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2022 Kvetching & Books
Reflections on writing, 2022 in books, and a note to you Dear Reader
In this Kvetch:
Kvetch — how’s it going?
2022 in books
A Personal Note
1. Kvetch — how’s it going?
My first Kvetch was on July 17 this year. So it’s been 5 months. How’s it going?
Over that time I’ve 5x’d the subscribers I had at mishasaul.com. Which is not saying much, but still — Substack now describes me as having thousands of subscribers instead of hundreds:
Each bump typically corresponds with a share of a new post by a big blog or Twitter account. The biggest bump in the middle is from a shout out by Astral Codex Ten. Tyler Cowen linked to Why did comedy die? which is my most popular post to date. Balaji reposted one of my more esoteric and fun pieces, The Heroes We’re Allowed. Richard Hanania shared my earlier pieces, Cernovich retweeted Stalin’s War, and others like Arnold Kling and Rob Henderson have, pleasingly, found and shared my work organically.
The surprise runaways were probably We are made to live like firemen which seemed to have really struck a nerve and The Sublime Transgression of an Appalachian Hero which seemed super niche (an ode to an Appalachian what??) but somehow worked.
Hitler Story Hour is in my view an underrated post.
Why do I Kvetch?
There is no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow. It only takes time to kvetch with you.
It is satisfying to know that at least in one vector of my life I am doing exactly what I want to be doing. I know I would be doing this even if I had 100x my current wealth, because there is no hope of Kvetch ever being even remotely economically attractive. So I know I’m doing it for its own sake.
I love my day job — investing — and I invest outside of my day job as well. But it’s ~impossible to disentangle investing / work from its financial reward. Your returns ultimately are the measure of your success. If you are good you might make money, if you lose money you are definitionally bad. I also like that — investors are transparent mercenaries (there’s comfort in admitting that) and your feet are constantly kept to the coals.
I was cautious after my accidental WWII series that a whole lot of WWII dads had signed up with an expectation of more of the same. It’s a pleasure to write about whatever niche, unrelated subject captivates me from week to week — and have it resonate. I assure you, there is no rhyme or reason to a newsletter that writes not one but two pieces on The Nightmare Before Christmas. I am certain this is the worst way to grow an audience. Niche, consistent writers seem to do best. But mine is a longer game. A kind of filter for a cadre of truly resonant souls. If you’ve stuck with me through a series on WWII and a series on polygamy and kvetches on the Pumpkin King, then there is a bond between us. Only we — you and I —know the strange land we’ve trekked through. And I ask for nothing but to share what wanders across the landscapes of my dreams.
Whenever I settle on a subject I already feel the loss of needing to eventually leave it. I know I’m a tourist in the space. For a few weeks or months I might meditate on WWII. Or native American tribes. Or Texas. But I envy the man who spends his whole life studying a single man or moment. The man who is compelled to write and write and write about the one thing to truly understand it (Robert Caro!). But I am a tourist and I will leave — too much else in the world beckons. I’m a cat among baubles. That is the dilettantism and decadence of the generalist. The ascetic monk who dwells on a moment for a lifetime — the historian, the Talmudic scholar, the philosopher — to him belongs the world.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
— William Blake
But why write?
The only answer I know is because I have something to say. Some discovered secret I must share. And for years I’ve been sharing it with half-interested and patient friends. But the whole point of you, dear reader, is that you’ve selected into this sharing. You are not merely a good friend humouring my odd taste in cartoons, history, Straussian readings of the Bible or rantings on the domestication of man. To paraphrase Hyman Roth from Godfather II: This is the business you chose.
This need to speak is not a footnote, it’s the whole thing. It manifests in deranged ways — posting on Twitter, sappy adolescent poems (once upon a time) — but it’s also the animating force behind anything good I write.
I will watch the latest Batman film and think holy sh*t this is absolute garbage — I must write about it. And it’s that animating concoction of outrage and venom or delight and wonder that propels the filling of a page.
In On Power, Robert Caro, reflecting on the tragic story of the Roth family, powerless farmers who had been needlessly and callously crushed underfoot by Robert Moses, writes:
I find myself as angry now as I was then. I remember my feelings. And I remember when I finished talking to the Roths, the sentences for that part of the book just poured out of me, and now years, decades later I am less dissatisfied with them than I usually am with my writing.
That’s the animating force I’m talking about. I don’t know what to call it. It might be part of what they call flow, but I think it’s a catalyst for flow. The thing is, it’s a living thing. It has a half-life: it decays. That is why I have dozens of drafts buried like corpses: I didn’t finish them before their dazzle wore off. I had absorbed their insights or got distracted and moved on.
Once you know something it almost definitionally appears obvious to you. And the delight is in the surprise. The whole point of all this is to keep digging for insights, for surprises. To live like a truffle pig.
Knowledge bores and one can’t unknow. It’s even hard to remember what it felt like not to know. You can’t re-watch Match Point with the same dread and anxiety with which you watched it the first time. But you can catch glimpses of unknowing in a few ways.
