If you were able to use a time machine, would you go back in time or forward?

IN PRAISE OF READING

If you were able to use a time machine, would you go back in time or forward? A book I’m reading suggests there would only be one sensible choice. You would have to go forward. Why? Because life before the eighteenth century was unspeakably violent and dangerous. You would stand a good chance of dying at someone else’s hand or suffering cruel and sadistic punishments beyond our worst imaginings.

The book is by Steven Pinker and called The Better Angels of Our Nature and its sub-title is The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes. While you might have a hard time believing that previous centuries were much more violent and unpleasant than life in the last century or this one, the facts presented by Pinker are unarguable. Somewhere around the eighteenth century, people stopped enjoying torturing each other (and animals), and evils such as the slave trade, then slavery itself, and a whole panoply of cruel and unusual punishments began to be abolished. Violence started to plummet. Almost constant warfare, which had been the curse of humanity throughout history, began to be mitigated by long periods of peace.

Pinker asks why. He insists that the discontinuity in human experience and human nature itself is so extreme, that there must be an outside (“exogenous”) explanation. One possibility is the industrial revolution of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which multiplied wealth prodigiously. But the timing is off. The improvements in society began at least a century before the explosion of wealth. “Also,” Pinker comments sardonically, “it’s not completely obvious that poverty and misery should lead people to enjoy torturing others.”

The most plausible explanation he can find is the expansion of reading. Before Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1452, books had to be hand-written. “In the two centuries after Gutenberg, publishing became a high-tech venture.” The cost of books came down more than twenty times, and the number of books published in English per decade grew from single figures to around 2,000 by 1700, and 7,000 by 1800. By then, circulating libraries were big business in London and many other towns, and what they rented out above all were novels. Literacy in England doubled in the seventeenth century, and by the late eighteenth century a majority of French citizens were literate. Pinker quotes historian Robert Darnton: “The late eighteenth century does seem to represent a turning point, when more reading matter became available to a wider public ... the emergence of a mass readership that would grow to giant proportions in the nineteenth century”.

 

The growth of writing and literacy, and the resulting expansion of people’s minds, Pinker says, is the best explanation for triggering of empathy and compassion in the Humanitarian Revolution: “Reading is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone else’s thoughts are in your head, you are observing the world from that person’s vantage point”, of seeing the pleasures and pains of another person, perhaps one from a different world. Classics such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin mobilizes anti-slavery campaigners in the US, while Oliver Twist (1838) and Nicholas Nickleby (1839) revealed the mistreatment of children in British workhouses and orphanages. Books also created debate about moral values and the social order.

It is an interesting and original hypothesis. There is no proof, but if reading really made our forbears more compassionate and reduced violence and sadism to the margins of life, it had the most incredibly wonderful consequences.

But let me offer Koch’s more modest hypothesis on reading. What explains the explosion of entrepreneurs and new businesses in the last sixty years, the single trend that has done more for wealth creation and personal opportunity than anything else in the developed world? For sure, there are many good reasons behind the surge in new ventures – the liberalization of markets, opening up old monopolies or oligopolies to new suppliers; the growth of business schools and education, so that more people consider a life in commerce; the explosion in venture capital so that funding a new idea is easier than ever before; the new publicity about successful entrepreneurs; and the growth of outsourcing and the internet, which make it easier to start a very small business. But I think these explanations, though undoubtedly correct, miss out one vital and easily overlooked fact.

There are far more books and blogs today about ideas in business. What a would-be entrepreneur needs above all is an idea – an insight that there is a gap in the market for a new product or service, or that an existing successful new business could be tweaked or adapted to serve a different customer base in another market or country. How do entrepreneurs get these ideas? Partly from observation, as for example when Anita Roddick saw a shop called “the Body Shop” on Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley, California. But many entrepreneurs also get their ideas – or at least refine them – by reading, whether the books are about being an entrepreneur, about business generally, about powerful ideas, or even novels. Some of the biggest non-fiction bestsellers, such as The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss, have inspired many people to set up their own small business. There is probably no better way to test out an idea in your mind than to read about the concept or someone who has turned a similar idea into reality.

So if you think you might want to start a new business, my advice is to read as broadly as you can. If you read with an open and enquiring mind, and with awareness, perhaps dim and vague to start with, about what you might do, then it’s highly likely you will eventually find inspiration. And then nothing will stop you.

 

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