The Bed of Procrustes

If you want people to read a book, tell them it is overrated.
Nassim Taleb
Love me or hate me, I’m here to stay.

In the last ten years, Taleb has emerged as one of the most famous (even if controversial) writers on finance and human behaviour. Having written some best-selling books like Black Swan, and Fooled by Randomness, Taleb definitely commands a solid position in financial literature.

So it was surprising to me that this book was not about yet another exploration into the world of finance. Instead this is a book of aphorisms loosely linked to a tale in Greek mythology, that of Procrustes. Procrustes was a bandit who forced his victims to lie on a bed. Depending on whether they were shorter or longer than the bed, Procrustes tortured them to fit the bed by either stretching them or cutting off their legs.

If one looks beyond the symbolism, one finds that this is a common human fallacy. Rather than basing their theories on the observed evidence, people force-fit the evidence to suit their theories. And many a fortune has been lost as a result of this.

This book is a mixed bag as far as the coverage of topics and the quality of aphorisms go. Some of them are quite brilliant, some are plain ordinary,

The opposite of manliness isn’t cowardice; it’s technology.

and yet some make you wonder whether the author is simply venting out on some group or the other. For instance, Taleb seems to have a long standing feud against bankers, critics and academicians. He devotes entire chapters in ridiculing these groups through the aphorisms.

Just as no monkey is as good-looking as the ugliest of humans, no academic is worthier than the worst of the creators.

This book is part of his Incerto, a collection of four books that have been best-sellers individually. But in this book, you won’t necessarily find any linkage with the world of finance. So it doesn’t matter if you have not read the books in this collection.

Another highly recommended work of maxims is that by François de La Rochefoucauld, a noted 17th century French author. His book Maxims is quite a comprehensive body of work.

The problem with a book of maxims, quotes or aphorisms is that however brilliant it may be, it doesn’t feel original. This is not the fault of the author but of the subject itself. Good principles span across civilization and eras, whether they are in the form of a Zen koan, a Sufi couplet, or Greek fables.

Here Taleb has adapted some of these aphorims to fit into the current day scenario. He, at times, does goes on a rant as mentioned earlier. But the book is still worth reading because of the underlying lessons that the aphorisms impart.