19th Century White Papers

The most frequent question I get is “what do you read?”, and I sense that people are really disappointed when I tell them comic books, short stories, and science fiction. Oh, I start plenty of “real” books, and I’ll breeze through them, slowing down in parts for something that seems immediately relevant. I’ve got two stacks of these books in my bedroom and four in my office. I’m sure that one day I’ll make my way through them, in exactly the same way I’m sure that I will reply to all of those emails that I’ve carefully tucked away in some folder. Yeah, right.

No, we live in a TL;DR world. I get it. I’m as much of a TL;DR guy as the next person. And it’s why I try to make the Epsilon Theory notes as engaging as they are (I hope) informative. Because if a tree falls in a forest and no one sees it, does it exist? Sure, we know them as white papers.

The average Mailchimp click-through rate for financial advisory emails is 2% (which seems high, tbh). Now think about how few of those pieces you actually read cursorily. Now think about how few of those pieces you actually read carefully. I counted up all the emailed reports and white papers and links and PDFs that I get blasted to me from various sources over the past six months. I estimate that I carefully read 1 in 10,000 of those pieces of “content”.

Everyone gets so worked up about how mining crypto wastes so much electricity.

I get worked up about how writing “content” wastes so much human life and productivity. Not the reading. The writing.

So that’s why I read comic books, short stories, and science fiction. Because it’s not “content”. Because it tells a story in a long-enough format to get a meaningful message across while being in a short-enough format to survive a TL;DR world.

There are only a finite number of stories, and humans have been writing the same stories for thousands of years … hundreds of years in languages that we can still read easily in their original form. We’re still writing the same finite number of stories, just not as well or as engagingly as they were written in the past. I’m pretty sure that the most useful educational experience I’ve ever had was reading every Classics comic book when I was a kid.

Recently I’ve been reminded of two great short stories from the 19th century. Only one of them is explicitly about investing, but both of them are ABOUT investing with a depth and an engagement and a wisdom that no white paper or sell-side “content” can match.

One of the short stories you’ve probably heard of.

The Bottle Imp, by Robert Louis Stevenson (1891).

Many thanks to the great Jason Zweig (@jasonzweigwsj) for reminding me of this indisputable classic!

The other short story you’ve probably never heard of.

The Glenmutchkin Railroad, by William Aytoun (1845).

I vaguely remember seeing this years ago, and had completely forgotten it, but thanks to my FinTwit pal @arbedout it’s back in the light again!

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