During Kanye West’s spectacular fall last fall, my friends and I were often stunned by the latest outrageous things he had said. And we sent around clips of what, in hindsight, were horribly suspicious comments he’d made before. An example of this was “I’m not a fan of books”, which Ye said to an interviewer at the publication of his own book, Thank you and you’re welcome. “I am a proud non-reader of books,” he continued. That statement strikes me as one of the more disturbing things he’s ever said because, unlike the blatantly reprehensible anti-Semitic rants that have despised the world, his anti-book stance is shared by a number of other highly influential figures. It’s disturbing because it says something not only about Ye’s character, but also about the smug solipsistic tenor of this cultural moment.
We have never had access to so many perspectives, ideas and information. Much of it is fleetingly interesting but ultimately unimportant – not to be confused with expertise, much less wisdom. That much is widely understood and discussed. The ease with which we can know things and communicate with each other, laundering success in one field into pseudo-authority in countless others, has been combined with a traditional American tendency toward anti-intellectualism and celebrity worship. Throw in a decades-long decline in the humanities, and we get our superficial culture where even the elite will openly dismiss as meaningless our main repositories for the very best that has been imagined.
If one person managed to surpass Ye in that season of high-end self-sabotage that marked the end of 2022, it was former techno prodigy Sam Bankman-Fried. In an ill-considered September profile published on Sequoia Capital’s website, the 30-year-old SBF delves into any kind of literature, lecturing a journalist on why he would “never” read a book. “I’m very skeptical about books,” he expands. “I’m not saying that no book is ever worth reading, but I actually believe something close to that. I think if you wrote a book you screwed it up and it should have been a six paragraph blog post.”
It is an irritating feeling, as ignorant and arrogant as Ye’s, but even more worrying because SBF is not an entertainer whose debut album was mentioned College dropout. He is a supposedly earnest young man who was celebrated in the corridors of power not only as a financial scholar, but also – through his much-publicized philanthropy and striking association with the “effective altruism” movement – as a moral genius. The title of that profile: “Sam Bankman-Fried has a savior complex — and maybe you should too.”
There is an expression in journalism: “Three is a trend.” Unfortunately, I have a third example of a prominent book skeptic. In a feature film that recreates the demise of Sean McElwee, the 30-year-old founder of Data for Progress, New York magazine noted, as McElwee would put it, books are stupid – they only tell you what people want you to know. I confess, I don’t really understand what that means, much less why McElwee thinks it’s profound. Shortly after meeting SBF — which spent some $40 million on Democratic causes in 2020 and pledged to give a staggering $1 billion by 2024 — McElwee, also an evangelist on effective altruism, would become one of his trusted advisers. become. to send a river of money,” writes David Freedlander. “It was ‘cool as hell,’ McElwee told associates, to advise one of the richest people in the world before he turned 30.”
“Cool” is one way of describing the fiscal and political interventions of these confident young men; terribly misinformed, maliciously incompetentand moral bankruptcy also come to mind. McElwee’s reputation would be ruined after the midterms, primarily for producing error-ridden polling data and even allegedly pressuring at least one employee to violate campaign finance law and participate in a straw donor scheme (a federal crime of which SBF has also been accused). ). All of this happened just as the SBF crypto scam crashed, destroying tens of billions of dollars worth of other people’s wealth.
In practice, it is one thing not to read books, or not to read them as much as one would like. But it is quite another to despise the deed in principle. Identifying as someone who categorically rejects books suggests a much greater lack of character. As Ye once (prophetically) riffed during a live performance, “I get my quotes from movies because I don’t read, or from, like, figure, real life or something. Live the real life; talk to real people; get information; asking people questions; and it was about, ‘You either die a superhero or you live to be the villain.’” As clever as that sounds, getting all your information from the SBF ideal of six-paragraph blog posts, or from the movies and random conversations choosing Ye is as foolish as identifying as someone who chooses to eat only fast food.
Many books should not have been published, and writing a book is an excruciating process full of failures. But when a book succeeds, even partially, it represents a level of concentration and sophistication—a mastery of subject and style reinforced by patience and clarified in revision—that cannot be matched. Writing a book is an extremely disproportionate act: what can be consumed in hours takes years to come to fruition. Which is his virtue. And the rare patience that a book still demands from a reader – those precious slow hours of deep focus – is also a virtue. One might reasonably ask, after all, where did these men go so quickly? You could reasonably joke that the answer is prison or obscurity.
Let in Anna Kareninain a period of self-imposed social exile in Italy, Anna and her lover, Vronsky, are treated to a diatribe about the destructive superficiality of the “free-thinking” young men – proto-disruptors, if you will – who have seen the era and are steeped in ‘ ideas of denial’.
“In the old days, the freethinker was a man who was brought up with ideas about religion, law and morality, and who came to free thinking only through conflict and struggle,” notes Vronsky’s friend Golenishchev. “But now a new type of born freethinkers has emerged who grow up without even having heard of principles of morality or religion, of the existence of authorities.” The problem then was, as Tolstoy puts it, that such an ambitious young man would try, “because he is not crazy, to educate himself”, and would therefore turn to “the magazines” instead of “to the classics and theologians and tragedians and historians and philosophers, and you know, all the intellectual work that came his way.
A Twitter follower referred me back to this passage after I complained on that social network about the outlandish contempt of the most brutal and richly rewarded young men of our own time – they always seem to be men – directed at conventional forms of learning. And while, unlike in Tolstoy’s day, these men may also declare that you’ve “messed up” if you even bother to read magazines, they share with earlier freethinkers a proud refusal to believe that the past has something to offer them. Like the freethinkers who provoked Golenishchev’s scorn, these technology-obsessed autodidacts (even Ye fell victim to the cult of “engineering” our way through every human dilemma) now nestle themselves in a worldview in which “the old creeds don’t even provide material for discussion,” as Golenishchev puts it.
While the three disgraced men I have described here are extremes, I do not think I am exaggerating when I say that we have become greatly alienated from true wisdom or the humility with which erudition tempers facile notions of invincibility. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that two of these smug non-readers are also adherents of effective altruism—an absurdly calculating intellectual onanism taken to the extreme that cannot survive contact with a single good novel.
When I was in my twenties and wrote my first book – I know, I really screwed up there – I came across a quote that I can’t find the source of which essentially said, “You could fill a book with everything I know, but everything I don’t know could fill a library.’ It’s a useful visualization, perhaps the most basic and pragmatic justification for deep reading, and while correlation isn’t causation, I think we’d save ourselves an enormous amount of trouble in the future if we agreed to a simple litmus test: immediately ignore anyone who sells a vision and proudly proclaims that he hates reading.