Tommy blogs at https://literaryforge.blog/
Will Jarvis 0:04
Hey folks, I’m William Jarvis, along with my dad, Dr. David Jarvis. I host the podcast narratives. narratives is a project exploring the ways in which the world is better than it has been the ways it is worse in the past or making a better, more definite future. I hope you enjoy it.
If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe. You can get on our mailing list, find show notes, transcripts, as well as videos at Nerdist podcast.com. Thanks. Well, Tommy, how are you doing today? Doing well. Thanks. Are you doing great? Well, Tommy, I wanted to just jump straight into it. You know, I found your work actually, I’m a big fan of the great books. And I saw, you know, you started this project where you’re reading through all the bright grade books yourself kind of like an autodidact fashion. You know, how did you get started on this journey? I think it’s such a cool project. And yeah, what initially attracted you and made you think this was a good idea?
Tommy Collison 1:16
Yeah. So I guess there’s two things, the kind of immediate cause was that there was a global pandemic. And there’s an extent to which, you know, I was a great endorsement and all my hobbies, were actually very, you know, quarantine friendly in the sense that they didn’t require a lot.
Will Jarvis 1:31
I’m sad to get the great endorsement. I love that. Yeah,
I love that term.
Tommy Collison 1:35
I think it’s originally my girlfriend’s for sure. Like she we started dating. She was like, Wow, you’re so self contained? I think is a compliment. But But you know, who’s
Will Jarvis 1:45
to say endemics? Great.
Tommy Collison 1:47
Exactly, exactly. pandemic friendly hobbies. Yeah. And so, you know, other people were doing their sourdough starters, or, you know, their Instagram ads or whatever. And I was like, well, I
Unknown Speaker 1:57
should have some
Tommy Collison 1:59
project, you know, I should be doing something, you know, have something to show for myself. You know, that was the early part of the pandemic, and kind of March or April for people were like,
Unknown Speaker 2:07
Tommy Collison 2:07
Isaac Newton, you know, wrote this thing in the middle of a, you know, Black Plague of London or something, and it’s like, oh, he’s gonna do something, may as well, you know, have something to show for myself. And especially because, you know, I was super lucky in the sense of, you know, lambda school, the company I work for is this online education program. And so we just went remote. And, you know, I stayed working. And so there’s an extent to which a lot of most people had a much more disruptive pandemic experience than I did. But so I was kind of looking around to thinking what sort of projects I wanted to do. And I graduated from the journalism school at NYU, um, you know, a couple years ago, and journalism was a super vocational major, very kind of, naturally kind of very, you know, hands on major in the sense that, you know, we had a couple of kind of theory classes, but it was mostly you know, how to be a journalist. And, you know, there’s an extent to which I kind of everything I know, to be said that I know anything about journalism today, and that I can write anything that comes from being editor at the student newspaper, as much as it did for whatever journalism classes. And so super kind of hands on Super vocational and bass majors. And I kind of realized that I didn’t have the kind of traditional college experience that I that I saw in, you know, movies and things and read about in, you know, well, I don’t know, if Donald Hart is a traditional college experience. It’s like a murder mystery. But But yeah, you know, and my you, of course, is, you know, in and of the city, and so it’s very, you know, city, bus, college, or whatever. But all of us to say that I was like, Oh, I never actually did the going deep on all the things that that kind of so many college students, did. You notice that I was staying up late arguing with with people in my dorm room, it was over kind of journalism, things are over, you know, politics or stuff that was happening at the time, more than it was like, What did Cicero’s say about, you know, the role of the policy. And so,
Unknown Speaker 4:10
I had read,
Tommy Collison 4:12
probably a couple years ago, at this stage, I’d read a book called investing the last liberal art by Robert Robert hagstrom. And he basically makes the he makes the claim that you know, you should know a lot about or a little about a lot of things. And he specifically started Charlie Munger in this kind of mental model discussion and being able to pull from the best of every industry. But but to make a long story short, he referenced the great books program at St. John’s College, which is a university in Annapolis. That doesn’t, you know, today’s college students are sort of, kind of handed a menu of what they want to study and you know, the mixing and matching classes from all different areas. St John’s has done of that in the sense that over in St. John’s you read, I think it’s 150 books. Over the four years, everyone reads the same books in the same order. And so if you are a freshman talking to a junior, they read the same books you are two years ago. And so there’s, you know, from people who’ve told me about it, there’s this remarkable, remarkable cohesion. on campus, first, everyone has done the same things. And they, there are no kind of classes or lectures to speak of, in the sense that they literally spend their entire time reading these books. And so, you know, in pandemic, I basically decided I was like, Okay, well, you know, the ship has sailed on me being a St. John’s undergrad, but, you know, there’s no reason I can’t do this solo. And so I basically started the project and did what I sort of do sometimes, which is like to keep me not talking to keep me honest. But to keep me engaged or to like, yeah, as I kind of pre commit, as it were, I visited kind of tweeted that I was doing this wrote a blog post that I was doing. And the there was far more kind of interest than I was expecting, in the sense that it turns out a lot of people kind of a are interested in reading these old books, but be are interested in this kind of discussion as to why someone would do it or kind of benefit there is. And I guess this kind of gets back to this whole, you know, discussion around colleges these days, which is kind of very much in vogue.
Will Jarvis 6:27
Right? Yeah, no, that’s a great. That’s a great point. Right. You know, and I’m curious, you know, how far have you gotten so far in the project? And have you gotten any big takeaways? Like, I guess, like, there’s, there’s the enjoyment part of it, there’s the utility part of it, there’s the you know, there’s a lot of factors at play, there’s learning about from things from the past, you know, what has been the most valuable thing so far?
