Tag Archives: reading

How To Find Great Stuff To Read On The Internet

Most intellectuals, writers and journalists are mediocre. But this doesn’t bother me much. There is a lot of good stuff to read out there on the internet. If you are an intelligent teenager or young adult—or even a full-grown man who disagrees—where should you begin?

Thomas Szasz’ work against psychiatry is great, and I’ve been reading much of his work over the past few weeks. Yesterday, I saw a report on how psychiatrists try to cure people of homosexuality in some bogus country. What people do not know is that Homosexuality and masturbation—and even reading books or being runaway slaves—were seen as mental illness not long ago, by all smarties. Thomas Szasz’ arguments against the concept of mental illness are the best I’ve ever read.

Less Wrong is a community blog which makes you really think.

Satoshi Kanazawa was fired from Psychology Today for saying black women are not very attractive. I am not surprised that much of the prose in Psychology Today is very mediocre.

It’s good to start with this paper on how geniuses become less productive when they age. Continue reading

How Demonetization Changed My Life

Do you write as well?

It was November. Shorts were fading rapidly out of the streets. Many girls queued to the ATM machines near my home in night clothes around midnight, their t-shirts knotted at their waist. Aren’t their parents home? I don’t read newspapers, and I don’t watch TV. The bright fellows I follow on Twitter and Facebook don’t like news either.  So, I didn’t know what was coming. I slept for many hours without knowing that those clever girls were trying to get cash before the news got through to everybody.

There are always enough such girls to go around in Noida. My landlady’s niece is one of them. When I first met her, she was sitting on the bed, pouting and sulking, complaining about some ridiculous thing. My landlady and her mother tried to calm her down, but that didn’t have any effect on her. I, the scholar and gentleman, was at my desk, poring over tomes on economics of culture. It was not that I did not see her, but my mind wasn’t there. When her mother said that it was time for them to go, she snapped straight and scratched her back, raising her top. She then turned  around  and  smiled  at  me,  her  eyes  twinkling.  I  raised  my eyebrows, glanced at her and smiled. “Bye”. Continue reading

Should Writers Read?

When I was in college, one of my prized possessions was a biography of Sachin with its margins filled by a school girl. Her email password was “Sachin”. The letters she wrote to me were beautiful, though she did not read. In her letters, there was not a single word that would send the reader to the dictionary. I rarely see such purity in literature. The truth is that there are eight year olds who write more clearly than virtually all editors in this city. Writers are born, not made. What separates a eight year old who writes clearly from a literary giant? Plenty of talent. Tens of thousands of hours of hard work. 

I read Jai Arjun Singh‘s article on young tycoons of mass market fiction a few weeks ago. He is surprised that many popular Indian writers are convinced that reading isn’t their thing. I don’t know what they are smoking. People have many misconceptions about writing, because they have never really gone through the process of being a writer. I know people who believe that you write from your “heart”. But, writing is an intellectual process. Great writing stems from a great mind. To think deeply, you should feel intensely. But, this does not change the issue.

Then, there are people who believe that you can learn how to write by reading style manuals. It is true that if you grow up reading a lot, you will acquire very valuable skills. If you write for many years, you will acquire skills that writers so need. But, this does not mean that the process can be reversed. It is not possible to become a great writer by acquiring verbal skills—or by learning where to place commas. As the great H.L. Mencken once said, They write badly simply because they cannot think clearly.

I don’t know where all these assumptions come from. To begin with, English grammar is too complex to be learned as a set of rules. Any good psycholinguist will tell you that a 3 year old’s understanding of English grammar will be far more sophisticated than any grammar text in the world—if she grew up in the US or the UK. Now, imagine the complexity of the mind of a Nabokov or a Faulkner. Language is mindbogglingly complex. It cannot be taught as a set of a finite number of rules. This is why “schoolma’ms, bucolic college professors, and other such pseudo-literates” fail so miserably at writing, despite their attempts to learn how to write and edit (!) from style manuals. This is also why such beliefs are often found at the lowest rungs of the society—and never in great writers.

