“The work is an expression of the message”

How do they remember it?

Whenever I read autobiographies I’m always struck by the prodigious feats of memory. I find it amazing that their authors can recall with such vividness events that happened decades earlier.

I can barely recreate on this day, four years ago, precisely what I was doing. I think I was working two jobs. Morning at one. Afternoon and evening at the other. I think.

Authors of biographies have a slight advantage because they don’t rely on the memory of their subject alone (at all if they’re dead). They have to scour many sources, talk to a tonne of people and synthesise what they find.

When I flip to the bibliographies and source lists of Robert Caro’s books on Lyndon Johnson and Robert Moses, or Edmund Morris’ biography of Theodore Roosevelt, or Ron Chernow’s monumental work on John D. Rockefeller, which I’m currently reading, the depth and rigour of the research they conducted is astounding.

Another historian slash biographer I have great respect for is B.H. Liddell Hart. In the preface to Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American, he said this:

“This book is a study of life, not of still life. An exercise in human psychology, not upholstery. To place the position and trace the action of battalions and batteries is only of value to the collector of antiques, and still more to the dealer in faked antiques. Those who believe that exactness is possible can never have known war, or must have forgotten it.”

The point, Liddell Hart reminds us, is to get the message, to understand the big picture. Not to fight over and drown in the moribund details that we’ll never be able to settle once and for all.

It brings to mind what Ryan Holiday advises in his article, “Read to Lead: How to Digest Books Above Your Level.” He says:

“The work is an expression of the message, not the message itself. So forget everything but that message and how to apply it to your life. Dates, names, pronunciations–they only matter in how they provide context for the lesson at hand. They carry little value otherwise.”

In Charlie Munger’s famous speech, “The Psychology of Human Misjudgement”, he cites John Maynard Keynes as saying, “Better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.”

Applied to what we read and how we learn, the lesson is, ignore the small in favour of the big. Forget the minutiae and remember the message.