Tommy Collison 6:55
It’s probably an extent, to the extent to which there are no great books, there’s only one big conversation in, in the sense that everything is kind of responding to something else. And I’m like, fairly early in the project, we were just doing this podcast in like, four years time or something. But exactly, there’s an extent to which, you know, one, these people in these ideas are responding to one another. And kind of sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly. So to give an example, right now, I’m reading Dante’s Inferno. And Inferno is essentially Dante walking through hell, and you know, that the kind of seven circles of hell or whatever, we get that from Dante, that’s a kind of a reference to Dante. And he has his guide has Virgil, the author of the need this kind of very famous, I guess, Roman classic, that is the talks about the founding of Rome, and became kind of central to well, miscellany in like the 1920s and 30s kind of held up as an example of like, this is the, you know, great Roman Empire or whatever. And so the extent to which everyone’s kind of talking to each other, and that Dante references, Virgil and references a ton of other writers, but but kind of more than that, there’s almost a sense of comfort where the things that they’re arguing about are the same things that we’re arguing about today. And I think literature has actually kind of good literature, great literature has this quality about it, that it feels kind of immediately familiar, where, you know, if you look at today, for you know, this kind of Bowling Alone phenomenon of, okay kind of religiosity is declining. membership of random social things like unions, or bowling clubs, I think, was his example, are declining. You know, what does it mean to be part of a community? What does it mean to live a good life? This is literally what Dante is feeling when he kind of stumbles on the entrance to hell, where he’s like, I was an adult. Yeah, he’s like, it was in a dark wood, and my life was kind of all over the place, and I don’t, you know, I was getting lost. And, you know, some things happen, and then I entered hell. And, you know, I’m only halfway through the Inferno. So I don’t know if they the key takeaways. But But essentially, this is him trying to work out, you know, what, how do I live a good life? You know, because he’s explicitly religious, kind of like, what does God want? You know, what does it mean to live in accordance to good beliefs and everything? But, but kind of zooming out? To give a slightly more contemporary example, one of the reasons I loved Hamilton, I don’t know if you saw it. But yeah, the musical but but think of the three conflicts in Hamilton, which is, you know, immigrants good or bad question mark. State versus federal rights, like the entire set of actors is representative Hamilton, and three Also in the second act like, you know, how much should we be in Britain or France’s affairs? I mean, think that it’s like, immigration question mark, a states rights question mark. And, you know, should we be the world’s policeman question mark, like, all three of those are like early 2000s, you know, debates that, you know, Republicans and Democrats are having, and I’m kind of very much still to today. I remember kind of walking out of Hamilton and being like, wow, nothing ever changes. Right? Yeah, that’s like, that’s so comforting.
Will Jarvis 10:32
It’s like, you know, our ancestors have faced very similar challenges. And I do think that’s one of the big benefits of reading the great books, right is, is seeing people that have encountered problems that, you know, we encountered today, and like, seeing how they dealt with them, how they were successful, how they were not successful. Do you think there’s an element where they’re, you know, the great books are valuable for some kind of like Lindy effect, where they’ve been around for a long time. They survived. And so they’ve, they’ve made it through some filtering process, whereas new works, you know, it’s tougher to tell, right?
Tommy Collison 11:03
Yeah, I think it’s probably safe, that you shouldn’t read any books in the last 10 years. Because there has to be some and you know, that there’s different factors here in this sense that, you know, there’s like, way more books published, that they could have ever before. But but it’s probably safe to say that books have to go through a certain amount of exposure to the real world. And I mean, exposure to the field, in the sense that if you’re especially I guess, a nonfiction, you know, you’re putting something forward, you’re adding something to to the canon, you know, Robert hagstrom, wrote this book on investing and, you know, presumably made some claims about investing. And people who know much more about investing than I do probably had opinions on those things like, Okay, well, you know, let’s,
Unknown Speaker 11:51
let’s let it let’s,
Tommy Collison 11:52
let’s let society digest this book a little bit. And, you know, see if it comes to the bottom to the top. And so I guess, to the extent that, you know, life is short, and there are many, many books, and you presumably want to be reading, the best thing is that you can, you know, I guess, to be safer than sorry, you probably want to avoid new things. And to your point, there is nothing less new than, you know, I think the Iliad and the Odyssey are kind of two of the oldest, certainly in the western civilization, kind of the oldest stories that we have, you know, the Bible question mark. Right,
Will Jarvis 12:31
right. They’re quite old. Right. Like, yeah, it’s hard to get older than those two. I’m curious, you know, so the great books, they’ve been declining, like, you know, and there’s a lot of debates now, and I think you’ve written about some of this about, you know, how much should we be reading these books? And I think some of that sentiment comes from the fact you know, okay, the West, you know, whatever the West is, you know, has done a lot of good things, it’s done a lot of bad things. And, you know, this is all mixed up within that canon. Right? What do you think about that? And have you thought about that issue much?