As I said, great writers are born, not made. But, this does not mean that great writers were born with skills in English composition. They were born with an innate fluency with language. They were born with certain attitudes of mind. But, they acquired the skill to write beautiful, fully formed sentences. How? As Steven Pinker points out:

“No one is born with skills in English composition per se. Those skills may not have come from stylebooks, but they must have come from somewhere. That somewhere is the writing of other writers. Good writers are avid readers. They have absorbed a vast inventory of words, idioms, constructions, tropes, and rhetorical tricks, and with them a sensitivity to how they mesh and how they clash. This is the elusive “ear” of a skilled writer—the tacit sense of style which every honest stylebook, echoing Wilde, confesses cannot be explicitly taught. Biographers of great authors always try to track down the books their subjects read when they were young, because they know these sources hold the key to their development as writers.”

This cannot be explicitly taught because such skills are too complex to be explicitly taught. World class performers in many fields spend roughly 10,000 hours to acquire competence of the highest order. In writing and science, you need far more hours of practice. I am not even counting the tens of thousands of hours we spend reading. Of course, this is an oversimplification. The amount of practice you need varies from person to person. But, even the best writers work excruciatingly hard. Again, this does not mean you will become a great writer by working as hard as Naipaul, though it is true that Naipaul works really, really hard. You most probably will not. Not one in many millions is born with such enormous talent.

Talent is rare—rarer than people think. A few years ago, I read an article economist Jagdish Bhagwati wrote for Mint. It was badly written. This is not because Jagdish Bhagwati is abysmally read. This is not because Jagdish Bhagwati is lazy, stupid or inexperienced. He was 80 years old when he wrote this. Many believe that he is Nobel Prize material. There could be many reasons. He was not born with an innate fluency with language. English is not his mother tongue. Perhaps he did not read much in his formative years. He grew up in the 1930s when people did not read much. Most Indians were illiterate then. Asians generally have low verbal IQs. Academia does not punish bad writing. Academic journals place too many constraints on writers. They do not write because they are genuinely curious, or because they have a strong desire to speak their mind. They are forced to write. That is how the academia works. There are, of course, other reasons why academic writing stinks. Academics are not able to get outside their own heads. It doesn’t occur to them that what they write is beyond common folk. But, I doubt whether this is why Bhagwati writes so badly. 

Again, don’t be too quick to assume that all academics are lousy writers.Almost all my favorite economists and social scientists write well—-or at least, decently enough. Why? Like good writers, they are avid readers too. The best economists, for example, know other social sciences fairly well—at times, extraordinarily well. Some of them read more fiction than most literary critics do. 

But, Jagdish Bhagwati is not an exception. Most experienced academics and journalists write badly. The sad truth is that this is a very difficult skill to acquire. Somerset Maugham once said that there were only six writers in human history who knew how to write flawless English. I agree with him. All of us fail ourselves, to some degree, because it is such a difficult task. It is not at all surprising that many obscure Babbits fail miserably.

This is why I am surprised when I hear that it ain’t necessary that writers read. I even see people who believe that editing is very different from writing—and that it ain’t necessary that editors read.  Jai Arjun Singh is quite perceptive in such matters:

Being a reader is inseparable from the question of a writer’s abilities. When you start reading from an early age, not only do you develop certain standards, you also realise how much good work has already been done. And it makes you humble – it might even make you diffident about your own work, which can be a problem. But at least it prevents you from being cocky and overconfident and thinking “I think I have a great story to tell, and the world is just waiting for my book; literature begins with me.” During our session, I asked Singh the obvious question: if you don’t read yourself, on what basis do you expect others to read your books? I didn’t get a coherent response.

I’m not a literary snob: my favorite authors include many genre writers like Stephen King, Agatha Christie and Thomas Harris, all of whom have reached very large readerships; as a film critic too, I constantly defend the value of good mainstream films, and my latest book is dedicated to viewers “who are smart enough to take popular cinema seriously”. But at the same time I’m also uncomfortable about some of the narratives that have grown around mass-market writing in India – such as the inverse snobbery on view when bestselling writers scoff at “pretentious” literary types and wonder why anyone would waste six or seven years writing a “heavy” book full of “complicated” words.

