I am still trudging along with my goal of reading all 1,300 Penguin Classics. The past couple days I have been discouraged with the journey, and I started to question as to why I was taking on the behemoth. Why should I read the classics when there are so many great modern books? Why should I waste my time with fiction when there is so much nonfiction? Why should I read at all when there is Netflix? These questions are bombarding me because of my current book – Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. Les Misérables is the longest classic ever written at over 500,000 words – this blog post is only 500 words. I am actually listening to it via a 7 part audiobook with Christina – I couldn’t pronounce all the French words and having a narrator prevents us from skimming. The length of Les Mis got me discouraged and made me question whether I wanted to accomplish my classics goal.
Something strange happened this week that totally changed my outlook. One of my favorite modern philosophers is Nassim Nicholas Taleb – I am currently reading his book Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder. This book is about skeptical empiricism and the idea that what we “don’t know” is more important then what we “do know.” I wasn’t expecting anything related to the classics in Taleb’s book – but through the oddest coincidence – there was a whole chapter on the importance of classical literature. Taleb talked about a mathematical principle that predicts the lifespan of something based on its current age. For books, this means that the age of a book directly predicts how long it will be around into the future. A two-thousand-year-old book like The Iliad will most likely be around two thousand years from now compared to a book like Fifty Shades of Grey. Added to this is the idea of cultural selection. The world has seen billions of books – the ones that are still in print are the ones who transcend the average. This transcendence is due to the relationship between literature and the indescribable human experience. Taleb describes the concept below.
… Fiction is a certain packaging of the truth, or higher truths. Indeed I find that there is more truth in Proust, albeit it is officially fictional, than in the babbling analyses of the New York Times that give us the illusions of understanding what’s going on. Newspapers have officially the right facts, but their interpretations are imaginary – and their choice of facts are arbitrary. They lie with right facts; a novelist says the truth with wrong facts…to me fiction is not about ideas. It is above ideas. I make a divide between the holy, the sacred, the mysterious, the unexplainable, the implicit, the aesthetic, the moral, and the ethical on one hand, and the empirical, the functional, the explainable, the logical, the true, and the proven on the other. In short, the Holy and the Empirical. Literature belongs to the holy. You can do fiction, nonfiction, a mixture, who cares. Literature is above the distinction. It is sacred.
Reading this during my literature low point was an eerie experience, to say the least. So why should we read the classics over other books or TV shows?
- Time has put the classics through the ringer and readers keep coming back to them because of their profound personal impact.
- They speak to the unspeakable. Something that facts or science will never be able to explain.
- They were written during a time before internet and incessant interruption. Ancient wisdom is not tainted by Facebook or an Echo Chamber.
So I am back on track with my goal. Sorry for the weak moment and I hope this post will motivate you to try out a classic. I can honestly tell you that Les Misérables is difficult, but it is exponentially better than any HBO series or cookie-cutter Netflix show. I think in the end a balance is always optimal – read some literature each day and watch a little Netflix – peanut butter and jelly.