What I’ve been reading

Back in March, I read a set of essays by Javier Marias. He’s a big fan of Joseph Conrad, who also happens to be my favorite novelist. I first read Conrad’s novels and stories when I was young (in 1977) and always planned on rereading them when I retired. I’m not yet retired, but the coronavirus lockdown seemed like a good time. After the NBA shut down, I figured that Conrad would cheer me up.

And he did. I like him just as much as in 1977, although in a bit different way. Then I liked his descriptions of nature, as well as the psychology of isolated men, the politics, and the almost Lovecraftian vision of a meaningless universe.

Now I have a better ability to understand novels with more complicated social structures (which helps with works like Nostromo.) Nonetheless, the shorter novelas in exotic settings are still my personal favorites, even if Nostromo is in some sense the “greatest” of his novels, with Lord Jim and Victory close behind. The travel to faraway places aspect of his writing now seems slightly less thrilling, as we know so much more about what exotic places look like than back in 1977, when we just had small pictures in National Geographic to look at, not “Planet Earth in 4k”. And now I’ve actually visited countries like Malaysia.

For me, Conrad’s books are escapism (as are Stevenson, Kipling, Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, Chesterton and other 19th century writers.) I prefer to live (mentally) in the period around 1900. It’s an escape from the depressing 21th century. Of course if I’d lived in 1900 I’d long for the Napoleonic Era, as did Conrad. He hated steamships.

Javier Marias is a strong opponent of fascism (he’s Spanish) and also a strong opponent of political correctness. That sort of describes Conrad’s politics (although the issues were a bit different back in 1900) and also basically describes my views. Conrad has views that appeal to both the left and the right. When I first read Conrad in 1977 (53 years after he died), his books seemed sort of prophetic, and 43 years later they seem even more so. That must count for something, right? Other author’s views don’t hold up nearly as well.

As far as I can tell, here are some of Conrad’s views:

1. The beauty of nature is very important to life.
2. The universe is cold and meaningless—most people live by comforting illusions—fairy tales. But look for meaning anyway.
3. Integrity is all-important. Do a good job.
4. Don’t be impressed by worldly success. A good inner life is better than becoming “successful.”
5. Men and women are quite different.
6. Utopian ideologues are fools.
7. Don’t envy (and attack) those who have more success.
8. Don’t look down on (and exploit) primitive people—we are no better.
9. The previous two mistakes (#7 and #8) cause much of the evil in the world.
10. Physical labor is healthier than mental labor.
11. Meaning drains out of life as we age. The world becomes less “romantic”.
12. Thinking is the enemy of action. (Hamlet seems to influence his writing in Lord Jim, Victory, The Rescue, etc.)
13. Life is romantic (when young), or not worth living.
14. Suicide is understandable.
15. Good fiction is truer than most non-fiction.
16. The telephone is an abomination.
17. Maps are interesting, and easy to understand.
18. The natural world is full of marvels and the supernatural is boring.

Conrad was probably a better person than me in almost every way: morally, aesthetically, intellectually. But I look at the world in much the same way, agreeing with most of the list above. He never saw the sea until he was about 16; whereas I didn’t see salt water until age 20. (I was in Tampico, Mexico, at night, and I smelled it before I saw it. Until I was a junior in college I had no idea one could smell the ocean from 100 yards away.)

Reading his essay on the sinking of the Titanic makes me think he’d have been good at blogging.

My opinion of Conrad’s books isn’t of much value. I’m no Harold Bloom. I suppose it’s no more complicated than the fact that among the great writers, some connect with us more at a personal level. I don’t have the mental make-up to appreciate Jane Austen as much as I appreciate Conrad, no matter how hard I try. It has nothing to do with “who’s better.”

But FWIW, the biggest surprise was “Romance”, coauthored with Ford Maddox Ford, which I finished just an hour ago. (I believe that Conrad wrote most of it.) It was the final volume in a set of 26 books by Conrad that I read over the past three months, and had missed this book when I was young. Critics didn’t much like at, and I see why. They tried to write a popular romance like Treasure Island, but ended up with something more ponderous and bloated. Nonetheless, its 541 pages are full of entertaining sections, some beautifully written, and I didn’t want it to end. I only wish I’d read it when young, when I might have enjoyed it even more than Nostromo. Whereas Treasure Island is a book for 13-year olds of all ages, Romance is a book for 23-year olds of all ages. (I also missed “Suspense” the first time around, which I found worthwhile despite being unfinished when Conrad died.)