This is a view I completely agree with. I do not believe that popular cinema is less artistic. I never believed that popular literature is less artistic. I read many popular writers, and I am convinced that some of them are better than most great names in literature. It is obvious to me that people look down on popular literature because they have such poor judgment. They have such narrow minds. They do not know that Shakespeare was once considered a popular writer. Many great painters and musicians who are considered great today were profit-minded. Sales were very important to Ayn Rand, though she did not place money above the integrity of her work. 

I do not look down on popular Indian writers. One of the best things that happened to Indian literature is that there is a now a larger market for popular fiction. This does not mean that the Indian reader is reading more trash. This means that the Indian audience is now more mature. At last, there is a market for literature.  One of the greatest tributes you can pay a society is that people are now consuming literature like potato chips. Indian writers do not comprehend Chetan Bhagat because they do not have the brains to see marketing as an art. But, the anti-intellectualism in these self-styled writers is worse than annoying. They are immature, but they think they have the whole world figured out.

Why do people believe in such nonsense? My best guess is that people are mad. They have no sense of reality. They do not know where they stand. This makes me melancholy, because they are unskilled and unaware of it. Cognitive psychologists call this the Dunning-Kruger effect. They are not able to see this. If you are not fluent as a writer, it is hard to say how fluent you are. Nabokov once said that you can’t even give your phone number without giving something of yourself. They are probably fooling themselves, and their readers who are semi-literates. But, they are not fooling their betters. Now, it is obvious why hardly anyone outside India read the many young Indian writers who are tycoons of mass market fiction. The more sophisticated audience in the west is less tolerant.

Private Truths, Public Lies And The Age Of Abundance

Years ago, I spent my mornings talking to an exceptionally smart Canadian teen on the internet. She loved to entertain her virtual friends by taking her clothes off. When I asked her why, she said that it was a pleasant experience for everybody concerned. But, the last thing she wanted was her mother knowing it. One day, she said that she was depressed. She said that she felt bad about being a harlot over the Yahoo Messenger. I knew this before she said it because I knew enough about human nature to be suspicious of such claims. But, the internet is the best teacher I can think of. 

A decade ago, I loved reading the Orkut scrapbook of a 16 year old girl who shared her nudes for everybody to see. I was a silent spectator who enjoyed her conversations with men who entered her space hoping that there is so much that is possible. She was wise beyond her years—smart as a whip. When we once talked, she said that I should have known her horrible reputation. Her language skills were excellent, unlike that of men who stalked her. When someone called her a snob for being a grammar Nazi, she said, “When I was in middle school, I used to read high school textbooks. Nobody ever helped me.” Years later, I heard that she killed herself at UC Berkeley, where she was studying Physics. Without the internet and social media, we would not have known much about the inner worlds of outliers like her. If we knew more, she would have….she would have, well, survived.

The internet tells us that we are all so similar and so different at the same time. Nothing is more important to morality than deep insight into people who are very different from us. Moral refinement is the fountainhead of human progress. The most prosperous societies are where morality and fairness are valued to the largest degree. If moral refinement is the fountainhead of human progress, this outweighs everything else that the internet gives us. I argue that this is the most underrated fact about the internet. This is an extraordinary claim. But, one day, the internet will be celebrated for this, more than for anything else.

The internet makes us human.

Philosopher Michael Huemer thinks that political ignorance is greatest problem that we face. Huemer believes that political ignorance is a graver threat than crime, drug addiction or even world poverty, because political ignorance is at the root of everything else.  He is wrong. Our moral failures are often a form of politicking. But, political ignorance does not explain everything. It is our poor understanding of ourselves and that of other minds that prevents us from solving much of our problems, including political ignorance.

If you are discerning enough, your Facebook friend list is probably a more diversified portfolio of human beings than your school or office will ever be. The best blogs say more about the inner workings of the finest minds on earth than any newspaper or magazine ever will. When the best minds are unguarded, what ensues is an unusually high supply of intelligent conversation—-and extraordinarily perceptive writing. This is why the internet is very important for moral refinement.

