Among the never-readers

Plus, a response to last Sunday in London, Ontario

Louis Begley’s About Schmidt is twenty-five-years-old but its insights into North American business culture hold up quite well. The lead character, Schmidt, is a retiring corporate lawyer who looks with dismay at his daughter and prospective son-in-law, not because they aren’t gainfully employed—she has a career in public relations and he is a rising star at Schmidt’s old law firm—but because they have made so little of the advantages and education they’ve enjoyed.

They are intelligent, the two kids, but in the narrowest way. They know their work. They know the financial aspects of existence. Beyond that, they have no interests and no conversation that doesn’t involve purchases, workouts, and maybe spectator sports. They are mercenary and vulgar, educated peasants, a new generation of what Mencken called the booboisie. Perhaps their greatest sin, so far as the novel is concerned: they don’t read.

I was reminded of Schmidt’s children this week when I ran across a tweet by Neil Patel (above), a self-made marketing guru, explaining or, rather, bragging about how he doesn’t read books:

The only books I read are kids’ books and that’s to my daughter. People talk about reading books. You know what? I wrote a book and I was even a New York Times best-selling author, but here’s the thing: most books that you see in a book store, they’re written a year to two years before they were actually published and they go through this really long process. A lot of the times you’re reading outdated information. Even if the book has theories and strategies that aren’t outdated, heck, you can just go on YouTube and find that info in a five-minute clip. Why would you want to read 300 pages when you can just figure it out in five minutes. So I don’t spend my time reading books. Instead, I spend three hours a day reading blogs, Instagram, YouTube and all the other places where I can consume information faster, and you should, too.

It turns out Patel’s tweet was too dumb even for Twitter. Within hours, it had 87 retweets against 1,836 quoted retweets and 764 replies, indicating an extremely high ratio of people blasting him to people sharing his pensées.

Washington Post book critic Carlos Lozada had some of the best mockery: “Also do you realize that when you go in a bookstore, some of the books are so old that the authors are dead? How can you learn anything from a dead person? They can’t even tweet.”

Patel, author of the 2016 bestseller Hustle: The Power to Charge Your Life with Money, Meaning, and Momentum, deleted his tweet within 24 hours. Far be it for me to defend him but two things.

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It’s important to admit that he has a point, if you limit the definition of books to the only sort he seems interested in, the narrow genre of business advice books. Nine out of ten of those are trash. Nine out of ten are barely worth a magazine article, let alone hundreds of pages. Nine out of ten you would learn more watching The Office clips on YouTube:

It is nevertheless bizarre that Patel sees the world of literature as limited to instruction on search engine optimization or personal branding.

The other thing worth noting is that Patel’s tweet had 400 likes before he trashed it. Either a lot of people love him unconditionally or, more likely, he was speaking for the educated peasants in today’s business culture, of whom there are many.

I worked for two different CEOs of multi-billion-dollar companies who told me without a trace of shame, and perhaps with a hint of bravado, that they never read books. One simply wasn’t interested. The other pleaded time (which is the same thing).

You’ve probably seen those internet ads that claim the average CEO reads a book a week. That’s bullshit marketed by Blinkist to flog fifteen-minute book summaries. There is no data to support it. The average American reads twelve books a year, and high-earners read fifteen, which is probably the best-case scenario for the average CEO.

Sure, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg and Warren Buffett read a lot of books. I’ve run across a few lesser mortals in big offices who were enthusiastic readers. I was even part of a Bay Street book club for several years (I loved it). But most businessmen, in my experience, read very little, or not at all. Trump, who also had his name on a bestseller but never reads books, is far closer to the norm than Gates.

I was once at a dinner retreat with a dozen executives, all of whom had good university educations and generous salaries. They’d been asked by a moderator to come to the dinner with an example of something they’d read, a book or a poem or an essay that really spoke to them. Only three of the twelve mentioned books (and each mentioned a business book). Several mentioned newspaper or magazine articles they’d read. The rest relied on song lyrics, with two citing the same line from “Hotel California” as a commentary on their careers: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” None of us knew whether to laugh or cry.

Another thing I learned at that retreat, which struck me as related, was that all of the executives complained of having no time to think about the big picture: they were so busy doing their work that they seldom stopped to consider if there wasn’t a better way to do it, or if it was worth doing at all. They complained at this lack of perspective, but all were senior enough to be able to delegate day-to-day chores to others, leaving themselves time to think. I don’t believe they wanted to.

Individually, they were great people. Some were very involved in their families, some in their communities, some in sports. Almost all of them were very good at their jobs. But as a group, they were Belgey’s children.

It’s been a bad week

Dany Assaf is a Canadian Muslim and the author of Say Please and Thank You & Stand in Line: One Man's Story of What Makes Canada Special, and How to Keep it That Way, which Sutherland House published last month. His book became relevant this week in a way none of us wished: four members of a Muslim-Canadian family were run down and killed while out for a walk last Sunday evening in London, Ontario.

Dany’s family has been in Canada for a century (he grew up in my native Edmonton), and has enjoyed a high degree of success while making significant contributions to the larger community. His book is about how the events of 9/11 changed attitudes towards Muslim-Canadians. His family woke up some days after that tragedy to find a neighbor in suburban Edmonton had planted a lawn sign reading “Osama bin Laden lives closer than you think.” The sign had an arrow pointing to the Assaf house.

Over the past two decades, Dany has watched anti-Muslim hatred spread to an unsettling extent in Canada, resulting in atrocities such as the London killings, and gaining official sanction with Quebec’s Bill 21, which effectively bans devout Muslims from the public service by outlawing religious symbols in the workplace. (Prime Minister Trudeau made a big show of calling out anti-Muslim crime in Canada this week but asked if he would call out Bill 21, he said “No.” Susan Delacourt has a good piece on the hypocrisy).

Say Please and Thank You & Stand in Line is an urgent plea for Canada to rediscover the tolerance and generosity that have marked so much of our history, and to embrace diversity in our everyday lives as well as in our public laws. Dany remains optimistic in the face of this week’s tragedy. I spoke to him Thursday:

It was an unimaginable horror and tragedy in London. A catastrophe all round. A beautiful Canadian family just wiped out going for a simple evening walk. And a son who grows up and has his mind poisoned to somehow believe he needs to kill innocent neighbours in pursuit of some deformed vision, and he destroys his life and likely the lives of his family, too. For what?! It’s so sad. 

Hate seems to be threatening our age. It is horrible, exhausting, and will not offer solutions to any of the issues before us. It will not help us make the most of the promise that is Canada. It’s just a grotesque dead end. But I don’t believe hatred will ever define us. We know who we are. An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us. There is a sea of Canadian voices out there who want to protect and try to perfect the Canada we cherish. We need to hear them now. Those voices are more important than ever to drown out the hate that seeks to divide us.

Dany’s is among the very best of those voices.  

More on Stephen Leacock

A couple of comments re last week’s comments on Stephen Leacock, whose collected works are now available dirt cheap from the Delphi Library.

John Matthew IV wrote to say, “My Grade 11 English course was on Canadian literature. We were required to read a number of extra books by Canadian authors. Being smart and lazy then—and now—I was pleased to learn that Stephen Leacock books were rather thin. However, I was not pleased to learn that they were consistently not funny. I kept reading hoping to find a joke but never did. Thus I am not surprised the Stephen Leacock Award goes to books that are not funny.

Anna Altag added, “This is only to say that there still are people reading Leacock, older Russians, like myself. I read him in Russian when I was 15 or 16 (a friend introduced me to a little book published in the 1960s in Moscow). In the USSR, his stories were often published in English textbooks, and people who knew English knew him, as well as Frank O'Connor, Cyril Hare and the Algonquin Club authors.”

Our Newsletter Roll (suggested additions welcome)

An new addition this week is from Jason Logan, who some of you will remember as a brilliant art director at Maclean’s magazine. Jason is also behind the Toronto Ink Company, which produces street-foraged inks. You can sign up for his Urban Color Report newsletter at the bottom of this page.

Anne Trubek’s Notes from a Small Press

Art Canada Institute

Kate McKean’s Agents & Books

Rebecca Eckler’s Re:Book

Anna Sproul Latimer’s How to Glow in the Dark

John Biggs Great Reads