Shelf Talks #1: Ezra

Ezra's bookshelf

Shelf Talks is a series of interviews in which writer and librarian Oleg Kagan asks interesting people questions inspired by the contents of their bookshelves. The first interview was with Ezra Butler, a man of many talents based in Chicago. In it, Ezra discusses his eclectic book collection, which he uses to learn about diverse subjects from finance to linguistics, and how he applies those learnings to his work. Ezra talks about the importance of branching out into different areas of study to spark "aha" moments and make connections between seemingly unrelated topics. He also emphasizes the value of maintaining a sense of wonder and naivety in life, and how this can lead to unexpected discoveries.

OLEG: I see Ray Dalio’s Principles on the top shelf, as well as a lot of subject surveys and big idea books throughout. Does that imply that you lean towards a deductive approach to sense-making?

EZRA: While your resulting implication is correct, it is based on a faulty assumption. When I first start thinking about an issue or a field, I don’t necessarily even know the questions to ask. I bought Ray Dalio’s book, which is part memoir, part practical theory, when I began researching financial markets. I didn’t really know what to expect, which I guess is the best reason to buy a book. Around the same time, for example, I bought Robert Schiller’s Narrative Economics which really informed my understanding of how markets work, and taught me that my interdisciplinary background could actually help me research the market in ways that a purely quantitative-focused person would not necessarily think.

In a slightly related stream of inquiry, though, I had been spending time thinking about the future of companies, especially as more and more people are external contractors, or “soloists” as I call them. “What will corporations look like in 2035?” felt a bit like that scene from Monty Python at the beginning of The Meaning of Life. I bought Coase’s The Firm, The Market, and the Law, because I thought it would give me additional insight into understanding what the construct and value of a company is, as opposed to an ad-hoc collective of individuals collaborating on occasion. I also bought Professor Ilana Gershon’s Down and Out in the New Economy to better understand the effects of this phenomenon.

As I learn more about a field of study, I tend to branch out and seek more aspects about something. More data or information sparks “aha” moments for me. Steven Pinker’s book The Stuff of Thought led me down a rabbit hole of linguistics research and how it affects how we think and act. As I was reading it, I happened to be working on a project which had me thinking a lot about different types of verbs, and more specifically how verb choice could indicate how someone is feeling. (I was attempting to design an algorithm, at the time, to make the application I was building both smarter and easier to use.) So I dove into Beth Levin’s English Verb Classes and Alternations, but I also bought Action: The Actors’ Thesaurus by Caldarone and Lloyd-Williams. As I used them, it honed my understanding for both theoretical and practical linguistics research that I probably wouldn’t have arrived at any other way. But unrelated, I also began reading books about metaphor and euphemisms, and just became fascinated with the topic.

One of my current fascinations is about understanding the effect of “proprietary” black box algorithms that make decisions without the opportunity for human recourse, which really leads into the question of how algorithms affect each us on a daily basis, how bias is baked into them, and how that can ruin people’s lives. Reading books like Automating Inequality, Weapons of Math Destruction, and Algorithms of Oppression help me, as Isaac Newton would say, “stand on the shoulders of giants.” They allow me to think of questions and implications I would have not necessarily connected to my initial line of questioning. I don’t know where this research will go or what use it will be to anyone but my own personal edification, but that’s part of the fun.

OLEG: Narrative economics sounds like an interesting and somewhat unexpected, combination, though, of course, so many economic indicators are only meaningful over time – so one can expect that markets, industries, economies can be described and analyzed in terms of narrative. Speaking of which, I don’t see much fiction (I do see some towards the bottom) on your shelf. Do you read fiction?

EZRA: It really helped me understand why companies I was researching which looked good on paper were not performing well in the stock market, and vice versa. It inspired me to research (and track) so-called “celebrity CEOs,” and to study their outsized effect on their company’s stock prices.

When you are a neophyte, you tend to look at things in absolutes and with a level of naïveté. You have to learn that executives lie or misrepresent facts; that the best product or service doesn’t necessarily win; that while most investors may purport to be in it for the long-term, the stock price tends to have a very narrow focus of time; and that not everyone with money is smart. More than anything else, I started learning about risk, and thinking in terms of risk. Now, when I read fiction or watch television or movies, I’ve started paying attention to that. How is the writer increasing the character’s actual risk? Is the character taking actual risk or can they not fail? What is the worst case scenario? My friend who is a playwright always tells me about you have to “raise the stakes” when writing a scene. I think I understand that better now.

But as with everything else in life, I hope to keep some of that naïveté. Life is so much more interesting when you look at everything with an air of wonder, and when things can surprise you.

Yes. I do read fiction. It is not on this bookshelf! This is “officially” in my office, so I have chosen to put mostly non-fiction and reference books here. It’s really anything I could theoretically think “I really need to see a verse in the Septuagint for an essay I’m writing” or “What are some good examples of data visualizations I can get inspiration from?” Or “What historical references I use in this play I’m writing?” On any given day, at any given time, I could be working on myriad different things, and some of these could lead me down very random rabbit holes. Also, the bookcase serves as an external memory device that reminds me about various “big ideas” just by glancing behind me.

To be fair, my couch is about 8 feet away, but I’m trying to maintain separate mental spaces, so I’m going to be using the living room bookcase for some of my fiction. Books belong all around the apartment, not in just one location.

OLEG: Your comment on celebrity CEOs reminded me of a few studies cited in David Brooks’ The Social Animal in which the qualities common in the most successful CEOs came down to resilience, consistency, and analytical rigor. Not exactly traits that garner fame. But I want to talk a little more about risk – I am drawn to how you began paying attention to risk in your everyday life. Would you say there is risk in reading, or even owning certain books?