One is when you speak to someone on a topic you really know. You might make short hand remarks or observations and see that it is lost on them. And so you begin to backfill context. And you keep backfilling, and they might ask questions which are good questions but seem obvious to you. And in the distance between you and them is revealed what knowledge you have gained. You see what it is like to not know.
The other way is in writing. When you are grasping at something through your keyboard. When you have read something on the ancient Yamnaya and the North American native nations and the French after WWII and you find a common thread. You have grasped at some subterranean layer of truth. And you try and draw it out for others, but really for yourself. And you create it and share it online and never look at it again but you know it is there and that it is good.
Where can you tell the act of unknowing in this? You see it in reverse. Once you have written it you become dulled by your own words. Words that enchanted you upon first writing, poured out of you through that strange animating force, are now dulled by the knowing. The surprise wears off and now you Know. It’s at this exact moment you must share the piece — it will be either relegated to a draft folder or go out into the world. There’s a strange blindness at this point. You worry: your work appears duller than what you had first thought. It bears the dullness of familiarity. She’s no longer the strange pretty girl on the dance floor but something frumpier. But you must trust that what once entranced you will entrance others. And so you release it, and never look upon it again.
I appreciate the messages I get. From students, writers, investors, academics, housewives. It’s special to have something you write resonate with someone. The asymmetry of this thing is funny to see. You know far more about me than I about you, and you act with great familiarity over email or in person. And I recognise it! I’ve been reading and listening to Tyler Cowen for a decade and I love that guy. And I unconsciously act with some familiarity with him — because I am familiar with him. But he barely knows who I am. And so it’s a strange asymmetric relationship. There is something like that with some of you, which I appreciate.
2. 2022 in books
Most of these books I read in audiobook form. Another year of low fiction intake. In hindsight, I got through more than I thought. In my ideal world I would write about them all — they all have something worth kvetching about. But the way the Kvetches have evolved into deeper dives makes this prohibitive. Check out my 2020 book notes here.
Books I Kvetched about
Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
The WEIRDest People in the World by Joseph Henrich
Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind by Tom Holland
The Comanche Empire by Pekka Hämäläinen
The Wages of Destruction by Adam Tooze
The Enigma of Clarence Thomas by Corey Robin
Stalin's War by Sean McMeekin
Energy and Civilization by Vaclav Smil
I touched on this in a few Kvetches, but it deserves of a whole — just some exceptional stats and information. The books could probably be a powerpoint deck with 80% fewer words and mainly charts. Genuinely think that would make a great paid Substack. Still, excellent.
I mention this in a few of my Kvetches, but I plan to release full notes… some beautiful stories and ideas.
The Napoleonic Wars by Alexander Mikaberidze
Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey (this is from 2021 but I Kvetched about it in 2022)
Books I started to Kvetch about
Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Rigged by Cameron Murray
Lots to say about this — worth a read! Funny to read about people and firms and events you’ve had personal or indirect experience with…
The Ancient City by Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges
Interesting to compare and contrast the ancient religious and cultural structures of Rome and Greece with modern worship and family. Very clear parallels or subversions within Judaism.
Books I hope to Kvetch about
Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans by T. R. Fehrenbach
On Power by Robert Caro
1493 by Charles C. Mann
I think about this book all the time and really do hope I Kvetch on it. Also hope Mann gets more of his books into audiobook form. I think I read this end of 2021 but sneaking it into this list because I want to come back to it.
Talent by Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross
Parts struck me as deeply conservative in the Jordan Peterson sense — you’re not looking for the faffers and the nudniks, you want the go getters! In that way it occasionally felt transgressive in its conventionality. Been meaning to Kvetch on this.
The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli
Beautiful and concise, I find these ideas melt over me and I still can’t grasp basic ideas about the nature of time.
The Soul of the World by Roger Scruton
Lovely parts, not quite sure I quite grokked his version of dualism.
Beauty by Roger Scruton
The Ottoman Age of Exploration by Giancarlo Casale
Intellectuals and Society by Thomas Sowell
The Starship and the Canoe by Kenneth Brower
The Machiavellians by James Burnham
The oddest thing about this book is that Burnham insists that Machiavelli, unlike Dante, wrote his work with no hidden meaning — as though it’s entirely politically unmotivated. Which strikes me as extremely unlikely and naïve.
Amp It Up by Frank Slootman
The Maintenance Race by Stewart Brand
Asabiyyah by Ed West
Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000 by Stephen Kotkin
The Language Instinct by Stephen Pinker
The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization by Bryan Ward-Perkins
All About Me! by Mel Brooks
Did you know that Jews fighting for the US Army in WWII had the letter “H” (for Hebrew) on their dog tags?
Books I’ve been grazing on but haven’t finished
Hunger by Knut Hamsun
The Story of the Jews by Simon Schama (I have mentioned it in Kvetch a few times)
Kill Chain by Andrew Cockburn
The Overstory by Richard Powers
3. A Personal Note
I guess all of the above is to say thanks! I’ve found a cadence that has brought me a means of expression, meaning and connection. Many of these ideas have been percolating for years or decades and it’s a pleasure to find a critical mass of people from around the world to share them with.
Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukah to you all and here’s to a 2023 full of conquest and baby making!
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