Nostromo might be the best book on Latin America ever written. And has any other great writer ever written stories convincingly set in 6 widely separated locations (East Indies, Africa, London, Russia, Latin America, the Roaring 40s)?

If you are interested in reading his best shorter pieces, pick up “Tales of Land and Sea”. Only Heart of Darkness is famous, but at least 6 of the 12 stories/novelas are brilliant. My favorite book.

PS. Here’s Lovecraft on Conrad:

“Conrad’s reputation is deserved — he has the sense of ultimate nothingness and the evanescence of illusions which only a master and an aristocrat can have; and he mirrors it forth with that uniqueness and individuality which are genuine art. No other artist I have yet encountered has so keen an appreciation of the essential solitude of the high grade personality — that solitude whose projected overtones form the mental world of each sensitively organised individual”

Yeah, Lovecraft is a snob.



27 Responses to “What I’ve been reading”

  1. Gravatar of Raver Raver
    4. July 2020 at 09:31

    Were you ever a Kafka fan? I’m a huge one, but I’ve noticed nobody talks about Kafka this century.

  2. Gravatar of Philo Philo
    4. July 2020 at 09:54

    A. I sort-of agree with:
    11. Meaning drains out of life as we age. The world becomes less “romantic”.
    But I would say, instead, that *illusory* “meaning” goes away as we age; we become *disillusioned*. Now, as an old person, I find that I get along quite will without those lost illusions: their loss does not at all render life not worth living.

    Thus I disagree with:
    13. Life is romantic (when young), or not worth living.
    Since I think the life of a disillusioned old person is still worth living, why would I think that the life of a young person would be worthless without those same illusions?

    B. It is odd that Conrad maintained:
    10. Physical labor is healthier than mental labor;
    12. Thinking is the enemy of action.
    He chose for himself the life of thought, of mental action—-the life of a writer. His most characteristic action was putting words down on paper; preliminary thinking, far from being the enemy, was the prerequisite.

  3. Gravatar of Keenan Keenan
    4. July 2020 at 10:30

    Thanks Scott. I love when you post these

  4. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    4. July 2020 at 12:01

    Raver, I like Kafka, but I wouldn’t say I’m a huge fan.

    He’s still regarded as one of the greatest 20th century writers, isn’t he?

  5. Gravatar of Raver Raver
    4. July 2020 at 13:11


    Yeah, I believe Kafka is still considered one of the 20th century greats if only because his reputation is so large he’s hard to dethrone. I just get the impression he isn’t read much anymore. Not that my impression means much, but it’s been many years since, for instance, The New Yorker, a magazine that likes to write about literary giants from time to time, wrote about Kafka. Which probably means there haven’t been any recent books about Kafka.

    For some reason I emailed Tyler Cowen about this last night, and he responded (briefly, to my leading question) that it was likely due to the general decline in status of literary fiction in general, and that also Kafka didn’t fit anyone’s political agenda. Last week Tyler retweeted someone saying that book snobs seemed to have dissappered over the past decade, so, as an amateur book snob, that got me thinking about it. From context it was clear “book snobs” are people into literary fiction.

    I’m also rereading The Castle for the first time in 20 years and love every sentence of it.

    I noticed that Scott Alexander, the great renaissance man of our time (besides Tyler himself, of course) and the SCC community has no use for literary fiction. I can understand that tech guys aren’t very into literature, but why not a psychologist? (For all I know S.A is in fact a big Kafka fan, but just hasn’t written about him. Nor does Knausgaard,our best literary critic, mention Kafka at all. I’d like to blame English Departments (I know Kafka didn’t write in English ,but they are more generally Literature Departments) for becoming too political, but I don’t actually know anything about English Departments these days other than hearsay.

    I think Kafka is misunderstood thanks to Very Serious and wrong interpretations by Sartre and Camus, who could only interpret through the lens of their own heavy philosophies.Then there is that horrible, humorless Orson Welles movie of The Trial with Anthony Perkins.

    Kafka is essentially a black humorist. If he doesn’t make you laugh, he’s not for you. Rereading The Castle reminds me of a Monty Python movie. I picture K as looking and sounding like Graham Chapman. (Philip Roth imagines Joseph K. in The Trial as played by Groucho Marx, with the policemen eating his breakfast played by Harpo and Chico, but I think the Python cast is even more on point.) The famous Python sketch where Michael Palin pays John Cleese for an argument has a very Kafkan moment when Cleese says “Maybe I’m just arguing in my spare time.” The line between “official behavior ” and personal behavior” is one of Kafka’s funniest humor devices. If one is to look for social criticism in Kafka it is there.

    More generally, it’s interesting that 20th century intellectuals took literature seriously even if they tended to get it wrong. What intellectual today looks to literature to discover deep truths about human psychology?

    Anyway, kudos to you for writing a post about literature. I’ve always loved your blog, partly because you are willing to write about whatever interests you.

    If for some reason you get bored enough to reread Kafka, I recommend starting with The Castle, his masterpiece. Forget everything you think you know about him and see if he makes you laugh. If after 50 pages he doesn’t, read something else.

  6. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    4. July 2020 at 14:10

    Philo, I can’t speak for Conrad, but I feel that physical labor is healthier, despite the fact that I chose mental labor.

    Thanks Keenan.

    Raver, Thanks for the tip, I’ll try to read The Castle this year. Last year I did read a collection of all his short stories, many of which I’d never read.

    Would you connect Kafka at all to other central European authors like Robert Walser? What about Thomas Bernhard or Laszlo Krasznahorkai?

    I’m probably nowhere near as well read as you, so I’d appreciate any insights.

  7. Gravatar of Raver Raver
    4. July 2020 at 17:37


    I’m probably no more well read than you. Have probably just read different things. I haven’t read any of the authors you mention. But I will say a connection to Kafka that most people don’t know: Kafka was a huge Chesterton fan. There are parts of The Castle where you can feel the Chesterton. Kafka is warmth disguised in cold.

  8. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    4. July 2020 at 19:33

    Raver, Interesting. Borges was a huge fan of both Kafka and Chesterton, and Borges was one of the most perceptive readers of all time.

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    5. July 2020 at 07:56

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  11. Gravatar of JB JB
    5. July 2020 at 08:31

    I see Walser as a big influence on Kafka. Walser is sort of the happy-go-lucky version of Kafka’s narrators. He feels a weird guilt and detachment from the world but he accepts it, because he feels like a child. Kafka’s narrators don’t accept it, especially in The Trial and The Castle. A lot their weird guilt is, implicitly, about sex. If you read the Castle, consider the Sortini-Amelia section through the lens of #metoo. I think of Bernhard as a combination of the narrative voice in Kafka’s The Burrow and the anger of Dostoevsky. He’s not a mystical writer in the way Kafka is. He revolts against reality but finds little except his own revolt, which is equally revolting (except, arguably, at the end of Extinction). Krazhnahorkai I think of writing something closer to what people who haven’t read Kafka imagine Kafka writes: innocents ground down by untouchable and inexplicable malice (at least in M of R and W&W).

  12. Gravatar of Bill Benzon Bill Benzon
    5. July 2020 at 08:39

    “I’m no Harold Bloom.”

    Neither was Bloom.

  13. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    5. July 2020 at 08:56

    JB, Great set of observations. This reinforces my inclination not to write too much about literature, as my understanding of the subject is far below that of readers like you and Raver.

    My brain isn’t wired very well for literature (or music)—I have a far easier time with the visual arts. I have a hard time putting into words what I like about a particular author. (Musil is a central European I especially like.)

    Bill, At least not Bloom’s conception of Harold Bloom!

  14. Gravatar of Ray Lopez Ray Lopez
    5. July 2020 at 10:39

    Conrad was influenced by the Realist school, e.g. Stephen Crane; these writers influenced the political Progressive movement. Conrad today is not a PC writer, as his Heart of Darkness is considered racist. The incident in N* involving Chinese immigrants is based on a true story. Summer mentions suicide and I’m not sure if he is aware that Conrad as a teenager quarrelled with his father and in a pique shot himself in the chest but survived and indeed lived to a ripe old age.

    All that from memory and I’m not even a lit major. 🙂

  15. Gravatar of Ahmed Fares Ahmed Fares
    5. July 2020 at 10:43


    “Evil does not exist; once you have crossed the threshold, all is good. Once in another world, you must hold your tongue.” —Franz Kafka https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/297832-evil-does-not-exist-once-you-have-crossed-the-threshold

    In this saying lies one of the great secrets of reality. It makes clear the distinction between the deist and the occasionalist.

  16. Gravatar of Alan Goldhammer Alan Goldhammer
    5. July 2020 at 11:26

    I read most of Conrad a long time ago. We were assigned ‘Lord Jim’ in high school which was probably a mistake as it is not the most approachable. I read the major Kafka works in college and reread ‘The Castle’ and ‘The Trial’ at periodic intervals. The only Conrad that I read again is ‘Heart of Darkness’. I continue to believe William Gaddis is the major US novelist of the second half of the 20th century. ‘JR’ is still the best fictional account of American fiance ever written.