Tommy Collison 13:06
Yeah, I guess? Well, there’s, there’s two thing or two kind of separate, but related arguments that I see happening, one is which like, kind of, Oh, we should study something useful. Right? Not, you know, the kind of humanities in trouble problem, which is like, you know, in one in one part, and then the second part is this kind of dead, excuse me, dead white men problem where kind of so much of the Canon so much of what we’re reading, all kind of look like, you know, and there’s, you know, to the second problem, and I think I think it is a problem in the sense that I think if we can make the The, the, I guess, to take a step back, the Canon isn’t set in stone, in the sense of when we talk about the great books, this is kind of roughly agreed upon, you know, list of important things. And so, you know, what is important, what is worth reading, you know, there are people who’ve put forward lists or kind of suggestions, but I don’t think that kind of precludes putting other things on that list. And I think anybody should kind of look at my list that I’ve published online, it includes a lot of what we might call kind of Eastern classics, in the sense of there’s no i i certainly see no reason to study Western literature, at the expense of everything else. But you know, that there’s kind of two questions that are which is like, is some Western literature is some of what we kind of traditionally call the great books worth studying. And I think the answer is yes. You know, to the production of other things, like no, not necessarily but the second thing I’d say to the kind of to the, you know, dead white men problem is, uh, you know, for better for worse, these are the thinkers who influenced what we might call the great people or the the great strongmen of history, or whatever the phrase is, listen to Thomas Jefferson, classical educated Winston Churchill classically educated and you know, you can dispute both of those people and people do vociferously. You know, the thing is that the two people I just mentioned, have done or did. But you know, there’s an extent to which you kind of want to know what they knew or kind of studied what they studied. And I think there’s a lot of value in that, incidentally, Winston Churchill, just completely off topic. I was reading, there’s a new biography of him that I was reading, he was born in like, the 1880s, and died in 1965, which means he was born literally at the height of the British Empire, and watch the whole thing come down, watch the whole thing go down. And you know, it’s kind of sad that his funeral and 65 was like the death knell of the British Empire, because it’s like, who’s who’s left after that? Right? Um, and I find that kind of life has a way of being weirdly poetic sometimes.
Will Jarvis 15:58
Does. That is quite, that’s quite interesting. So, on your first point, you talked about the utility of kind of reading the great books. There’s an old Scott Alexander post, about, and it’s about Harvard admissions rates over time. And so Harvard, you know, back in the 1800s, and even the early 1900s, as well, up until recently, fairly recent, like post World War Two, it was not very competitive at all, it’s like you would take him interest exam, and you could pretty much come like, if you could pay the fee, it was very minimal, you could come and I get the feeling there was not a big wage premium to having a college degree. And over time, that wage premium, I think has increased. Do you think that place to part of why it’s become something where everyone needs a college degree to succeed? And you’re, you’re going for utility instead of like, well, I’m just really interested in these things. And there aren’t that many people that are interested. So I’m just gonna go study it. Do you think that feeds into why the great books of and humanities as a whole have gotten kind of, you know, there’s declining interest?
Tommy Collison 17:09
Yeah. And the kind of decline of the humanities kind of, I think, has a lot of people nervous, myself included in that I don’t know what the optimal number of classics department departments is, but on a sort of kind of Chesterton’s fence sort of sense. I don’t love that we’re closing them down. And the big discussion that’s happening right now that I’ve been following is Howard University, which is this historically black college
Will Jarvis 17:36
HBCU. And my father in law’s dad went to Howard anyway, cool. Yeah. No,
Tommy Collison 17:44
rightly, famous University is closing their, their classics department extensively because of low enrollment. And it’s like, Okay, well, what happens when the largest and arguably the most prestigious HBCU, you know, closes down their classes to having this kind of all these stories, but Douglas, Frederick Douglass, you know, we’re kind of starting these classic thinkers, and it becoming kind of a formative experience for him. Yeah. So I mean, that there, there’s what we’re talking about could have 17 different problems, one of which, as you say, is kind of great inflation and the, you know, the bachelor’s degree being almost kind of table stakes for a lot of jobs. And I think the benefit of the great books, and the fact that there’s no kind of price of admission, or whatever we can get these for kind of a couple sides, is that it’s the first step to seeing education is something that happens kind of out of bounds, out of the bounds of university, in the sense of, we seem to have decided that learning is something you do for the first 22 years of your life, and then you’re kind of off on your own. Yeah, and this is fundamentally not true, both because as the great book show, you can kind of just do it on your own, or during small groups or whatever. But also, in the sense that I think something like 75% of people are not working in the industry that they went to college for, I think 27% are uncertain, you know, myself included. And so it’s an extent to which, you know, college is important, and it can be very enjoyable, formative experience. But, you know, the great books that the way that I’ve started thinking about is the great books is this sort of like, Large Hadron Collider, but for ideas in the sense of you’re kind of picking and choosing from a ton of different areas. And kind of mashing stuff together. We’re gonna have you literally are studying kind of geography, theology, physics, literature. You know, science, history, everything’s biology, everything. Yeah. And so, if we can kind of extra case, learning from the university system, and that’s my day job at lambda, this is what we’re doing. We’re saying you can change your career without having to go to a two or four year institution, right and Which is not to say I think colleges are going to go away or should go away. I’m asked this in context of lambda school where it’s like, well, should I go to college or go to lambda school? I’m like, well, they’re two very different projects. And and suitable for kind of two very different people, or two very different types of people. I’m just in favor of more choice in the sense of being able to choose a or overbey. And so in a similar vein, I think if we can kind of bring learning out of traditional classroom environments, I think that would be a really good thing. But that, of course, lends the question where it’s like, how do you do academia outside of academia? In the sense of Yeah, you can read these great books, but people have kind of rightly said, when I tell them about the project, or on Twitter or something, they’re like, Yeah, but like, isn’t the whole benefit of St. John’s that they get together in these small discussion groups? You know, what is the benefit of reading them on your own, which I think is super valuable? Or like a very good question. And so then I think the question becomes, okay, if we kind of move learning outside of the university system, it’s like, Okay, well, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, like, how do we take the best parts?
Will Jarvis 21:06
Right, I, I really liked that. And I do wonder how much of the, you know, credentialism, you know, requiring it has made knowledge and learning, you know, everyone, like, because it’s so focused on, you know, you know, get the degree to get your money, it’s obfuscated the fact that, you know, learning is good in itself, right. Like, in general, it’s a good thing to be learned and, and, you know, consume these ideas and see what other people thought before you.
