Book List - April 2021
Leonardo Da Vinci and the History of Debt
I hope everyone had a great month. And thanks for all the birthday wishes! Only two books this month, mostly because I’ve been busy, but also because they’re two pretty long books. This is also my first Substack post, so hopefully everything works out OK.
I’ll be in the east coast for the next 3 weeks or so (Philly/NYC), so let me know if you want to catch up! Here’s the book list for April.
Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson: Leonardo Da Vinci is the quintessential Renaissance Man. Aside from being an accomplished artist - earning the envy of Michelangelo (!) - he was an anatomist, a botanist and a physicist, military strategist… should I go on? Despite being born an illegitimate child with no formal schooling, Leonardo developed an insatiable curiosity that made him arguably the smartest man in the world at the time. To give a sense of his accomplishments, he basically discovered Bernoulli’s Principle and the Second Law of Thermodynamics while trying to create a Perpetual Motion machine; while he was bad at computational math, he grasped the fundamental concept of calculus 200 years before Newton (and Liebniz for that matter!); and he drew the most precise anatomical representations of the human body after dissecting dozens of cadavers. Unfortunately, his brilliance was also his Achilles Heel. He was captivated by such a myriad of disciplines that he would often leave projects unfinished midway. He never attempted to rigorously prove his theories of the world (which turned out to be right hundreds of years later, mind you), he left dozens of statues and paintings unfinished and those anatomical works were never published. It’s a wonder that his notebooks survive till this day. A fair warning: after reading this book, you’ll question how you’ve been spending all your free time.
Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber: Read this if you want all your preconceived notions on the evolution of money to be proven wrong. Despite what modern economics textbooks may claim, money did not evolve from barter. In fact, barter societies never existed! All money, Graeber says, is debt, an evolved form of the “IOU”, and this debt is inextricably tied to rule of law, marriage, religion, barter, slavery and community. After refuting the “myths” of barter and primordial debt (the idea prevalent in most major religions that we are perpetually ‘indebted’ to the cosmos/society, requiring us to live a life of virtue and in accordance with a set of laws/rules/commandments/you name it), he goes on to describe true pre-money societies, what he calls ‘human economies’. These are informal, community-based societies based on collective communism— from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. I can almost hear the blood curdling from the capitalists reading this Marxist allusion, but Graeber gives some pretty good arguments implying this is the natural state of things. Holding open an elevator for someone, asking for a cigarette light, saving someone from drowning— these are all forms of collective communism. In Graeber’s mind, the introduction of precise mediums of exchange (i.e., fiat money) and strictly enforceable debts is always found next to the threat of state-sponsored violence (think police). Anyways, I’m getting ahead of myself, so I’ll let you read the rest. I’ve always read about the concepts of debt and credit from a finance/economics perspective, and getting the anthropological perspective is downright fascinating.
Until next time!