I have spent more time reading in the past week or so than I have in a while. As I once wrote for Fast Company, making time to read is about supply and demand. You need time available for reading (the supply side) and demand to use those hours for reading. That’s a function of having stuff you want to read. If you have stuff you want to read, you turn time that could be spent on other things into reading time.
It probably says a lot about my personality that what I want to read is not page-turner novels. Instead, I hacked through the 400-plus pages of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens in 4 days, and am now cruising through Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic.
Levin’s book has gotten much attention in pundit circles. It is a bit tedious at times, reading somewhat like a college history term paper, but I do think he makes an interesting point that much of modern political storytelling is built around intense nostalgia. Those on the left romanticize a time in the 1960s when cultural liberalization was on the rise and yet the economic order was far more stable and protected than it is now. Those on the right romanticize the 1980s, when economic liberalization was ascendant and, at least in the telling, there was a renewed emphasis on traditional values and American might. Both sides talk of returning to this golden age. If only our political enemies could see the light we might undertake a restoration.
This idea of seeking after a lost golden age is probably more the default human mindset, if one believes the narrative in the other Yuval’s book, Sapiens. Throughout history, people have believed that “the great gods, or the one almighty God, or the wise people of the past possessed all-encompassing wisdom, which they revealed to us in scriptures and oral traditions.” Indeed, “Until the Scientific Revolution most human cultures did not believe in progress. They thought the golden age was in the past, and that the world was stagnant, if not deteriorating. Strict adherence to the wisdom of the ages might perhaps bring back the good old times.” There were exceptions, to be sure, and people improved on little things, but the wisest people studied the existing texts. The idea that there were new things to learn, and that these new things might help us in ways our elders could not see, and that the future would therefore be better than the past, is a relatively new idea.
It is, however, a profoundly useful idea in terms of advancing humankind. As Harari points out, a Spanish peasant who fell asleep in 1000 and woke up in 1500 would recognize much of the world. One who fell asleep in 1500 and woke up in 2000 would not.
Anyway, I was thinking of this as I woke up this morning to see the results of the Brexit vote. I wish I could believe that the vote to leave was a result of people wanting to throw off the shackles of bureaucratic “takers” in Brussels and that the UK was about to establish a utopia of free minds and free markets. However, I suspect the vote was driven more by a revolt against free trade and immigration. There is a nostalgia for a golden past when nations were great and took care of their own and did not think of the international order. I suspect this same mindset is driving the revolt in the US that has done what it has done to the Republican party. We shall see in November if the outcome is the same.
In any case, I do hope that the future-focused mindset will ultimately prevail. All was not perfect in any of these golden ages of the past (just a practical thought for my own life — my alma mater would not have admitted me had I been born 30 years earlier). The human ability to solve problems in the future and achieve better things than past humans could have even anticipated, is one of our species’ best attributes. So much of that depends on the free exchange of as much as possible, not hunkering down.
In other news: My post on 7 Ways To Slow Summer Down ran over at Fast Company.
Next week I’ll be writing about “the best interns ever” — if you’ve ever had an amazing intern, what made him or her so great? I think there is much to learn from this about how to make a good impression quickly. As always, feel free to email me at lvanderkam at yahoo dot com.
Also, the American Time Use Survey is supposed to be released later today, so I’ll likely write about that next week.
Photo: Books by the two Yuvals that I have been reading this week.