Tommy Collison 21:31
Yeah, no. And then there’s a whole thing of like, well, the robots are gonna, you know, work and sleep tasting that robots needed to sleep. But like, in what ways are we different, and Xena hits who’s a tutor at St. John’s wrote a really good book about this, I think it came out last year, called lost in thought, in the subtitle is the hidden pleasures of an intellectual life, basically saying that, that, you know, as a byproduct, your career may benefit from learning things. But, you know, fundamentally, the, you know, fundamentally taking the time to learn things, creates this inner space, and in that inner space is where reflection happens is where growth happens. And so just kind of creating that space, instead of inhabiting it every time, every now and then, every now and again, has benefits outside of us, you, you know, getting kind of like, oh, you’re gonna have a performance review and a raise after that.
Will Jarvis 22:30
Right, right. And it also seems like, even just the ability to see that, you know, like how, like, you mentioned this earlier, it’s like, most of the problems you encounter in your life. So someone, one of these authors who has encountered this and like, written a lot on it, and I guarantee you, you know, he or she is much smarter than you are, and has put a lot of time into, and it’s survived this process. Right. And so there’s a lot of wisdom to be gained from from doing this. Yeah. And I think that
Tommy Collison 23:00
there are some practical benefits. And I don’t want to, you know, claim that it is just kind of navel gazing, one of the ones that I keep coming back to is you just get so much experience or sorry, so much exposure to people articulating their ideas, both in the nonfiction sense in the sense of like, these people are laying out their their arguments. But also, you know, you get, it’s, the one that I keep coming back to is leadership, and the entire, the entire great conversation or whatever is essentially asserting in leadership in the sense of like, the Iliad starts off with just literally, kind of fundamentally a dude and his manager, fighting it out over credit, and like, you know, literally a performance review. And so you get these kind of studies and leadership. I mean, the Bible is another great example where it’s like, Alright, you’re gonna take Abraham, and he’s going to found a religion, and he’s going to talk to people, and then you know, there’s going to be a covenant with God. And we’ll see what goes from there. We’ll start up. Exactly. Well, is that is it? Yeah, I was about to say, is that Judaism or Christianity? That’s a great question. Yeah. And so, you know, to the extent that leadership is predicated on your ability to articulate your, your position, you know, I think I think it’s really important to study people both in the kind of the nonfiction sense, like I said, but also in infection. Um, and then just kind of beyond that, you know, I was asked recently, you know, kind of, Okay, I don’t have, you know, the the time that you have or the patients that you have to, like, go 125 of them, but like, what should I read that, that is, you know, kind of really kind of weighty, and I kind of came, again, 10 books out and so, kind of premature question, but I think Don Quixote might be the single best novel ever written? Oh, well, I was the first. So I mean,
Will Jarvis 25:05
that’s a benefit there. Yeah, exactly
Tommy Collison 25:07
talking about the longevity question that’s like, that is fine. But but it’s it’s an amazing novel where kind of the premise is, and it’s this wonderful quote, I don’t I actually do have a copy of how quickly I can find it. But there’s a quote in kind of the first chapter where it’s like, you read so many books that his brain rotted away, which occupational hazard, yes, but but so because his brain has rotted away, he believes he’s a knight, and it’s like chivalrous Knight of all the stories that he’s reading, he basically goes off on adventures, and people sort of play into it, or, you know, circumstances being what they are. And throughout the entire novel, you’re never sure whether Don Quixote is crazy, or everyone else’s. And so and so you can sort of read it as this comic story, that’s kind of funny story for things happen. And it is genuinely funny. Or it’s this like really touching thing where, you know, Don Quixote is literally the last person on earth, who believes in AAA, he believes in people being good in who believes in, you know, this lizard is coming in between, you know, people, and setting up the society. And so, it’s a book with, you know, 17 layers all the way down.
Will Jarvis 26:20
I love that. Well, and you brought up a very enjoyable book, you know, Don Quixote, how much do you think it someone like in doing a project, like you’re doing and reading the great books? How much should they push, so you know, to love has this line, and you know, he’s quite the nut, but he’s like, you know, if you’re not enjoying it, don’t read it, like, you know, switch to something else, you know, but, you know, it clearly seems to me, there’s some cases where it’s like, we’re struggling with some things like, I really enjoyed Moby Dick. And it was a hard book to get through. And I, that was incredibly formative book for my life, but it was difficult to get through, like, I’m not gonna lie. How much should you struggle with a given work before you toss it? Or should you know, should you struggle?
