Prior to 1979, I wasn’t a reader. Well…er…that’s not exactly true. I read. But I only read what I was told to read by a teacher. I was more aptly described as a coerced reader. Remove reading assignments from my day and I was one happy camper. My eyes and brain had even more time to busy themselves with television.
But then something magical happened when I went away to college. I suddenly learned that one could not only read a book of one’s own volition but that doing so might be a very rewarding exercise. Yes, I discovered that there was more to life than television, drinking games, and toga parties.
Let’s see, then, how I miraculously transitioned from a coerced reader to a self-directed reader.
The Smut Chair
In August of 1979, I moved into 695 Richmond Quad on the Amherst Campus of Buffalo University. Across the hall from me were two juniors, Dan and Jeff. Both fellows were very bright engineering majors with rather eclectic hobbies. Dan loved old cars and was restoring a 1961 Chevy Corvair. Jeff loved women and had every Playboy magazine from 1960 on. Now here’s a question. Who do you suppose had a more interesting hobby from my perspective? If you said Jeff, go straight to the head of the class.
Jeff took a lot of pride in his Playboy collection. Each Playboy was encased in a protective plastic sleeve, and each Playboy was neatly arranged by year and month in a sturdy bookcase. If you wanted to peruse a Playboy, Jeff was very accommodating. But he had one steadfast rule. You couldn’t remove any of his Playboys from his dorm room. If you wanted to peruse, you had to peruse under his supervision.
Since Jeff’s lone Playboy rule was hardly draconian, my floormates and I happily submitted to it. In fact, we submitted so thoroughly, two enduring features of our dorm culture quickly emerged. First, whenever you entered Dan and Jeff’s dorm room you invariably saw someone comfortably ensconced in the big chair by the foosball table perusing a Playboy. Second, that big chair became so synonymous with Playboy and perusing that we christened it the Smut Chair, and its use for any other purpose was strictly forbidden.
Well, needless to say, I spent a lot of time in the Smut Chair. And I’m happy to report that this inordinate amount of time wasn’t completely devoted to perusing air-brushed lovelies. I actually got a kick out of the advertisements—especially those from the 60s (damn, that era’s clothes were goofy). And I also—cliché alert—got a kick out of the interviews. My favorite by far was the Martin Luther King, Jr., interview in the January 1965 issue of Playboy. I was captivated by it. Perhaps it was because I knew the ending. It’s hard to say. But there was something definitely surreal about reading an interview of someone who was just three years away from his death.
“Okay, okay,” I hear you grousing. “Is this your ‘miraculous transition’ to a self-directed reader? Playboy interviews?”
Not quite. The Playboy interviews got me partially there. This is what put me over the top.
In the February 1973 issue of Playboy, there was an interview with the economist Milton Friedman. I didn’t know who this Friedman dude was, but his ideas about economics and freedom intrigued me. And in this interview, a book of his called Capitalism and Freedom was mentioned. The next day I went to my school’s library and checked it out. It was the first time in my life I reached for a book of my own volition. I’ve been a self-directed reader ever since.
Reading Has Been Very Good to Me
I once had a co-worker say to me that I would never be alone because I loved to read. At first, I shrugged off her observation. “Oh, that’s nice. Thank you.” But now I find it very profound.
If I had to list my three favorite books in my illustrious, self-directed reading career, it would be these.
- Knowledge and Decisions, by Thomas Sowell
- The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe
- A Drinking Life, by Pete Hamil
A wit once said that, “writing was thinking on paper.” Again, when I first came across this observation, I shrugged it off. But, then, after a few more grey hairs, its momentous ramifications hit me. “If writing is thinking on paper,” I thought to myself, “I can peer into the greatest minds in any field by simply reading their books. For a few measly bucks, I get access to a world-class mentor.”
This epiphany proved very helpful in the early 2000s when I decided to get my financial house in order. My first mentor was Dave Ramsey. Then came David Bach, Suze Orman, Thomas J. Stanley, Jean Chatzky, Napoleon Hill, Burton G. Malkiel, John Bogle, Daniel Kahneman, and Carl Richards. And, then, when financial blogging finally became a thing (circa 2010), my list of mentors grew tenfold.
Without my mentors, there’s no way I would be financially independent today. And without reading a Milton Friedman interview in a Playboy magazine, there’s no way I would have reached out to the mentors who taught me everything I needed to know about financial independence. Is it safe to say, then, that I owe my financial independence to some perv in the 50s who decided to publish nude photos of Marilyn Monroe?
Anyone who follows my blog knows that I’m not a big fan of college (see here, here, and here). But I have to give college its due. When you create a critical mass of smart people, wonderful and unexpected things happen. For instance, a wiseass, non-reader from Long Island blossoms into a prolific reader because someone in his dorm happened to be a Playboy collector. Now, whether you need a brick and mortar college today in the internet age in order to get a critical mass of smart people together is fodder for another post. Let me just concede that college has some intangible benefits that can’t be measured and these intangible benefits paid off for me.
Okay, groovy freedomists, that’s all I got. What say you? Has any freak happenstance altered the trajectory of your life for the better? Let me know when you have the chance. I’d love to hear your story. Peace.