read this book by him.

Vanessa Mendoza: Well, the number two, or the second book on your list is Leo Strauss on Political Philosophy: Responding to the Challenge of Positivism and Historicism.  Now, let me ask you is this a reread for you, because I would have thought you would have read everything by Leo Strauss at this point?

Brian Anderson: No, no.  And I haven’t read everything by Leo Strauss.  And this is a brand-new book that just arrived in my office this week.  It’s never actually been published before.  You know, Strauss, for listeners who don’t know who he was, was a German émigré philosopher, and he was best known for reviving our understanding of classical philosophy, classical political philosophy and how it was distinct from modern individualist thought.  So, Strauss wrote these very dense close readings of the master works of Western thought, you know, an amazing book on Machiavelli, a book on Thomas Hobbes, but where he tried to redirect our attention was to Plato, and Aristotle, and the Greeks, and their understanding of a kind of natural law, or human nature that he believed had been lost sight of in modern individualist societies.  This book is interesting because it is his lectures.  And most of his courses at The University of Chicago where he taught were graduate seminars.

Vanessa Mendoza: Dense.

Brian Anderson: Very, very high level, very dense.

Vanessa Mendoza: Yes.

Brian Anderson: Like most of his books were very dense.  They are not easy reads.  This, though, was an introduction to political philosophy course for undergraduates.  And this is basically the transcript of that series of lectures he gave.  So, I think it – you know, I’m really looking forward to reading a kind of dumbed down Leo Strauss.  And I think it might be a very good introduction to his perspective on Western history and where, you know, where we found ourselves in the 1950s, when I think these lectures were given.  Now Strauss, among his students, were giants like Allan Bloom…

Vanessa Mendoza: Sure.

Brian Anderson: …Harry Jaffa, Harvey Mansfield.  So, Strauss had this incredible influence on the trajectory of conservative thought in America.

Vanessa Mendoza: Well, that’s amazing to be able to go back in time and basically take his introductory course.  I mean…

Brian Anderson: Yeah, this was in ’65 actually.  I’m looking at the note on the back of the cover.  So, in ’65 he gave these lectures.

Vanessa Mendoza: That’s great.  Well.

Brian Anderson: So, you know, I am really looking forward to that book.

Vanessa Mendoza: So, your next book is nothing like that.  It’s called Invested: How Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger Taught Me to Master My Mind, My Emotions, and My Money (with a Little Help from My Dad), by Danielle and Phil Town.  So, first tell us why did you pick this?  It’s a finance book, right?  It is how to be a successful investor-type book.  Tell us why you picked it.

Brian Anderson: Well, I’ve tried to get more serious in my own life about how I deal with money and to learn a bit about investing over the last three or four years.  This is a book that’s getting very positive notices.  You know, the authors, Danielle Town and her father, Phil Town – Phil is a pretty well-known, best-selling financial author himself.  He wrote a book I think called Rule #1.

Vanessa Mendoza: Hedge fund manager, professional.

Brian Anderson: Yeah, he’s had a successful career in investing.  His daughter was always sort of frightened about all of this.  And they started talking and they came up with a podcast which became very successful called InvestED.

Vanessa Mendoza: Yeah, I’ve listened to it.  It’s great. 

Brian Anderson: And, this book is basically a development of the podcast.  And the idea is how to think about investment.  And they look at it through the prism of value investing which is, you know, the Warren Buffett idea that you put money into companies for the long term and you think very carefully about what makes those companies a good investment.  Are they profitable?  Are there, you know, is their debt under control?  Do they have good leadership?  So, you do a lot of work on the ground level looking at the performance of the company, the history of the company, where they’re situated in the market.  And then you put money in and you ride it out.  You assume that, you know, over the long term that that company is going to return value.  That is not how I’ve invested my money.  You know, I have been following a different philosophy of diversification and, you know, index funds which just track the market.  This is a different philosophy but I am fascinated by Warren Buffett and how he has done so well over the years.  And, so I figure this book might be interesting.

Vanessa Mendoza: Great.  So, you can become a donor to the Manhattan Institute and City Journal in a couple years.

Brian Anderson: That is, that is very – no, you know, we are very far from that, believe me.  But this, you know, it looks engaging.  It’s a conversation and it’s also about, you know, a lot of people get very nervous when the market has downturns, pull our money out at exactly the wrong time and one of the big themes of this book, I gather, is that you really do have to stick it out…

Vanessa Mendoza: Yes.

Brian Anderson: …and look over the long term and the broader horizon.  And if you do that, you know, the trajectory of the market over time is always growth.

Vanessa Mendoza: Patience is at the core of their advice.

Brian Anderson: Right.

Vanessa Mendoza: On the podcast, that’s for sure.

Brian Anderson: That certainly seems to be the theme of the book.

Vanessa Mendoza: Yeah.

Brian Anderson: So, yes, I’m looking forward to reading that as a lighter alternative to V.S. Naipaul and Leo Strauss.