Tommy Collison 27:02
Well, the thing and you might only know this, if you’re like me, and going way too deep on this, in the sense of well, reading the great books, I’ve realized that there is this entire debate going on. But both in terms of kind of the people who think about these things for a living and in terms of literature Professor as an English writers, but also, you know, kind of tiziana hits this point. There are just so many people who, you know, they’re firefighters, they’re people in office jobs that are whatever, and, you know, their day jobs might be someone, you know, sometimes be mundane, or sometimes be, you know, not the most fulfilling things in the world, and who are going out or reading these and, you know, literally kind of spending their their salaries on books, and you know, they might be classic books, and you know, Emily Dickinson, whatever it is, or might be just, you know, the airport mysteries. And there’s something kind of really, really nice about that, to your point about what or how much did you push. The kind of this is a debate that happens in the people who are, you know, thinking about this every day, but like, there are new translations, basically once a decade, depending on the book. So Emily Wilson, just released a translation of the Odyssey. And it’s kind of a much larger transition, both because it’s good, but it’s also the first on that, that we know of at least, the first time a woman has translated the Odyssey. And this is kind of important in and of itself, from kind of representation standpoint, but also important because, you know, translations, you think, okay, it’s just the original work, and then it gets translated and whatever. But there’s a lot of editorializing, I think that goes in translations. And so the example with Emily Wilson and the Odyssey is and I have, you know, one or two other copies somewhere here, but, you know, in one version, it’ll be like, and it is yes, went to his servant and said, you know, blah, and it’s like, oh, that wasn’t like a servant and like the PG Woodhouse Jeeves sense like that was a slave. Right? And Emily Wilson kind of, kind of canonically uses the word slave for those people. And, you know, he, you know, this person didn’t take so and so is their mistress or their buddy or something, you know, what I mean? Like, right, were taken as a slave. And so there’s a lot of, kind of new lenses you can bring on. You can kind of bring on to these books and can very much not static. Don Quixote in my translation was Edith Grossman, which I think came out in like early 2000. And so, you know, you can go back to 1960 or even earlier, when there were very staid translations very difficult to to get through. But, you know, Don Quixote for you know, because of Grossman’s translation, ethos, or whatever you wanna call it. Is this eminently readable, very, you know, kind of vernacular, a very easy to read book. And even Actually, this version has a transition section at the back where like the first two paragraphs, they compare like 17, different, different transition, you can see what I’m talking about where it’s like, oh, it’s like, it’s not forgiven, this thing is actually easy to read. It’s like this was a conscious decision. And so what I say to people is, like, classic shouldn’t be difficult to read. By definition, you know, there, it’s more, it’s harder than Harry Potter. But But you know, it’s not, you know, the, the striving isn’t necessarily the point. I’m not sure I buy this, you know, you should just throw it out the minute it gets hard, because then there’s like, a lot of reward to doing a hard thing. I’m struggling with something into, you know, sitting with it for a while. But, you know, I certainly don’t subscribe to this idea about the slot slog is, is something like the price of admission.
Will Jarvis 30:58
Right? That, I think that’s wallplate. And it does make me wonder, you know, if you’re reading something like Shakespeare, and so, you know, Shakespeare, it’s in English. But you know, there’s a lot of words that are not used in the same context. You know, what do you think about that? You know, it when you get through those eight, is it worth trying to find like, what it was no fear Shakespeare or something? Because we’re just going to the place, what do you feel about that? Oh, yeah,
Tommy Collison 31:23
I mean, my version of Shakespeare, I don’t have it to hand. But my versions of Shakespeare are like the ones that middle schools and high schools use, where I’m like, I want to appreciate the language and the style. And you know, that when, especially when it’s written in a different language, and Shakespeare’s like, basically, at different languages at this stage, there’s a lot of like, oh, and the original Italian, this is really funny, because it actually, you know, does this or whatever. So you kind of want the original Shakespeare there, because it’s very well done. But I also want to add, Shakespeare is a good example. because fundamentally, these are plays, right? These are stories, right. And, you know, Shakespeare is trying to be clever and trying to be funny, but it’s not some kind of like rhetorical flourishes trying to convince you have something. And so I’m very much they are where it’s like, this means that they want to have sex, it’s like, you know, you’re totally want that sort of like footnote or side note, or whatever, you know, you’re not struggling with it so much as your, whatever allows you access into the story. And to understand these characters, and to understand these plots, and you know, the Shakespeare that I did in high school, there’s a ton on the list for your two, but the Shakespeare that in high school was was Macbeth, and Macbeth, you know, dripping an irony, and kind of you watch macbeths worlds sort of unravel, because he’s like, you know, oh, no man or woman born will ever harm me. And he’s like, Oh, yeah, I’m, you know, invincible, and you watch that kind of fall apart, and you got you him realizing that it’s falling apart. And that’s what you’re reading Shakespeare for? It’s not the, or I guess, secondarily, I think it’s flowery language, but But fundamentally, is a storyteller.
Will Jarvis 33:09
Gotcha. Yeah, I think that’s, that’s a really good way to approach it. And then think about that, that problem. Tommy, you’ve been interested in books since you were a little kid? Isn’t that correct? Maybe I’ve gotten this from your Twitter, your blog. But yeah, it’s been a lifelong pursuit. Right?
Tommy Collison 33:26
Yeah. So we grew up in the middle of nowhere in Ireland. There were two of us, or three of us, my two older brothers and I, and we all sort of developed our own interests, you know, the kind of point that I make is that there was no, you know, going out to the street to play with your friends, because there was no friends nearby. There were all you know, 1015 miles down the road. And there were no streets to speak of. And so we all got a chance to explore your own interests. And you know, our parents were great, because they were very much the sort of people who would push kind of from behind. Support our interest. Yeah, I remember, Patrick wanted to learn ancient Greek. And so my parents found him to tutor on Saturday mornings, at a local Dominican or Franciscan Abbey, but like,
Will Jarvis 34:19
literally, that’s great,
Tommy Collison 34:21
like, study to integrate with like a monk at an abbey. And so, you know, it wasn’t them being like, oh, if I study a foreign language, it’s like, express this interest, and they like, found a way of supporting it. And so, you know, kind of Patrick and john went into computers. And I kind of followed them in a little bit later, but I fundamentally was like, Oh, my God, I can sit in this chair with this book, and it’s great. And so, uh, yeah, I got into kind of reading and writing fairly quickly. And the internet then became this thing that we could use to kind of press our noses up against the the rest of the world. I was too Young for kind of Amazon. And this idea that you know, the Kindle or you could, you know, press a button and be reading something five, five minutes later, but probably for the best in terms of like, my credit card bill or something. Probably thanks me for that.
