What I’ve Been Reading

Published on June 28, 2022

Some thoughts on the books I read in the second quarter of 2022

Crime and Punishment

Author: Fyodor Dostoevsky
Translators: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Year of publication: 1866
Length: 600 pages

After reading War and Peace and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy earlier this year, I moved on to Dostoevsky in April. My understanding before reading Crime and Punishment was that Dostoevsky is quite a bit more challenging to read compared to Tolstoy and I found that this is definitely the case. While I found Tolstoy’s writing to be surprisingly easy to read, Dostoevsky demands more from the reader. I don’t think this is due to any deficiency in the translation, but more to do with Dostoevsky’s writing style and subject matter.

Crime and Punishment is considered one of the masterpieces of literature, and justifiably so. The plot grips the reader immediately and the suspense never ceases until the conclusion. The demanding nature of the book is due to the fact that the novel is much more than a typical “crime mystery”. In fact, there is no mystery at all regarding who commits the crime. We are instead taken into the mind of a brilliant young man living in poverty in nineteenth century St. Petersburg. His tortured psychology and likely mental illness leads him to commit a horrific double murder. Dostoevsky explores the nature of sin, guilt, and the possibility for redemption through both a philosophical and religious lens.

Tolstoy’s novels, particularly Anna Karenina, paint a picture of high society in nineteenth century Russia while Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment takes us to the extremes of poverty of the same era. In combination, these novels reveal much about Russian society in the decades leading up to the revolutions of the early twentieth century. But more importantly, we can see how the fundamental failings of human nature cross socioeconomic, cultural, and regional boundaries across time.

The Brothers Karamazov

Author: Fyodor Dostoevsky
Translators: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Year of publication: 1879
Length: 792 pages

“Above all, do not lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others.”

— Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

If Crime and Punishment demands a great deal from the reader, The Brothers Karamazov demands even more. This book also involves a gruesome murder and lengthy explorations into psychology and the nature of sin and redemption. However, the reader is exposed to deep psychological profiles of several characters all of whom have very complex personalities, and there is an element of mystery that is not divulged to the reader until the end of the book.

Dostoevsky’s religious beliefs appear to be even more prominent in The Brothers Karamazov, and perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the book was written shortly before his death in 1881 at the age of 59. 

At the surface level, the story is about a wealthy but morally depraved patriarch and his three sons, each of whom have distinct personalities and belief systems. One of the sons is a very religious man who enters a monastery and is heavily influenced by his deeply held faith. One of his brothers is an intellectual who cannot conceive of the possibility of God, and the other brother is a highly emotional, free spending, pleasure seeking sensualist. Dostoevsky paints a vivid psychological profile of this highly dysfunctional family as well as an array of supporting characters.

Set in a small town in nineteenth century Russia, our modern society has little in common with their lifestyle, but most of us will be able to identity with one or more of the characters because the struggles they encountered are part of the fundamental human experience. For readers interested in Dostoevsky, I would recommend reading Crime and Punishment before The Brothers Karamazov.

Trillions

Author: Robin Wigglesworth
Year of publication: 2021
Length: 306 pages

Robin Wigglesworth’s book offers a sweeping account of the intellectual origins of passive investing dating back to Louis Bachelier, a French mathematician who lived from 1870 to 1946, dying in obscurity before his treatise, The Theory of Speculation, was discovered during the 1950s. Bachelier was the first to demonstrate that security prices appeared to follow a “random walk” in the short run.

Although the book covers the pioneers of passive investing that came well before Jack Bogle brought indexing to millions of individual investors, the story of Vanguard is what captured most of my attention. Many people don’t know that Bogle initially opposed passive investing and even wrote a pseudonymous article arguing in favor of active investing!

Read my full book review of Trillions

The Alchemist

Author: Paulo Coelho
Year of publication: 1988
Length: 170 pages

The Alchemist is one of my favorite novels. I re-read it recently to ensure that it is age-appropriate as a gift for a teenager. In my opinion, there is nothing inappropriate in the story and young people should be able to relate to the book (at least those who can be separated from their electronic devices). 

Published originally in Portuguese, The Alchemist attracted little attention initially and Coelho’s original publisher cancelled his contract. However, the book went on to achieve great success and has sold over 50 million copies. Coelho never gave up.

Like the story of the Andalusian shepherd boy in the book, Paulo Coelho had a laser-like focus on his “personal legend”: “It is what you have always wanted to accomplish. Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is.” 

The shepherd boy had known ever since he was a small child that he wanted to travel in order to see and experience the world. His quest led him from the comfortable pastures of Southern Spain that he had known all his life to the pyramids of Egypt. Along the way, he learned much about himself, human nature, his place in the world, and his ultimate destiny. A great adventure story perfect for summer reading.

Just Keep Buying

Author: Nick Maggiulli
Year of publication: 2022
Length: 275 pages

I have often linked to Nick Maggiulli’s articles on his website, Of Dollars and Data, because his common-sense attitude toward personal finance and investing is much needed, particularly for young people at the start of their careers. His recent book, Just Keep Buying, contains the good advice that has appeared on the blog and presents it in a convenient format that should serve as a roadmap for investors of any age.

The idea of dollar cost averaging into broad based index funds over many decades is very sound advice that most investors should take. However, the road to building wealth is full of psychological pitfalls. Using empirical data for support, Maggiulli demonstrates why investors should persist through down markets and view them as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. The book’s publication earlier this year is very timely now that we are in the midst of a bear market.

In terms of saving money, I opted to be more aggressive in terms of controlling expenses compared to the advice in the book, but the reality is that most people will give up if they attempt to save a huge percentage of their income without “rewarding” themselves along the way. Maggiulli’s approach is more likely to actually be adopted by readers compared to the type of advice I would give. It might be better to present a moderate savings strategy that people actually adopt rather than a very aggressive strategy that could lead to better results, but only for the few who are capable of following it.

Robert E. Lee: A Life

Author: Allen C. Guelzo
Year of publication: 2021
Length: 441 pages

I enjoy reading about history and find it particularly interesting to read biographies of historical figures. I have read longer accounts of the Civil War in the past, including a comprehensive account of The Battle of Gettysburg, and I wanted to learn more about Robert E. Lee in particular given his pivotal role in the conflict.

Guelzo’s account of Lee’s life strikes a balance between criticism of Lee’s siding with the Confederacy and the account of the man’s life as a whole. If you are looking for a book that provides comprehensive accounts of battles and military strategy, you are better off looking elsewhere. This is not a book exclusively about the Civil War.

One measure of an individual’s level of culpability is whether he knew that he was taking a mistaken path. That was the case with Robert E. Lee. He was not a proponent of secession, yet he still resigned from the U.S. military and accepted his role in the Confederacy. He was personally opposed to slavery, yet he owned slaves and directed the slaves owned by his wife’s family. In both cases, one gets the impression that Lee knew that his actions were wrong, but he was not capable of taking the steps that would have been required to reconcile his beliefs with how he actually lived his life.

When his defeat became a foregone conclusion at Appomattox, Lee surrendered and told his troops to lay down their arms and go home. This prevented a guerrilla war from breaking out throughout the South which would have prolonged the Civil War and cost more lives. During the early years of Reconstruction, Lee served as President of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia before dying in 1870 at the age of 63.

We might like to think that the moral and ethical dilemmas we face today are fundamentally different from those facing individuals who lived two centuries ago and that we occupy a superior and elevated moral plane, but the reality is that we always have something to learn from studying history, particularly the lives of individuals who took the wrong path.

Soul in the Game

Author: Vitaliy Katsenelson
Year of publication: 2022
Length: 282 pages

Soul in the Game is difficult to categorize. Is it a memoir? A book on stoicism? A book on classical music? It is none of these things in isolation, but all of these things in combination. I reviewed this book last week, so I will not go into more detail here other than to say that I highly recommend reading it!

Read by full book review of Soul in the Game

What I’ve Been Reading
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