Vanessa Mendoza: Well, so that book is going to teach you how to invest.  Your fourth book on your list is going to teach you how to be happy, Brian?

Brian Anderson: Well, I don’t know about that.  This is an interesting, this is a book by classicist Edith Hall, called Aristotle’s Way.  And, you know, Aristotle is one of the great, great philosophers ever in any society.  And the idea is how, you know, this book apparently is how Aristotle shows us the way to living a kind of meaningful life and that meaningful lives will over the long hall be happier lives.  So, you know, the philosophy of Aristotle as Edith Hall, who is a classicist, a British classicist, reads it, is not hedonistic, it’s not about short-term pleasures, it’s really about building a life of purpose, you know, realizing our inner potential.

Vanessa Mendoza: In ten practical lessons.

Brian Anderson: Yes.  Well, there has been a whole series of these kind of books and…

Vanessa Mendoza: Well, one could say every self-help book that’s been written over the past at least two decades, and probably more, all have roots somewhere in Aristotle.

Brian Anderson: You know, if you go back to Greek philosophy, one of its primary goals was to teach people how to live good lives.

Vanessa Mendoza: Sure.

Brian Anderson: And, so, there was always a kind of practical emphasis in antiquity in philosophical thought.  And Aristotle is, of course, the greatest of philosophers – at least I think he is – of antiquity.  And, you know, I imagine this book will get into his emphasis on habits and how you train yourself to be the best version of yourself.

Vanessa Mendoza: How did this book find its way to your desk, Brian?  I’m curious, because I looked it up on Amazon and it has one review, and it came out in May.  How did it cross your…

Brian Anderson: Oh, it’s not even out in America yet.  It’s being released in a few weeks.  I read a review of the book.  It was the lead review, I think, in the Literary Review, which is a British monthly excellent publication that reviews books.  And they gave it a rave and it looks good.  So, I ordered this from Amazon in England.

Vanessa Mendoza: Gotcha.  Yeah.  Well, moving on to number five.  Now this is a fun one and I’m going to be reading this book for sure too.  It’s called Room to Dream, an autobiography of David Lynch.

Brian Anderson: Oh, yes.

Vanessa Mendoza: So, you and I are both big fans of Twin Peaks.  And this is going to talk a lot about that.  And moments in his life that…

Brian Anderson: Lynch…

Vanessa Mendoza: …he’s put on the screen.

Brian Anderson: …Lynch is – I think Lynch is one of the great auteurs, one of the great film directors of our time, of any time.  He’s had this incredible career, not just Twin Peaks, but Mulholland Drive, which many film critics see as the greatest movie of the last 25 years.  The amazing Blue Velvet.  Going all the way back to his first movie, Eraserhead, very, very deeply disturbing and idiosyncratic films.  You know, I have seen all of his movies.  I watched all of the Twin Peaks episodes.  He is absolutely brilliant and he is also an artist, a painter, a sculptor, has lived just a fascinating life and is intensely creative.  And this is an interesting project.  This is not just a biography or an autobiography, it’s both.  So, his co-author, Kristine McKenna, does a sort of traditional biographical chapter and then David Lynch writes a chapter commenting on what she has just written, correcting it, saying well she got this wrong or this right.

Vanessa Mendoza: They are long time good friends.

Brian Anderson: Yes.

Vanessa Mendoza: …because she has written about him…

Brian Anderson: She has written about him for a long time.

Vanessa Mendoza: Yes.

Brian Anderson: And this is a big book, 500 pages.  It goes through, you know, it’s based on a hundred interviews with people who are in Lynch’s orbit, whether it’s his ex-wives, his family members, actors, you know, the musicians he has worked with very closely like, you know, the person who scores his films, Angelo Badalamenti, who is one of the great, great film composers of our time.  So, I am really looking forward to this book.  My wife read it and thought it was, you know, one of the best books she’s read in recent memory, couldn’t put it down.  So…

Vanessa Mendoza: Well, his movies, you always feel like you’re getting into his brain in the movies, so being able to read as opposed to watch will be an interesting and different experience.

Brian Anderson: Right.  Some of his movies are not straightforward.  They are hermetic, they’re frightening.  You almost enter into a David Lynch dream world.  And he has always been very reserved in describing what he is doing in those movies so people project onto them, you know, a lot of their own views.  There’s websites devoted to unpacking the kind of symbolism of Twin Peaks or Mulholland Drive.  And I don’t know how unbuttoned he is in this book.  It will be interesting to see if it gives us any insight into any of that.  Yes, Room to Dream, that’s probably the book I’m looking forward to the most.

Vanessa Mendoza: It’s the first one I’m going to pick up from your stack, that’s for sure.  Well, book number six, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown.  Is that how you say his last name?

Brian Anderson: I think that is how he pronounces it.  Yeah, he’s a Stanford MBA.