Now, many believe that, on the internet, no one will see the real “You”. In fact, the truth is the opposite. Over 5,000 years ago, the written word did not even exist. Aristotle would not have had much success in those days. But, this does not mean that “Nicomachean Ethics” is misleading or that Aristotle had quite a different personality when he wrote. Aristotle is remembered for his philosophical works, and not for being a wife-beater or for “not holding the gods in honor”.

Moral refinement of mankind would not have been possible without great literature. But, in a world without the written word, Aristotle’s greatest talent would not even have been a voice that people could recognize. To see the “Real Aristotle”, his contemporaries probably had to separate the “Aristotle who did not hold the Gods in honor” from Aristotle, the great philosopher. We face no such dilemma today. There is near unanimous agreement on the criteria Aristotle should be judged on. But, if the written word did not exist, Aristotle’s place in history would have been the same as that of the savages of his time. On the internet, we make finer distinctions. In the future, people will find it obvious that people were so undifferentiated before the internet. Before the internet, there was nothing but a heap of moral uniformity. For the same reason we celebrate language and literature for how far we have come today, one day, the internet will be celebrated for making people morally distinguishable.

The age of the internet is the age of abundance. This is indisputable. But, of all things we find on the internet, what matters the most is the abundance of moral perspectives. What matters the most is the abundance of knowledge about the inner worlds of people. Without knowing much about the inner worlds of people, we would never understand their moral beliefs.

In the real world, we see people. We see how they dress, walk and speak. But, their inner worlds are closed to us, and often to themselves. But, ultimately, their hidden inner worlds drive everything that they do. Hidden motives influence what people do, regardless of what they say publicly. Hidden assumptions almost determine their political and moral beliefs. But, if these motives and assumptions are hidden, often even to themselves, how do we know them? There are no substitutes for introspection, reading and hard thought. But, these are still not enough to know what other people hide, even from themselves. There is no better guide than the internet because people tend to be frank in their virtual lives. Unguarded.


Facebook, Twitter, Instant Messenger, Blogs. Yes.

Frankness on the internet may seem suicidal. A brewing revolution will always be invisible to everybody, but the most perceptive. When people underestimate the price of speaking their mind, many will. Speaking one’s mind will slowly become the norm, tweet by tweet. The price of speaking one’s mind will fall, tweet by tweet. One day, people will find it hard to believe that many of the most obvious truths about human nature were once private truths that no one spoke of.

Why Social Skills Cannot Be Learned

I am not sure that this is his intention, but I think this blog post of Eliezer Yudkowsky explains why social skills cannot be learned. What normal human beings call social skills is largely the ability to read others. I am repeating this because people do not appreciate this enough—What normal human beings mean by social skills are, largely, mind reading skills.

“Brains are so complex that the only way to simulate them is by forcing a similar brain to behave similarly. A brain is so complex that if a human tried to understand brains the way that we understand e.g. gravity or a car—observing the whole, observing the parts, building up a theory from scratch—then we would be unable to invent good hypotheses in our mere mortal lifetimes. The only possible way you can hit on an “Aha!” that describes a system as incredibly complex as an Other Mind, is if you happen to run across something amazingly similar to the Other Mind—namely your own brain—which you can actually force to behave similarly and use as a hypothesis, yielding predictions.”

Coming from me, this is a great compliment, but this is why I think Manu Joseph’s “The Illicit Happiness Of Other People” is one of the most underrated novels in history. Most readers would have missed the extremely nuanced observations on human heterogeneity:

“The truth of every neurological system is unique and it cannot be transmitted. It cannot be told, it cannot be conveyed, it cannot be searched for and found.

The second sentence was, of course, “lifted” from Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good And Evil”:

“It is some fundamental certainty which a noble soul has about itself, something which is not to be sought, is not to be found, and perhaps, also, is not to be lost.” 

But, still. Continue reading