Will Jarvis 35:16
That’s good. Do you think there’s something cultural, they’re about, you know, in the United States, there’s like intense pressure to, you know, get your kids to the good high school now, it’s even like, get you’re getting kids in the good kindergarten in New York City. And it’s just like, intense competition. And people just they don’t get a chance to explore what they’re interested in, right? Like, you know, go read the great books, etc. Like, whatever that looks like, go learn Latin if you want to. Do you think do you feel like that was a cultural difference? Or is that just like a special case with you know, your parents had kind of a good insight there? Yeah,
Tommy Collison 35:50
it’s a good question. My Well, I was a kindergarten near where I am. That bills itself as a college prep kindergarten. I’m kind of like, sorry. No, that was entirely that was entirely my reaction. Ah, yeah. And so uh, there’s that in America, in the you know, I haven’t thought pulled of the the kindergartens or preschools in in Ireland, but I don’t think there’s that same idea. But but to you know, Patrick’s talked about this a good bit, he kind of very famously has advice for people 10 to 20 of the people you’re talking about. For he makes the point that there is going to be strong forces kind of pushing you towards this traditional route of, you know, padding your, your high school resume with extracurriculars and stuff like this. Yeah. And so we were kind of lucky, because we were away from it, you know, kind of insulated from this American, you know, high school to college pipeline, by virtue of being in Ireland. But, but I think that, you know, our parents were gonna, and I think this is an Irish thing more generally, where there’s just kind of a free range parenting aspect to it, where, you know, slugs are home by dark. I mean, you can kind of do as you wish. And I think there’s a lot more. You know, everything at its time, in the sense of, yeah, you know, you should probably worry about college, probably not till the last, like, two years of, you know, what I mean, like, at least are thinking about it bad. But yeah, there isn’t the same sense that kind of the the things you’re doing as a 10, or a 12 year old are going to then, you know, downstream impact you. And so, you know, there’s an extent to which Patrick, especially, you remember, growing up watching him, he went deep on at various stages, you know, ancient Greek physics, literature, math, and kind of various branches of science as well as computer programming, which I guess is arguably what he went into. So, you know, there’s an extent to which because the external forces aren’t there, naturally, you do have a little bit more flexibility or freedom.
Will Jarvis 38:15
That’s great. Well, and we’ve had, you know, who don braven is my chances kind of out of left field. No, no, he wrote a book strike press just recently released it. It’s called scientific freedom. Oh, yeah. Yeah. So he’s great. So we had him on the show. He’s a real, he’s 85. He’s still sharp as a tack. He’s a physicist, he ran a venture research program at BP. And his whole thought was, you know, the big problem is that we’ve gotten too much oversight and bureaucracy for scientists now used to be you could get the small amount of money, you know, 30k a year go out, you know, explore whatever you wanted to write. And, you know, Max Planck spent 20 years on thermodynamics, he could probably never do that again. Right? Yeah. It’s just his weird idea. And he just kept iterating on it. And I do wonder if we lose something when we just, you know, force kids to, you know, go down this one path, and you don’t have this kind of freedom to pursue what interests you? Yeah, I
Tommy Collison 39:08
mean, well, this gets back to, and I’m saying this sort of as, as someone who made it through to the other side of this, but you know, if we say that 75% of people aren’t studying, or aren’t working in the thing that they studied in college as an undergrad, like, Well, you know, what are Why are we worried about you know, people studying in college, you know, it’s probably good to not be completely unmoored. And you don’t mean just like wasting time, but yeah, there’s probably some aspect to there are some things that matter a lot. And then there are some things that matter much less where, you know, if you know what you want to do, it is kind of, quote unquote, fine not to go to college. But if you can kind of afford to do and you don’t know why you want to do with your life. There are worse ways of spending four years then going and kind of exploring a bunch of different it’s like, oh, so this is this isn’t. And this is exactly what I did where I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And I think I changed my major like eight times in my freshman year. So you know that there’s an extent to which that asks, you know, 16 year olds have a lot of foresight, where it’s like, do I know what I want to do with my life? But but I think it’s kind of becoming increasingly less important, you know, that this decision you make when you’re when you’re 16? Or 17? You know, it comes sets you on this path. Right. Well,
Will Jarvis 40:38
was there anything about journalism that particularly attracted you? Was there you know, something you read it? I don’t know. Was there anything that grabbed you?
Tommy Collison 40:47
Yeah, so I wanted to be a journalist after so I don’t remember if it came out, I think in 2005, or something. But there was a book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo movie with final Craig and in 2010, or whatever. But the so the girl that wants to do is this kind of murder mystery thriller, for a journalist and computer hacker solve a mystery. And so of course, it’s like made for Tommy where it’s like, oh, I like computers, or like journalists. Great. Yeah, it’s good. This is great. This is like content written specifically for me. I’m also a huge, like, thriller, mystery fan.