EZRA: Fame is a relative term. I created my own framework for defining a “celebrity CEO,” once you leave the league of Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos. Even their private life is public news. I’m still in the process, but the basic idea was to analyze from the CEOs of public companies: 1) Who has had books written about them, 2) Who has written business books and 3) Who has written a memoir or autobiography, and how they have sold or are rated on sites like Goodreads. The next step is to analyze popular culture business profiles in newspapers and magazines, and to create a “celebrity” score of what is the probability that a random person would know who they are, what is the probability someone in the business world would know who they are, and who is only famous because they have taken helm of an already famous company.

I realized that I have always been conscious of risk. When I was a child I stuttered and suffered some bullies. When I was a teenager, I knew that I was deeply closeted and was nervous that something I would say or do would out me. In my twenties I discovered that I was celiac, and every meal, every restaurant, every Shabbat dinner invitation turned into a quagmire of risk. I was even interviewed at the beginning of COVID-19 by the Washington Post about my anxiety about the constant risk I perceived surrounding me in NYC. I think about risk in financial terms, in investing in various entrepreneurial ideas I’ve had throughout the years, in market investments, and in investing in my own art career. I consider the emotional risk about when I put any creative project into the world, or when I write something I fear will alienate people I care about.

In certain things, like food and health, I’m completely risk-averse, in other things, I’m cognizant that the worst-case scenario isn’t the end of the world.

I don’t believe there is inherently a risk in reading. But as I write this, I’m thinking about a book of economics written by someone with whom I did not agree with one iota, and it was the first book in a long time that I have to close because it was giving me a headache. I’m not averse to different ideas, they just have to be based in reality. I do think that certain books could be dangerous. Just like I believe that certain ideas can be dangerous. They help form antisocial ideas on impressionable minds. But I’m against burning and banning books. The more you amplify how risky they are, the more certain people want to read them. Risk is enticing. The concept of risk has a negative connotation in traditional, conservative societies. But people conflate “dangerous” and “risky.”

A gun is dangerous by definition, there is no non-dangerous way of using a gun. I think the difference is a matter of perspective. Risk’s counterpoint is reward. Risk provides an anticipatory endorphin rush, sometimes greater than the actual feeling of the reward; If you cross a rickety bridge to get to a 3 Michelin star restaurant, that is risky, but it could pay off deliciously. If you cross a rickety bridge when there is a stable pathway 20 feet away, that’s dangerous, because there is no benefit at all. (Unless you are a thrill-seeker and not dying is the reward you are seeking.)

OLEG: If the books on your shelf were people. Would they hate each other or form a friendly community? Do you see any of them getting together (even for one night)?

EZRA: There would definitely be cliques. It would be like high school.

In many cases, I actually know for a fact that the authors hate each other. Sometimes I take perverse pleasure in arranging books in a way that I know the books would not agree with each other. It would be boring if all the books would agree.

Some of the books are “people pleasers” who intend to make everyone feel warm and fuzzy after reading them. But I don’t think they can form genuine relationships with such a saccharine attitude. In that cadre, I think their dinner party would be nice and cordial, and everyone would treat it like a TED talk, but is that friendship?

I don’t feel like it would be a conversation, they’d all be talking past each other.

And the more academic books would be complaining the whole time about the lack of peer review and how they are dumbing down the theories they’ve spent years developing.

OLEG: Fine. But do you ship any of your books?

EZRA: I admit that I’m being purposefully dense, but while I don’t I worship any of my books, some of them raise a religious-like fervor in me.

The Faith of a Heretic by Walter Kaufmann, Suicide by Émile Durkheim, Purity and Danger by Mary Douglas, Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond (but also probably Guns, Germs, and Steel), In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman, and Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb were all works that really conditioned how I think and approach things today. They helped me make sense of the world, the people in it, and most importantly, myself. They were not all from one period of my life; something I read tomorrow may rise up to join this pantheon.

There isn’t a cohesive thread between them, and I doubt that many of them would have much to talk about. But I feel like this is the core of being interdisciplinary and having the ability to synthesize information and ideas from a plurality of diverse sources.

Walter Kaufmann writes that the agnostic is the only one who tells the truth, because he says “I don’t know.” Everyone else is so sure about God is or isn’t, what God wants or doesn’t want. My life is better for understanding Tanizaki’s ethos of aesthetics, Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow, Durkheim’s centrality and importance of social cohesion, Douglas’ analysis of taboo, Taleb’s advice of mitigated risk through diversification, the awareness Goffman raised in both understanding and accepting myself and others, and Diamond’s love of causalities.

To return to your original question, my books, and by extension, my library, are a representation of how I think. You can see the rabbit holes I jumped into, you can see my religious education and how that is something I still hold dear, you can see the diversity of things that just fascinate me. The Box is just the history of the shipping container and how it changed the world. Concepts of friendship and better understanding the art of translation. How we make choices and how advertising combines art, words, and psychology to create something incredible. What the history of the menu was. How do we remember time and how do we write history. How math changed the world. How technology affects us and how to do better.

These books are filled with anecdotes, case studies, analyses, theories, ideas, interviews, memoirs, data, and attempts to use whatever tools the writer had to better understand one aspect in the world.

I get to pick and choose. I get to be amazed and enthralled and perplexed and excited. I get to admit that I don’t know. That I’m just trying to survive like everyone else. That I’m part of something much greater than myself. That I have no idea what tomorrow will bring. But I’m assuming that I’ll have some new random questions that will lead me down some new avenues of thought and help me understand the world just a little bit better.

OLEG: Random questions indeed. Thank you for your time, Ezra! This has been fun (even though you didn’t reveal which of your books would hook up).

EZRA: (Obviously Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, and Voltaire.)

OLEG: Shall I include that?

EZRA: If you’d like.