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Letter to a Newborn Son, Part IV: The Importance of Books, by Victor Niederhoffer
If there's one thing that is the essence of the Niederhoffer tradition, one thing that is key to our being, it's the love of books. To put this in perspective, I grew up in a very small 1,000-square-foot apartment. Yet there were more books in that apartment than in the four big libraries that I keep today, which are written up in the "World of Books." The joke is that the reason my family had so many books is that my father, Artie, worked in the book publishing district and all the publishers would beg him to take their books for free so that they didn't have to pay the expense of dumping the books in the East River, which was the only way they had to deal with remainders in those days. But the truth is, my parents loved books and no matter how little money they had there was always money to buy a used one or rent one from a lending library. Five librarians came to my father's funeral, because every week he'd visit the library and take our three or four books and read them and return them with thanks.
From the day I was born, my parents read a book to me every night. I started the same tradition with you. Books are important for so many reasons, but the most important is probably that they can take you anywhere in time or space. A book can take you back hundreds of years, to different countries, into a myriad of different situations. It can give you insight into different kinds of professions. It can arouse any kind of emotion: humor, suspense, happiness, pity.
The other reason books are so important is that they contain lots of knowledge. There's an expert on every subject and when experts have something really enduring to say , they publish it in a book. They do this usually out of a love of their subject, a calling to communicate with posterity. That's one of the keys to books. They are made to last. They contain what's known about a subject that everyone should know as of the time they're written, and that people should still know in a hard form in a hundred years.
We live in a verbal society where people who can use words well gain power and respect. No better way to learn about verbal power than through books, as almost everyone who's good with words eventually writes them. I'm proud to say that my mother and father wrote six, including one they did together, and I wrote one, and I also wrote one with your mother, continuing the tradition. I am also happy that one of your sisters has already written a very good book, and she has another one coming soon. I hope you will be the third generation to do so.
One thing you should know about books: Take them in many forms. Read them, listen to them in the car or at home, listen to your parents or friends when they read them to you, talk about them in book clubs, ask your friends to tell you a story from books , or write some yourself. Each form will develop new levels of knowledge and happiness for you.
I find that the best books were written many years ago -- I like to say 100 years ago. One reason for this is that books in the old days were read by a more thoughtful kind of audience, and books had to be of a higher quality to sell in those days. The other reason is probably related to survivor bias; the books that are old and still around are obviously the ones that still hold up. But I think there's something more involved than survivorship bias; namely, the books of the old days tried to talk about timeless, important things. The audiences were not quite as divided as they are today. The topics that the old books addressed were more expansive, adventurous, heroic. The negative reason that the old books are better is that they didn't have to worry about everybody being a victim in our society and they didn't try to write that people are entitled to thing, the idea that currently has the world in its grip. The old books often were about people using their talents, knowledge and effort to overcome the obstacles to achieve their individual goals.
One way I have of really enjoying good books is to read bestsellers like those of Louis L'Amour or Patrick O'Brian, or Frederick Forsythe, or John LeCarre, or Colleen McCullough, or Tom Clancy. They know what things people are interested in, they can construct a plot that keeps you moving forward and ties together beautifully, they know how to get you excited and then release you, and they know how to talk about important things that make you happy. One thing that ties all these authors together is that they write about important things, and they research their subjects so carefully that you walk away from the book with tremendous knowledge of a new field, as well as enjoying your visit to a new world.
I can't conclude this paen to the importance of books without telling you some of my favorite books. Presumably you won't like all of them now, but I can assure you that they each have been instrumental to the enjoyment and knowledge that I have picked up in my life. The one book that I find that I can read over and over again which people say is the greatest novel ever written is "Don Quixote." It's a book about a heroic quest, to right the wrongs of the world, to protect the weak, to uphold romantic values, to make the world safe for women, to enjoy nature, to uphold friendship. And yes, it's a book about books because the thing that inspired it were all the books about chivalry outstanding at that time that were full of holes and mistakes.
I have a recommended list of books on my site that I'm constantly adding to so I'll refer you there for a little review of some of the essentials that will make your life so much better, and on the other side, not to have read them will make your life so much emptier. Some of the highlights: "Atlas Shrugged," the Patrick O'Brian series about Jack Aubrey, for whom you were named, starting with "Master and Commander" and ending with "Blue at the Mizzen" (which most people who love Jack and Stephen never get to read because they're so sad to come to the end of the series that they don't wish to finish); "Gone with the Wind," by Margaret Mitchell (and be sure to see all the letters I have of hers that show what a great historian and wonderful woman she was); "Old Home Town," by Rose Wilder Lane; "Monte Walsh," by Jack Schaefer; "Moby Dick," by Herman Melville; and a few books by Louis L'Amour -- any will do, but especially "Hondo," "My Yondering Years," "Son of a Wanted Man" and the Bowdrie series; "Memoirs of a Superfluous Man," by Albert Jay Nock; "Memories of my Life" and "The Art of Travel," by Francis Galton; and some Shakespeare since he has shaped the Western mind and is Mr. Literature, and some Mark Twain, because everyone should have a little bit of Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, the Connecticut Yankee or the Traveler up the Equator, in him.
While you're at it you should read some of the most important investments books, and again these are reviewed on our site: "Triumph of the Optimists" by Dimson et al.; "Trading Exchanges," by Larry Harris; "Horse Tradin'," by Ben Greene; "The Economic Way of Thinking," by Heyne, a good book on valuation by Damodorian, and both of your father's books.
Start a library when you're very young and try to follow your parents' tradition of increasing it to beyond the previous generation. Make the ratio of books to space in your house exceed ours, and let there be a dozen librarians at your funeral. Love, Dad