Unknown Speaker 41:22
Tommy Collison 41:24
so the growth attracted to but it was written by a guy called Steve Larson, who’s the Swedish journalist. And it’s almost one of those times where like, the truth is better than the story, where So Steve Larson was a writer for a magazine, the kind of he was the basis of the journalist in the novel. But so he wrote for this magazine that covered the alt right. And, you know, the, the kind of all trite movement in America came kind of 10 to 15 years after it came in, you’re in the right of this kind of, you know, Europe had these sort of nationalist, anti immigrant parties. And politicians, kind of a little bit before America did, excuse me. And so he basically covered neo nazis in Sweden, he covered all of these sorts of things. And it was, it was kind of very inspiring, in the sense that he took this part of culture, this part of society, whatever, and says, you probably don’t care about this thing. But here’s why you should care about this thing. And that was, to me kind of a very powerful view of journalism. And so when I was in high school, and then later in college, I started thinking kind of what what is that? For me? It’s like, I don’t know what to think about politics. But what I didn’t know was computers and what I was seeing, and because, you know, so I was in my senior year of high school, literally graduating high school, the month of the Edward Snowden disclosures,
Unknown Speaker 43:07
I remember I was doing
Tommy Collison 43:08
like my terminal exams, and kind of going home and being like, Oh, my God, what’s happening here. And if you remember, it’s like a whole saga, because it’s like, all these, these, these new things came out. And then it’s like, oh, it’s this guy in, you know, and he’s escaped to to Hong Kong, and he’s in Hong Kong is going to be arrested there. And it’s like, oh, he’s disappeared. Oh, now he’s in Russia. You know, it literally was like a soap opera they could choose not to. But um, and I started putting together almost like a worldview that I ended up kind of writing about. And I still have, like, the first draft of a book on my hard drive that I have yet to, like find a publisher for but basically, you know, kind of what is this thing of like, here’s the thing that you don’t really know all that much about, but you should care about because it’s going to be important, right. And I kind of formulated my theory of this, which is, again, it was informed by the journalism that I did in college, which was, it’s very difficult to keep information secure. And this is true on the interpersonal level, where you have revenge porn, which is kind of the non consensual sharing of intimate Texan photos usually have like an extra or something like that. So kind of, I mean, there’s so many stories, and I talked to some people in college about this, but there’s so many stories online, of people who, you know, their first Google result is, is something like this, and, you know, scuppers job interviews that makes it very hard to do anything, because of course, everything is, you know, online these days. So interpersonally
very difficult to keep things secure. On a company level, very difficult to keep things secure. You see this in terms of like Equifax getting hacked, Ashley Madison, which was this dating app, for people who wanted to have affairs had their membership
Unknown Speaker 44:50
Will Jarvis 44:52
Like as this I’m sure,
Tommy Collison 44:54
not gonna be the best, but also like, yeah, it’s like I you know, kind of, we kind of chuckle about it, but like, people committed suicide over it this list leaking. And then you know, so it’s true on personal levels to accompany levels at a Tron governmental levels. And since Snowden leaks Wikileaks you know, on the company level, there was this story, you know, Sony got hacked by North Korea, because Sony was releasing this movie that was critical of the North Korean government. And you know, the movie was almost canceled, whatever did, you know, get digitally released.
Unknown Speaker 45:28
Tommy Collison 45:30
you know, North Korea hacked Sony and released a bunch of emails that showed that they were basically paying male stars were male executives, more than they were paying female, which, of course, in the context of the discussion on gender equality was like very damaging for Sony. And so, you know, it’s so on every level, it is very difficult to keep information secure. And, you know, either there’s kind of one or two outcomes here, one of two, which is the first outcome is like, hey, from, like, 1995, to, you know, 2030, we didn’t like we had a lot of information leaking, known social security was private, and like, all these texts and images were coming out was a wild west of a time, but you know, we’ve managed to batten down the hatches. And then the second option is just we never managed to figure this out. And just the information that’s online is susceptible to leak, which is its own weird little paradigm shift in the sense of like, what do we do when, you know, our social security numbers are bought and sold on the dark web? And what does it mean for like, the fact that your social is used as identity verification by like, literally, everyone? And so a long way of answering your question, kind of the thing that I got really interested in was, Oh, God, computers are going to like, up and everything. And, you know, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. The counter argument to all of that is like, how has your life meaningfully changed since the since the Equifax leak?
Will Jarvis 46:58
Right? Yeah, that’s really hasn’t changed, right? Yeah, that’s right.
Tommy Collison 47:01
Yeah, I actually can’t point to anything that happened. But you know, was there any large scale change after the Snowden leaks? There was a little bit, you know, public opinion really did seem to shift. But, you know, has the NSA his powers really been? You know, meaningfully reined in? it? Doesn’t, doesn’t really seem so.
Will Jarvis 47:21
Right. That Do you think people? Do you think it’s just gotten to be so much that you know, so much information was released about us? And we’re just kind of like, attenuated to it? Do you think that’s what what has generally happened will continue to happen? Or do you think there’s a moment where like, Oh, god, this is like, a little too much?
Tommy Collison 47:38
Yeah, I mean, the scale of it means that we haven’t, you know, it’s very easy to not feel the personal effects for like that person with the Ashley Madison leak, probably really feels it ROM. But But if you’re not, and, you know, there’s this plastic line that privacy activists use where, you know, if you’ve nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about, like just fundamentally isn’t true, because there’s always something. Yeah. And so maybe it’s a question because there’s so much information leaking in line that we haven’t found the thing that like, pushes everyone’s button. I’m, the one that I come back to is, you know, we’ve had Photoshop for like, 25 years. And we still sort of trust images. Yeah, it’s like, we still mostly trust images. Yeah. And everyone’s kind of worried about this from the perspective of like, deep fakes or like, yeah, fake videos, and this is one of Obama talking. And it turns out that it’s it’s a, you know, comedian forcing him or something with computer generated imagery. And I find it kind of hard to worry about that. Because it’s like, yeah, again, like, we mostly still trust images, even though Photoshop is real good these days. And so I sort of feel it’s like an emperor has no clothes moment where it’s just like, you know, there, there’s, there’s going to be something on everyone. I was talking to someone interviewing them for the book, and they were making the parallel with drug use. And American president morons, like, you know, in previous years, it would have been on conscionable for a president to admit to drug use. And then by the time we got to Obama, he was like, Yeah, I smoked pot in college. Everyone’s self taught in college. And so now, it’s just not a not a worry. And so it’s like, well, in future, you know, when millennials or Gen Z are, like old enough to be running for president is going to be like, Hey, is this your intimate photo that got leaked online? They’re like, yeah, everyone’s photos got leaked online. Photos are private, whatever. Yeah. And so maybe that’s the end game where it just kind of doesn’t matter.
Will Jarvis 49:43
Right. Where if you have something on everyone, you have nothing on anyone? Something like that?