  17. Gravatar of szopen szopen
    6. July 2020 at 01:42

    A trivia: Teacher of Joseph Conrad, Tadeusz Bobrowski, was a brother of Stefan Bobrowski, the leader of “Reds” during January Uprising (1863). JOseph’s father, Apollo Korzeniowski, also was “Red”, was arrested during preparations for January Uprising and deported to Siberia.

    Lord Jim was assigned in Poland when I was in school. I loved it. The main character was so relatable.

  18. Gravatar of Thomas Hutcheson Thomas Hutcheson
    6. July 2020 at 04:28

    Interesting list

    # 10. I’d frame this in terms of risk with STEM intellectual labor being less risky than non. But with high risk comes high gain. # 15.

    # 11 Not my experience, but I was never very romantic when young.

  19. Gravatar of Mabuse Mabuse
    6. July 2020 at 04:47

    Do you think it would be fair to call Conrad an Existentialist figure? Or at least Existentialist adjacent? I’ve been trying to trace the lineage between the religious Existentialists like Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky and the full flowering of atheist Existentialism in the Sartre/de Beauvoir/Camus circle. Of course you have the egoism of Stirner and Nietzsche as well as the influence of Heidegger and phenomenology more generally, but I wonder if Conrad may have been an influence as well?

  20. Gravatar of derek derek
    6. July 2020 at 05:38

    Conrad is your favorite author but you have not reread him in 50 years? Dang!

  21. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    6. July 2020 at 10:04

    Ray, You got multiple facts wrong in that comment, but I forgive you. As for “racist”, LOL, everyone prior to 1950 was racist by modern “woke” standards. In his time, Conrad was viewed as an anti-racist.

    Ahmed, Good quotation.

    szopen, Yes, Lord Jim is a great novel. It has lapses, but parts of it are as good as it gets.

    Thomas, You are probably right about stem.

    Mabuse, Interesting theory—I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer that question. I guess the “meaningless universe” view is one component of existentialism.

    derek, Yes, and I don’t know why. I just kept waiting for retirement to reread him. I should have done it more often, but I always felt I should first read classics that I had missed.

    Maybe I feared the magic would be gone, that it was just a youthful infatuation. I never had that fear about other authors that I did frequently reread, like Borges.

  22. Gravatar of Dan Griswold Dan Griswold
    7. July 2020 at 07:21

    Scott– Conrad was a brilliant author whose work holds up well after a century. I also recommend “The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World,” by Maya Jasanoff. She explores his worldview, which as you say may not measure up to today’s “wokeness” standard but was ahead of his time in a positive way. He rightly understood the danger of political fanaticism in its various forms. Dan

  23. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    7. July 2020 at 08:53

    Dan, Yes, I greatly enjoyed Jasanoff’s book.

  24. Gravatar of Martin Martin
    7. July 2020 at 11:40

    Do you think you could appreciate Jane Austen enough to spell her correctly?

    Otherwise, great post.

  25. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    7. July 2020 at 12:58

    Marten, One spelling error is a good day for me.

    I mean Martin. 🙂

  26. Gravatar of Ray Lopez Ray Lopez
    8. July 2020 at 01:10

    @Ssumner – everything I say can be cite checked and you’ll see it’s accurate. Conrad was influenced by Crane (read “The Open Boat”), his suicide attempt was apparently in response to gambling debts but who knows what’s in a person’s heart of darkness, the storm tossed Chinese immigrant story is possibly not Nostromo (though I’m not sure), and finally, how can you call a person not a racist with a title from a book he wrote called: “The Nigger of the Narcissus”? That’s very niggardly of you. But yes, I like Conrad’s stories. And think of this blog as “The Secret Sharer” where you can act out your alter ego! Bye, I won’t be revisiting this thread.

  27. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    8. July 2020 at 07:40

    Ray, It was “Typhoon” that contained the story of the Chinese immigrants.

    And Conrad did not quarrel with his dad as a teenager, because his dad was dead.

    You asked:

    “how can you call a person not a racist”

    I don’t recall calling Conrad “not a racist”, I recall saying:

    “LOL, everyone prior to 1950 was racist by modern “woke” standards.”

    Saying everyone prior to 1950 was a racist by modern standards (obviously a bit of hyperbole) is not the same as saying Conrad was not a racist.

    Conrad certainly believed that European culture was superior to non-European culture in many ways (the arts, technology, etc.), but he also pushed back against the view that Europeans were better people. Call that what you want, Conrad could care less what you think of him.

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