Drunk On Books!

“There are people who read too much: bibliobibuli. I know some who are constantly drunk on books, as other men are drunk on whiskey or religion. They wander through this most diverting and stimulating of worlds in a haze, seeing nothing and hearing nothing.”- H. L. Mencken

One of my earliest memories is that of pondering over dusty Magazines piled up in an unused room of my house. I have always had a liking for the written word. I am lately being deeply suspicious of the “Nurture Assumption”, as when I was a boy, no one encouraged me to read anything beyond school work. If anything, I was actively discouraged whenever I ventured beyond my course material. I used to hide novels inside my school books and read.

As a six year old child, I came across a collection of Russian short stories brought home by my father to ensure that I stay silent when my mother was undergoing an operation. A short story, marked by the picture of a pretty girl caught my attention. After unsuccessfully pestering my mother to read it to me, I decided I would have a shot at reading it myself. Soon it struck me that the picture was not that of a girl, but a boy with long hair. His name was Alyosha, and he was a boarding school student of nine or ten. The story was “The Little Black Hen”, or The Underground Inhabitants by Antony Pogorelsky. Alyosha was gifted a seed of corn for his noble deed of rescuing a little black hen from being slaughtered. The magic seed would help him master his school work without even studying. How I wished I had such a magic seed! The lesson of the story, of course, was that pride goes before a fall. Reality brought Alyosha down. When I went to school next day, my class teacher asked me whether I cried last day. I said I didn’t, and she reminded me with astonishment: “You are not a good son”. I was confused and didn’t know why I should cry except for the fact that my mother didn’t read the story to me-something for which I haven’t forgiven her yet.

My happiness knew no limits when I found a copy of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” in a book shelf when I . In the next two years, I must have read it hundreds of times, with my attention on some particular passages. I feared whether someone will find out my liking, and the unusual erotic predilections it revealed. “What if Tom hadn’t been noble?” I kept wondering. One day, when I was ten, I found the book burned. I still have no idea who was guilty of that nasty deed. I felt deep sadness which I can’t even express here.

As a child all I wanted was to be left alone to read, and not to be dragged into games I couldn’t enjoy.  School was a “Hobbesian jungle” to me. When I was ten, I tried my hand at writing through a short story on a sparrow which built a nest inside my home. After weeks of strategic planning, I tried to trap the sparrow late in the night-with my brother. Unfortunately it left my place before we gave our innocent fantasies a try. I nearly wept! The story I wrote didn’t impress me as much as it did others.

In my high school virtually no one read books. Worse, they barely knew that a world of books and ideas existed. I mostly felt a sense of alienation and frustration from which I haven’t got out yet. “Not hatred, but boredom-the draining, paralyzing boredom”.

When I was in my mid teens I took a membership at the local lending library with my modest pocket money and it set me on a frantic reading program. I averaged one book a day in those days. As I wrote elsewhere: “Books helped me maintain my sanity those days. I had hundreds of books in my personal library. I made castles with them. I lied in my bed staring at it, planning which all to read in the coming days. There I was given happiness at least for a few years by those Dale Carnegie books, Anthony Robbins books and all those Millions of books spewed out of the press promising the BIG ‘S’ in 7 simple steps. The writers got successful, the publishers got rich & book vendors got money. I remained all the same, at least in the eyes of my hostel mates other than that I slept with the dreams of making a fortune writing another one on my own.”

College was worse. I never attended more than six or seven classes a semester in college. I never opened my college text books. It didn’t take me much time to bottom my batch. But, I burnt prodigious energy to acquire what I felt was worth having. Cognitive psychology taught me that there is an unexplored body of literature which would help me acquire powers I never knew I had before. My batch-mates were in awe of my near-photographic memory, and the lightning speed with which I read and solved problems. Little did they realize that like each and every skill, these too have to be acquired. I used to read a lot of Alice Miller and Lloyd de Mause too those days, though I later gave upon their fundamental premises. Psychology was in fact, a passion from the age of eight onwards.

Very few in my college were in to active reading. However I remember a smart 13 year old girl who lived in the same city who said: “I don’t read much, but I have read the Harry Potter series a zillion times. I do not know why, but my mom doesn’t allow me to read Sidney Sheldon”. Poor little girl! She didn’t know why! I was going through an Ayn Rand phase then. She had given upon Ayn Rand by the time she was 16. She wondered why I was still not over it.

The Ayn Rand phase happened out of choice.When I was in the third year of my Engineering degree, I came across a book: “Mathematical Techniques for Economists”. I decided to dig deep into Economics. There were very few Economics books in my college library. I started  with “Economics” by Paul A Samuelson, a Keynesian and the first Nobel Prize winner in Economics. Samuelson didn’t take a strong stance on several issues, perhaps because he didn’t want to appear too dogmatic. He was of the opinion that Equality is an ideal, and the issue of minimum wage laws is too complicated that even experts disagree and can’t reach a “consensus”. Luckily, I never took much to Samuelson. It was unlike him to do so, but there was quote of Frederic Bastiat–his unsurpassed Candle Makers Petition-in Samuelson’s book. I was shocked by the brilliance of the Bastiat quote:

Frederic Bastiat was a genius, I was convinced. I searched for Bastiat and was directed to the then fledgling “Library of Economics and Liberty” website (EconLib). At the “Library of Economics and Liberty”, I went through the biographies of several dozens of Economists and finally narrowed down my attention to three: Ludwig Von Mises, Adam Smith and Bastiat. The Mises’ biography said he was an economist who believed that any kind of Government intervention will result in unintended consequences. “Mises is an Economist I should read further”, I told myself. Like many a young men before me, I was moved by she utterly uncompromising fashion in which Mises battled collectivist arguments. Later my disagreements with Mises grew-even on his supposedly stellar contributions to methodology, business cycle theory and the economic calculation problem. My devotion to his fundamental ideas however remained intact. Mises had it in him something which is so rare in this world of men and women who sell their soul for a cent, and walk over corpses for a nickel-Intellectual honesty. As Murray Rothbard wrote: “Never would Mises compromise his principles, never would he bow the knee to a quest for respectability or social or political favor.”

I was born much after Mises’ death, but I found these words of Ralph Raico moving: “Mises tends to create in one’s mind life-long standards of what an ideal intellectual should be. These are standards to which other scholars whom one encounters will never be equal, and judged by which the ordinary run of university professor—at Chicago, Princeton, or Harvard—is simply a joke (but it would be unfair to judge them by such a measure; here we are talking about two entirely different sorts of human beings).” Like Bryan Caplan, I too was driven by these words of Rothbard on Mises: “What could he have done, and what would the world have gained, if he had enjoyed the leisure that most academics fritter away?”

Soon, I gave upon Math, and Economics became my passion. I read everything on Capitalism I could find, and one day I found a copy of “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal” by Ayn Rand in a road side book stall. Initially I considered the book to be unreadable. “What on earth is Objectivism?”, “Who the hell is this John Galt she often quotes?” I kept wondering. One day, however, I decided to read it to the end. Nathaniel Branden’s essay on subsidized education radically changed my perspective on the issue. Branden’s first passage on labor unions was enough for me to be convinced that labor union coercion and minimum wage laws were harmful, a harm which extended even to very workers the law is intended to protect. Soon, the virtue of selfishness sounded way too obvious to me.

I went on to read “The Fountainhead” and all of her other works I could find on the Internet. “The Fountainhead” will always remain my favorite fiction work. I never wanted to be Howard Roark, but Gail Wynand’s learning process was too inspiring to me: “It was a volume of Herbert Spencer. He went through a quiet agony trying to read it to the end. He read it to the end. He understood one quarter of what he had read. But this started him on a process which he pursued with a systematic, fist-clenched determination. Without advice, assistance or plan, he began reading an incongruous assortment of books; he would find some passage which he could not understand in one book, and he would get another on that subject. He branched out erratically in all directions; he read volumes of specialized erudition first and high-school primers afterward. There was no order in his reading; but there was order in what remained of it in his mind.” I wept when Dominique asks Gail Wynand, “All that copy on him–do you write it yourself?” “Most of it.” “Gail, what a great journalist you could have been.”

How can one not feel sorry for Gail when he reads the last passage of Howard Roark’s’ court room speech: “My act of loyalty to every creator who ever lived and was made to suffer. To every tortured hour of loneliness, denial, frustration, abuse he was made to spend–and to the battles he won. To every creator whose name is known–and to every creator who lived, struggled and perished unrecognized before he could achieve. To every creator who was destroyed in body or in spirit. To Henry Cameron. To Steven Mallory. To a man who doesn’t want to be named, but who is sitting in this courtroom and knows that I am speaking of him.”

I also loved Rand’s caricature of H L Mencken (Austen Heller): “He had started as a literary critic and ended by becoming a quiet fiend devoted to the destruction of all forms of compulsion, private or public, in heaven or on earth. He could discuss the latest play on Broadway, medieval poetry or international finance.” I could say the same of all the men I have always admired-the ones who knew everything about everything.

I loved many passages in Atlas Shrugged too. I wondered what her money speech would do to the ones who whine that money is the root of all evil:

“Money will not buy intelligence for the fool, or admiration for the coward, or respect for the incompetent. The man who attempts to purchase the brains of his superiors to serve him, with his money replacing his judgment, ends up by becoming the victim of his inferiors. The men of intelligence desert him, but the cheats and the frauds come flocking to him, drawn by a law which he has not discovered: that no man may be smaller than his money. Is this the reason why you call it evil?”

Never did I read a writer who was as good at unmasking the ugly face of Apostle’s of public welfare:

“I’m not going to say that I’m working for the welfare of my public, because I know I’m not. I know that I’m delivering the poor bastards into slavery, and that’s all there is to it. And they know it, too. But they know that I’ll have to throw them a crumb once in a while, if I want to keep my racket, while with the rest of you they wouldn’t have a chance in hell. So that’s why, if they’ve got to be under a whip, they’d rather I held it, not you—you drooling, tear-jerking, mealy-mouthed bastards of the public welfare!”

When Ayn Rand lashes out at academics, I can agree: “Sweep aside those parasites of subsidized classrooms. Let the cannibal who snarls that the freedom of man’s mind was needed to create an industrial civilization, but is not needed to maintain it, be given an arrowhead and bearskin, not a university chair of economics.”

I do not call myself an Objectivist now. The Objectivists I know are thoroughly convinced that there is no fundamental flaw in her philosophy, and haven’t yet woken up to the fact that much of her original arguments are a “corruption of rationality”, as Scott Ryan remarked. Scott Ryan, Michael Huemer, Albert Ellis and Bryan Caplan played a huge role in weakening the hold of the “Church of Randroidism” on me. Bryan Caplan is a brilliant, young GMU economist who completely shook my positions on many subjects, from the “Nature-Nurture” debate to Objectivism to Austrian Economics. I would have been hopelessly lost without Bryan. Another contemporary thinker who impressed me with his meticulous research was Robert Greene, a modern day Machiavelli.

My disagreements with Objectivism are not the run-of-the-mill arguments I hear against Capitalism and Selfishness. I disagree with her notion that Selfishness is a virtue, but that is not the point. Unfortunately, most former Randroids give up whatever that is good in her by the time they reach adulthood. I have seen her philosophy ruining the lives of my friends who tried to act like died-in-the-wool Objectivists. When Nathaniel Branden said in a speech: “Howard Roark gives out an unrealistic picture of human psychology.” he was mildly pointing to that reality. I have always felt that if one doesn’t have love for the work he does in him, no amount of reading inspirational fiction will help. If one didn’t have professional integrity to begin with, he should be satisfied if at all he gets to know that “The sound perception of an ant doesn’t include thunderstorms.”

I think many of the horrible mistakes made by Objectivists and Austrian Economists could be avoided by a little bit of introspection, open mindedness and reading. In politics, ethics and epistemology, many of the original arguments of Objectivists could be blasted by their opponents with minimal effort. I strongly believe anyone of reasonable intelligence can reach largely right conclusions in any of the social sciences by listening calmly to all sides. If one begins with an axe to grind, nurturing notions such as “Greedy capitalists should be shown their rightful place”, he is in for deep trouble. Unfortunately, too many of them approach the subject in such a manner.

I had come across Murray Rothbard by accident, in my initial days itself. I laughed to death reading his play “Mozart was a red” and essay “The sociology of the Ayn Rand cult”. Murray’s essay on Free and Compulsory Education had a profound impact on me. However, his arguments for anarchy were not enough to fully convince me. Morris and Linda Tannehill were the first authors I had read who dealt with anarchy in a “realistic” manner.

Lately, I have developed a liking for the sarcastic Henry Louis Mencken-the greatest prose stylist of the 20th century. I think every writer should try to live up to William Manchester’s words on H L Mencken, which set in my mind lifelong standards:

“He was a writer. He was H. L. Mencken. I have never known a kinder man. But when he unsheathed his typewriter and sharpened its keys, his prose was anything but kind. It was rollicking and it was ferocious. Witty, intellectual polemicists are a vanishing breed today. Their role has been usurped by television boobs whose IQs measure just below their body temperatures. Some journalism schools even warn their students to shun words that may hurt. But sometimes words should hurt. That is why they are in the language. When terrorists slaughter innocents, when corporation executives betray the trust of shareholders, when lewd priests betray the trust of little children, it is time to mobilize the language and send it into battle.”

When I think of H. L. Mencken, what he wrote on the typical American politician comes to my mind: He is a man who has lied and dissembled, and a man who has crawled. He knows the taste of boot polish. He has suffered kicks in the tonneau of his pantaloons. He has taken orders from his superiors in knavery and he has wooed and flattered his inferiors in sense. His public life is an endless series of evasions and false pretenses. He is willing to embrace any issue, however idiotic, that will get him votes, and he is willing to sacrifice any principle, however sound, that will lose them for him. I do not describe the democratic politician at his inordinate worst; I describe him as he is encountered in the full sunshine of normalcy.”

I am filled with immense joy when I think that my intellectual journey so far have been too good. It clearly looks like the best is still ahead of me.

Author: Shanu Athiparambath

Jocks Should Be Worried.

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