Tommy Collison 49:47
Yeah, yeah. I mean, in particular, for the photos side of things. I think people are, like public opinion is so against the people who are like leaking the intimate photos that it’s you almost get You almost get some almost like a free pass where it’s like, yeah, that was a really shitty thing to do. Sorry, I shouldn’t swear. But like, that’s a really bad thing to do. And so I think it’s becoming less, it’s being seen as the invasion of trust, that it is more than it’s like, oh, well, why you taking those sorts of pictures like,
Will Jarvis 50:20
humans? Exactly. You know, I’ve thought about this, this issue in the context of neuro link, and when, you know, the point where we’re controlling computers with the thoughts, and then your thoughts start getting public, do you think that’s crossing a Rubicon? Or it’s again, it’s another thing where it’s just like, Well, you know, everybody’s gonna have it out there. And, you know, on the margin, maybe there’s some bad things that happens, but it’s not, it’s not something really to worry about. Yeah,
Tommy Collison 50:44
I mean, the, the thing with technology that I’m seeing is that we kind of we go, and then we pull back. So cell phones are a great example of this, where, you know, it’s okay, well, when it’s like literally a phone. That’s great. And it’s very convenient to carry around with us. And, you know, it’s a great new technology. And then it’s like, well, we’ve got these apps and like, Well, you know, everyone’s spending way too much time on them. And now there’s this kind of cottage industry, of what’s called a digital detox, where it’s like, oh, yeah,
Unknown Speaker 51:13
we’re going to,
Tommy Collison 51:15
you know, take be away from our phones, and you know, Apple inches screen time, where it’s like highlighting the apps, you spend the most time and you can shut off access to them for a certain amount of time. And, you know, it’s almost like this, you know, Walden Thoreau moment of like, we invent all this music knowledge. And that’s like, oh, let’s pull back. And of course, you know, for me being Jewish, it’s like, yeah, we invented the Sabbath. Like, we’ve been doing this for 1000s of years. Oh, wow. Yeah. And I see tweets sometimes that are like, what if we all just agreed not to use social media on Wednesday? nothing new under the sun invented this.
Unknown Speaker 51:48
Tommy Collison 51:50
Yeah, but but so I wonder if we’re gonna see something similar to that, where, you know, okay, we invent this amazing new thing. But you know, people want to kind of pull back from it a little bit. And, you know, the, there’s so many advances in technology that we, you know, it’s hard to predict what we’re going to use them for. And, you know, AI is looking for cancer cells and all of these kinds of medical implementations for I’m kind of generally very excited for new technology, because I think there’s a whole host of just like, really boring things that you wouldn’t think of, such as, you know, Ai, image recognition being used on cancer cells, and like, training it on all the models of the MRIs or whatever.
Unknown Speaker 52:38
But, yeah, I
Tommy Collison 52:40
find it hard to really draw myself up to be super worried about, you know, points of no return or whatever. People, people who I used to, you know, live with, or be friends with in San Francisco. We’re always talking about this, like singularity moment, but so far have I’ve yet to really kind of get myself worked up over it.
Will Jarvis 53:00
Definitely. I think that makes a lot of sense. Well, Tommy, thank you so much for coming on. Before I let you go, this is a funny question. But you mentioned you really like mysteries and thrillers and we’re gonna include a link to the great books and everything, but I’d love to get you know, do you have any recommendations?
Tommy Collison 53:16
Oh, man. So the Oji mystery. So there’s a
Unknown Speaker 53:25
a kind of
Tommy Collison 53:26
trope in mysteries called a locked door mystery where it’s like, Oh, I got this group of people and one of them is murder but the door was locked. Yeah, exactly. And so Agatha Christie has a has two of these, one of which is Murder on the Orient Express, which without giving it away is about a murder. And it’s kind of a lockdown Mr. Katherine gets stuck and like no one was able to get in or you don’t I mean, and so Murder on the Orient Express which is a movie a couple years ago with kind of thrown out is actually an amazing book. It’s really good. The second Agatha Christie is And Then There Were None which is literally there on an island and and then there were not very descriptive titles. recent ones I thought Gone Girl was absolutely phenomenal. And I remember reading Gone Girl, I was at a I was like I was at CCC, which is this kind of Computer Club conference Congress thing in Germany in 2015. And I remember I was like at this conference, I’ve been looking forward to this conference for like, months and months and months and I literally kind of went to Germany for it and started going here on the plane they’re like literally the entire gone for me by Yeah, cuz I was like, just like in a corner reading Gone Girl to try and get it finished. So yeah, but those are three really good recommendations. But I mean, in turn in terms of recommendations, so my really nerdy achievement is that I’ve kept a list of every book I’ve read. Excellent for the last 11 But yours Yeah, call that 12 years. Awesome. And so anything, anything on that list? That’s bolded, I think is great. So she was like, search for mysteries there.
Will Jarvis 55:09
Go check it out. Awesome. And so where can people find the the great books program we put together?
Tommy Collison 55:14
Yeah. So Tommy collison.com. Yeah, Tommy thompson.com. slash gradebooks is the kind of canonical list. And there people often ask me for translations or additions or whatever. And so there’s actually like ice bands listed for if you want to kind of additions that I enjoyed, or whatever. I’m Tommy carlson.com. Slash books is that 11 year book plus that I mentioned. And then yeah, I wanted to just think about these ideas. You know, not even from a career perspective of like, Oh, look at this work I’ve done. But literally, just because, like, the most recent post is something like I have thoughts about Dante’s Inferno, and I’m like, Okay, well, I’m gonna put them up on the blog and see what people think. And I’ve gotten some good emails about it, or it’s like, I think you’re wrong, because it’s like this. Okay. But yeah, that is literally forge dot blog. So literary forge dot blog. So yeah, anyway,
Will Jarvis 56:06
that’s awesome. Well, thanks so much, Tommy. I really appreciate it. Well, thanks so much for having me. Well, that’s our show for today. I’m William Jarvis. And I’m will join us next week for more narratives.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai