A Very Eclectic Reading List by Patrick O’Shaughnessy, The Investor’s Field Guide

My goal this month was to read a series of books as diverse as possible. Some were terrible, but it was a lot of fun. This is an eclectic batch of those I loved, and unlike previous lists, I’ve included some qualifiers for each book (so only pick up this book if you pass these little tests). Let me know if you’ve read anything great lately.

Patrick O’Shaughnessy: A Very Eclectic Reading List

Ask the Dust by John Fante

This short novel is the best fiction I’ve read in years. I’ve heard it compared to A Catcher in the Rye. The main character is compelling: so flawed yet driven to succeed as a writer. This is the only book I can think of that I read again immediately.  Qualifiers: if you like fiction, and the following passage makes you smirk or laugh (its a letter written by the books protagonist to another character, who is very ill and trying to finish his life by writing the book he always wanted to), then this book is for you. If this repulses you, realize that the character alternates between devil and saint, but I thought the devil was more fun.

Dear Sammy: That little wh**e was here tonight; you know, Sammy, the little Greaser dame with a wonderful figure and a mind for a moron. She presented me with certain alleged writings purportedly written by yourself. Furthermore she stated the man with the scythe is about to mow you under. Under ordinary circumstances I would call this a tragic situation. But having read the bile your manuscripts contain, let me speak for the world at large and say at once that your departure is everybody’s good fortune. You can’t write, Sammy. I suggest you concentrate on the business of putting your idiotic soul in order these last days before you leave a world that sighs with relief at your departure. I wish I could honestly say that I hate to see you go. I wish too that, like myself, you could endow posterity with something like a monument to your days upon this earth. But since this is so obviously impossible, let me urge you to be without bitterness in your final days. Destiny has indeed been unkind to you. Like the rest of the world, I suppose you too are glad that in a short time all will be finished, and the ink spot you have splattered will never be examined from a larger view. I speak for all sensible, civilized men when I urge you to burn this mass of literary manure and thereafter stay away from pen and ink. If you have a typewriter, the same holds true; because even the typing in this manuscript is a disgrace. If, however, you persist in your pitiful desire to write, by all means send me the pap you compose. I found at least you are amusing. Not deliberately, of course.

Women by Charles Bukowski

If Ask the Dust doesn’t divide readers, this one will. I’ve had Bukowski on my list for a long time based on the frequent push of Maria Popova. This book is a doozy. It’s a fictionalized autobiography of Bukowski, an alcoholic womanizer and fantastic writer. The book’s narrative is simple: the main character (Henry Chaninski), goes through a sequence of women—some he loves, others he doesn’t. There are two reasons to read this: the writing, and the soul-baring honesty. Rarely have I read an author lay it all out—fears, weaknesses, addictions—without any reservation or literary flourish like Bukowski does here. This book just stuck with me. Qualifiers: If you don’t mind bad language and lots of elicit content, and you like really good, sparse prose, check this out. Here are a few passages that you can use as a litmus test. Out of respect for the now large size of this book club, I left out the really foul stuff (after some debate). If you want a passage that is a little more representative, feel free to email me.

The worst thing for a writer is to know another writer, and worse than that, to know a number of other writers. Like flies on the same turd. [Maybe the same is true for investors ;) ] … The first fight was a good one, lots of blood and courage. There was something to be learned about writing from watching boxing matches or going to the racetrack. The message wasn’t clear but it helped me. That was the important part: the message wasn’t clear. It was wordless, like a house burning, or an earthquake or a flood, or a woman getting out of a car, showing her legs. I didn’t know what other writers needed; I didn’t care, I couldn’t read them anyway.

It was never any problem creating a split with Lydia. I was naturally a loner, content just to live with a woman, eat with her, sleep with her, walk down the street with her. I didn’t want conversation, or to go anywhere except the racetrack or the boxing matches. I didn’t understand t.v. I felt foolish paying money to go into a movie theatre and sit with other people to share their emotions. Parties sickened me. I hated the game-playing, the dirty play, the flirting, the amateur drunks, the bores. But parties, dancing, small talk energized Lydia. She considered herself a sexpot. But she was a little too obvious. So our arguments often grew out of my wish for no-people-at-all versus her wish for as-many-people-as-often-as-possible.

The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí (Dover Fine Art, History of Art) by Salvador Dali

This is for hardcore readers. If you read and enjoyed a book like Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed, you may love this. Dali was insane in a good way. I mean, the first sentence of the book is “At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since.” Most people are so similar and boring. This is a look inside the mind of a colorful, mad genius. Qualifiers: Its long, its quirky, its mad. If you like his art, or like autobiographies, this sure is good and unique. Otherwise, skip it. I bet you’ve never heard someone say something like this:

Fortunately I am not one of those beings who when they smile are apt to expose remnants, however small, of horrible and degrading spinach clinging to their teeth. This is not because I brush my teeth better than others; it is due to the much more categorical fact that I do not eat spinach. It so happens that I attach to spinach, as to everything more or less directly pertaining to food, essential values of a moral and esthetic order. And of course the sentinel of disgust is ever on hand, vigilant and full of severe solicitude, ceremoniously attentive to the exacting choice of my foods. I like to eat only things with well-defined shapes that the intelligence can grasp… The very opposite of spinach is armor. That is why I like to eat armor so much, and especially the small varieties, namely, all shell-fish. By virtue of their armor, which is what their exoskeleton actually is, these are a material realization of the highly original and intelligent idea of wearing one’s bones outside rather than inside, as is the usual practice. The crustacean is thus able, with the weapons of its anatomy, to protect the soft and nutritive delirium of its insides, sheltered against all profanation, enclosed as in a tight and solemn vessel which leaves it vulnerable only to the highest form of imperial conquest in the noble war of decortication: that of the palate. How wonderful to crunch a bird’s tiny skull!1 How can one eat brains any other way! Small birds are very much like small shell-fish.

The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch by Lewis Dartnell

I told you this would be a wide ranging list! This one is about how to rebuild the world after a global cataclysm. I have a weird fascination with the post-apocalypse. The return to basics—shelter, fire, water, food, small tribes—appeals to me. This book starts with the very basics, and moves up Maslow’s pyramid from there. Qualifiers: if you are a survivalist, outdoorsperson, Walking Dead fan, or wannabe Macgyver, check this one out.

Market Liquidity: Theory, Evidence, and Policy by Thierry Foucault, Marco Pagano, Ailsa Roell

This one was recommended to me by @Jesse_Livermore. It is daunting, but I learned a ton about market microstructure. Qualifiers: if you are a market nut and can stand dense textbooks with lots of calculus, then there is a ton to learn in here. Otherwise, steer very clear.

So there you have it: vulgar novels, a survivor’s handbook, a LSD like autobiography, and a textbook on market microstructure. If you can find a theme in this batch of books, you may want to see your doctor. Maybe I should see mine.

Have a great September,

Patrick O’Shaughnessy

p.s. due to vacation and a huge research project at work, there were no posts on The Investor’s Field Guide this month. I’ll get back in the groove this month.

Patrick O'Shaughnessy: A Very Eclectic Reading List