Vanessa Mendoza: A Brit, right?

Brian Anderson: Yeah, I think he is originally British and he teaches and consults at big corporations, Google and Apple.

Vanessa Mendoza: He’s an advisor to lots of the tech guys.

Brian Anderson: Yeah.  And he is – you know, I am interested in these kinds of books.  Some people really hate them, but I try to read the best books in this area of management, in part because they might help me think about how to do things better at City Journal.  This book, Essentialism, is really talking about how to commit yourself to key purposes in your life and strip away the nonessential.  So that, you know, we are all feeling busier and busier.  What is the area in which you are bringing the most value and how can you do that better and how can you cut down on you know, things that are side tracking you.

Vanessa Mendoza: The book got a lot of play when it first came out and has great blurbs by Reid Hoffman, Daniel Pink, Adam Grant, so it has certainly done well.  But I understand that you got this book recommended to you by Kanye West.  Do you want to tell us about that?

Brian Anderson: Well, not personally but yes, yes.  I have been following, you know, Kanye has had an interesting year.  I’ve always thought he was a very creative figure, you know, working in music and fashion.  And I started following his tweets this year when he started defending the Trump Administration, getting himself in a lot of trouble.  But I thought it was a brave and interesting thing for him to do.

Vanessa Mendoza: Sure.

Brian Anderson: And he did recently recommend this book.  He was clearly reading it.  And so, I picked it up and it looked interesting.  And so, you know, I’m going to see if it’s helpful.

Vanessa Mendoza: Okay.  Well that was book number six.  We are going to do a bonus book now which is number seven.  I don’t know if you are going to get through all of these books on your vacation, Brian…

Brian Anderson: I usually get through seven or eight.  So, I try to read, you know, I usually take a little – two weeks, maybe three weeks, on vacation up in Cape Cod, and try to read a book every other day, or get through a book in two days.  So, you know, most of the books, with the exception of the David Lynch, are pretty short and I try to keep it that way.

Vanessa Mendoza: Well this book, number seven, is by a great friend of the Manhattan Institute, George Gilder, and it’s called Life After Google: The Fall of Big Data and the Rise of the Blockchain Economy.  It looks really interesting.  I mean, if you don’t know George Gilder, although I imagine many of our listeners do.  But if you don’t know, then you should know that he has been very good at knowing what was coming around the corner in technology throughout his career.  He actually also did a Wriston Lecture for the Manhattan Institute in the ‘90s.  And if you look back on it you can’t believe with what precision he actually was predicting the future in that speech – another speech that you can find on the Manhattan Institute website and potentially on the City Journal website as well.  Do you want to tell us a little bit about the book, Brian?

Brian Anderson: Yeah.  George is a – as you say, a kind of technological visionary.  He’s always throughout his career tried to anticipate where the future is and what’s coming.  And he has often been right.  He’s been right about media development.  This book is looking at the emergence of blockchain technology and posits that it’s going to undermine the current ad-based revenue model that drives the internet today by making possible other kinds of commercial transactions that don’t involve advertising and that that will disrupt Google, hence the title of the book, Life After Google.  It would be problematic, obviously, for Facebook and with all of this controversy in the news these days about privacy, about…

Vanessa Mendoza: Security, yeah, sure.

Brian Anderson: Security issues.  I imagine what George Gilder, who has written for City Journal in the past, has to say about this is going to be very, very interesting.  So, yes, I’m going to try to get through that this summer too.

Vanessa Mendoza: Me too.  It looks great.  And, you know, we have two major websites, Manhattan Institute.  We have our Manhattan Institute site and our City Journal site, and from time to time we get little probes that we don’t really appreciate on the web.  And I’m glad to know that George sees a future that can be a little more secure for all of us.

Brian Anderson: Yes, I think, you know, I think if he’s right and this blockchain technology is certainly going to have some kind of transformative impact on the way we organize our lives, it’s complicated stuff but I think it’s crucial for us to get a sense of what it’s going to be and Gilder writes very clearly about technological issues and, you know, even if you disagree with his takeaway you’re going to learn something from this book, I’m sure.

Vanessa Mendoza: Yeah.  I for one would not bet against George Gilder.

Brian Anderson: Right.

Vanessa Mendoza: Well, that brings us to the end of our list for our listeners.  Don’t forget to check out more about this episode and find Brian’s summer reading list on the City Journal website.  There will be two more editions that we didn’t even mention in this podcast, so make sure you go over to www.City-Journal.org.  You can follow Brian on Twitter, @BrianAcity.  We would also love to hear your comments about today’s episode on Twitter, @CityJournal.  Lastly, if you like our show and want to hear more, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes.  Thanks for listening.  Thanks to you, Brian, for having me on and for allowing me to turn the tables on you.

Brian Anderson: All right.  Well thanks very much, Vanessa.  I enjoyed it.

Vanessa Mendoza: Okay. Bye-bye.

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