Mar 26, 2012

Harnessing Vanity

Old man Coates had an interesting thought the other day about reading, riffing off a piece about not finishing books:
I think Tim Parks--even as an aside-marks the border between a young reader and a mature one...It's often true that books improve as you delve in. But I don't think there's anything wrong with never making it through Ulysses.
I think this is, strictly speaking, correct. Some books, even (especially?) highly lauded ones just don't work for everyone. I slogged through Ulysses and felt, in the end, that most of Joyce's masterful technique was simply lost on me. I had one of those decoder ring books that explains what the fuck is happening, as well as a sample of the allusions and symbolism, etc., and while it was interesting to see how much work Joyce had gone through, and often his writing was delightfully good, in the end I was mostly just bored and confused.

And yet, and yet. I've been recently appreciating what powerful motivators vanity and status-seeking are. I think it's safe to say that 90+% of people who read Ulysses are motivated by vanity; either in that they can boast about reading it (subtly, as I am doing now, or otherwise), or feel better about themselves for having made it through a difficult and important book. It's certainly the reason I read it. (And it that goes double for writers.) Witness part of Orwell's list of the motivations of writers:
(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity.
Witness also this incredible piece by Alec MacGillis on the wounded vanities of the hedge fund titans, who have turned on Obama with thundering outrage for, essentially, a tiny bit of the most milquetoast criticism. I think Karl Smith explained this best, in one of my favorite posts:
The lesson I would take is as follows. Profit or consumption maximizing incentives are just incredibly weak. We think we see consumption incentives in the general populace but we are really seeing status seeking. Folks earn or consume more in an effort to raise their status relative to others. 
However, at very high income/status levels this has odd results. When Jaime Dimon or Leon Cooperman say that what they really want is to be loved, they mean it.
This is again familiar from the land of exercise. All the reading about the long-term benefits of exercise doesn't get me out the door, looking in the mirror and not being happy with what I see does. We like looking good. Of course we do.

I say we should try to harness this vanity, and embrace it to a limited extent. TNC's young/mature dichotomy above implies a little too much that reading should just be about enjoyment. I think one should push a little more than that (and I suspect Coates would agree). Reading tough books, like for example Reasons and Persons, isn't exactly fun, but learning heavy ideas isn't easy. Learning mathematics is especially not easy. But understanding those heavy ideas can be extremely rewarding and even lucrative. We should not be ashamed of using every trick in our mental toolbox to get ourselves doing that hard work. It doesn't mean that we should slog through every book that is horribly unpleasant from start to finish, but that we shouldn't give up a widely acclaimed book at the first sign of displeasure.

Now, I don't want to glorify this too much. Vanity can be obnoxious, and I think it's important to push against it in actual discussions. I always try to write as straightforwardly as possible. But as far as making oneself learn, I say it's on balance a good thing.

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