Literature vs. Netflix

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.

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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.

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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?

  1. Time has put the classics through the ringer and readers keep coming back to them because of their profound personal impact. 
  2. They speak to the unspeakable. Something that facts or science will never be able to explain.
  3. 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.

 

We’re All Chihuahuas – Chapter 1

I am excited to announce the release of two books over the next month. The first book, which is free to download from Amazon starting Friday until Sunday, is titled We’re All Chihuahuas: A Shaky Dog on a Human Journey by yours truly. Below you can read the description.

“This is the story of Max the Chihuahua. It is the harrowing adventure of pleasure and pain – a journey that mirrors the winding road of our own life. It is a tale of interchange between the brain of a shaky 6-pound beast and the soul of an unsuspecting human. An epic with a most peculiar cast of characters and a most peculiar climax – which will leave you thinking – ‘We’re all Chihuahuas.'”

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Max the Chihuahua

The second book is Tackle the Library: Plato which is the second installment in the series. As a special perk to all my loyal readers, I am going to post the first three chapters of each book on this blog over the weekend (this weekend will be We’re all Chihuahuas with Plato coming in a couple of weeks). It would mean a great deal to me if you would download the book for free at this link and leave me a review. Writing is only worth doing if it helps others – I hope this book brings you insight, smiles, and happiness.

And without further adieu…

We’re All Chihuahuas

Chapter 1 – The Reciprocity of the pound

The concrete floor was chilly and damp. Almost like walking barefoot on a sidewalk after the first frost of the season. The coldness of the ground was, however, warmer than the barks heard echoing throughout the chambers. Howls that sounded ethereal and forced – the noise of desperation. It wasn’t a place one would want to be or for that matter smell. Smell is such a personal experience that it is almost impossible to translate the horrible odor that saturated every surface of this lost place. The effervescence was a mixture of wet hair garnished with fermented feces and pooling urine. Ammonia was the main ingredient permeating the air – a continual assault on the molecular bays of the noise.

If one could surmise, they may guess that this place was a men’s bathroom at a Cub’s game after a bad batch of $1 chili cheese dogs; or maybe a more macabre setting like a gas chamber after a quick cleaning. No, it was neither of these humanoid places. It was a place further down the evolutionary ladder. A place where man and beast come to stare at each other in a manner not akin to preservation like a zoo – but rather a sight similar to used merchandise – like a decaying thrift store. It was the dog pound. More specifically the Flint, Michigan dog pound built in 1949 on the very same day the Russian’s tested their first nuke – perhaps a sign that there would be many hardships to come. The founding of the “pound” – as we will call it – is not our primary focus. Our focus is its inhabitants, with one inhabitant in particular. This is the story of Max the Chihuahua; a story not about saving dogs from pounds or even canine adoption. It is a story of how one small Chihuahua changed forever in that scary place. It is the story of all of us. It is the story of interchange between the brain of a shaky 6-pound beast and the soul of an unsuspecting human.

Stay tuned for Chapter 2 tomorrow and don’t forget to download your free copy over the weekend. Thanks again for your support. 

Cold Comfort Farm

“Well,’ said Mrs Smiling, ‘it sounds an appalling place, but in a different way from all the others. I mean, it does sound interesting and appalling, while the others just sound appalling.”

-Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm

I once went through this weird phase where I wanted to be a gentleman farmer. I spent countless hours researching heirloom crops to grow and obscure breeds of animals to raise. I romanticized the agrarian lifestyle; always picturing myself leaning on a fence looking out at a pasture of sheep or goats. I thought there was no better life of freedom or satisfaction – at the end of the day I could kiss Christina, eat apple pie, and read the Bible to my 10 children. In an attempt to test the waters of farming, I convinced my parents to put a garden in the backyard. To make the long story short, I dreaded watering and weeding the stupid thing and when something did finally grow, a wild beast ate it before I could gain any tangible satisfaction.

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After that failed attempt at farming, I put my rural dreams to the side and took up a much more suitable occupation – reading books and writing obscure blog posts. Every now and again the dream resurfaces of eating pie while staring at my goats but Christina usually squashes them with an impersonation of myself during the aforementioned gardening days…”(in an old man voice) Oh, my backkkkk, I fricking hate bending over, I need a chair to sit down to get these things out.” This precarious relationship with agriculture framed my mindset while reading the 1932 classic Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons – a parody of the rural novels from 19th century England. Suffice it to say it motivated new Google searches for “how to garden in a wheelchair.”

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The title of Cold Comfort Farm is named after the main farm in the book and paints the picture of natural beauty while simultaneously highlighting the backwardness of rural England. The main character, Flora, comes to the farm to essentially mooch off her relatives with free room and board. Her relatives, the Strakadders, are best described as Sussex hillbillies who are superstitious, uneducated, and set in their ways – even though their ways make zero sense. Flora spends the book, in a quite hilarious manner, fixing the Strakadders problems, and facilitating them to lead better lives. At first, it is slow going, but with finesse and humor, Flora helps each member to truly blossom to their full potential.

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This novel is meant to show that no person is irredeemable and that the countryside not only has beautiful landscape but also beautiful people. England at the time was still quite pretentious when it came to class differences and Cold Comfort Farm is a direct attack on the negative attributes of the “stiff upper lip.”  It is not that Flora tries to change the Strakadders into pompous-city folk but rather helps them see their skills in a new light – leading them in the first steps towards their lifelong dreams. Many times we judge others who live differently and we try to change them to be reflections of ourselves; like a farmer trying to coerce me to weed when I am just more suited for Wikipedia.  In a world rife with division – Republican/Democrat, Rural/City, North/South, Black/White – we need to be reminded of this more than ever.

 

Pride and Prejudice

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
-Jane Austin Pride and Prejudice

There are some books out there which never seemed imaginable for my reading list; one of which was always Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin – my 6th classic. Jane Austin always seemed like the ultimate kryptonite to male ego. No man could dive into a Jane Austin book and come out with any remaining masculinity. It’s like accidentally using Vagisil Body Wash when taking a shower and then going through the day questioning the existence of your gender; requiring a impromptu Civil War reenactment to reverse any damage. I actually bought Pride and Prejudice at Barnes and Noble which was a big mistake. Buying this book was kinda like buying a dirty magazine – eye contact at checkout being a nonnegotiable. What made matters worse was the fact that I had to ask this little old lady to find a copy for me. Like a scene in some twisted comedy, she had to announce over the intercom, “I need help finding Pride and Prejudice for this nice young man.” We ended up spending the next 30 minutes navigating the store to find a copy that didn’t have a cover designed specifically for hipster feminists. I finally settled on a bright blue copy which was the closest thing to a “manly” version – the old lady quickly ruined this triumph with the words, “oh how cute, my daughter has the same one.” The shame I felt climaxed at the counter when the clerk asked me why I was reading it – my answer was that it was for an “all-female book club.”

Pride and Prejudice was written in 1813 and was a critique of the “Sentimental” novels of the mid-18th century. The Sentimental novels usually focused on the power of emotions over reason – many times in relation to marriage. Austen, in Pride and Prejudice, questions the advantages of marriage and questions the “pride” and “prejudice” between different classes of people. Early 19th century England was all about social distinction, manners, and status. The main characters of the novel continually are judging themselves in relation to others and questioning the proper ways to interact. Marriages are based not on love but rather upward mobility – women with small dowries seeking rich men and poor handsome men seeking wealthy-spinster women. The novel starts out like an episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians but actually ends up being pretty captivating by the end; the journey to becoming married is not straightforward and not always a sure thing. Many times, I found myself rooting for a couple but then being surprised by plot twists which totally changed my outlook – highlighting my own prejudices. This novel is not just about romance but rather our human nature to judge others. It also speaks to our stubbornness to accept wrong doing and the barriers that pride presents in our daily interactions. It was actually a great novel that dissolved my long standing pride and prejudice towards Jane Austin. We always need to be reminded to not judge a book by its cover – maybe I’ll go back to Barnes and Noble for the more feminine cover.

 

War and Peace

Growing up the biggest book in the house was always the Holy Bible. The Bible stood above all other books in its shear mass – the thinness of the pages, the small font, and the endless footnotes made it formidable. Of course the Bible is in a class of its own but my third classic, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, gives it some competition in the size department: 1,400 pages of 19th-century Russian Literature. I always viewed War and Peace as the ultimate ego-trip – imagine some hipster guy walking down the street holding a copy while curling his mustache and listening to a Walkman. In all honesty, this book almost destroyed my sight; halfway through I bought a magnifying glass from Amazon that had in the description, “GREAT FOR GRANDMA AND GRANDPA.” It took me over three weeks to finish and I felt like a man waiting for his wife to give birth when the doctor says it will take all night – initial excitement, tears at the vending machine at 3:00 AM, and finally exhausted delirium at sunrise. Instead of a crying baby I was rewarded with a new found perspective of what art in the form of writing truly represents. War and Peace is not a novel but rather a philosophical treatise that has the added benefit of a great story. The general plot takes place in Russia from 1805 to 1820 and follows the family life of  a few Russians during the Napoleonic Wars. So what makes this book so great? The complexity of the characters mix with the backdrop of war to form a multilayered cake of delicious metaphor, behavior, and historical understanding.

As the title suggests, War and Peace, is all about contrast. The characters juggle life’s myriad curve balls: young love transforms into mature friendship, an engagement fails after an unexpected affair, happy families suffer with untimely deaths, once bountiful fortunes turn to meager incomes. The backdrop to these life events is a war that sweeps up the individual characters and the nation as whole. War that once seemed so glorious becomes surreal as the years progress. The war symbolizes both destruction and birth: taking the lives of some while bringing together people who may have never met. The philosophical theme throughout the book aims to better understand the meaning of life and man’s ability to express free will. The purpose of life, which is best expressed by the characters who suffered the most, is simply to “live” – every expression is a manifestation and glorification of God. This conclusion is simple on the surface but hard to practice: people seek money, respect, power, and control as their purpose, while “just” living seems inadequate. This purpose is mirrored by man’s desire to express free will while simultaneously being drawn by others into actions that are counter to life – war. Tolstoy makes the point that free will is not an absolute, just as inevitability (no choice at all) is also not an absolute. Thus, Napoleon – with his genius – did not impact his soldiers and the battle’s outcomes as much as he or everyone else thought. The same is true of the individual soldier’s free will – time, space, history, and infinite circumstances swinging the pendulum of choice. History, is not decided by the powerful few but is decided by a irreducible power which is wielded by innumerable individuals – always susceptible to the curve ball of life.

“If everyone fought for their own convictions there would be no war.”
-Leo Tolstoy War and Peace

A Tale of Two Cities

Most of my readers know that I love nonfiction. Nonfiction to me has more utility compared to fiction. You want to learn some interesting fact? Nonfiction. You want to have informed conversations? Nonfiction. You want to seem like a jerk and voice all the answers during Jeopardy? Nonfiction. Fiction was always the red-headed-step-child of my reading repertoire. I knew there were great stories in text but honestly I felt that TV series were just as good. I never could get into the clumsy stage of learning characters and how they connected with each other – to put it another way, I didn’t like the foreplay; get me to the climax already for goodness sake! But, with greater knowledge and maturity, I found that I was missing the foreplay in many of my nonfiction choices. This was especially apparent when reading about the French Revolution. I knew that life was hard for the poor but it felt empty – I wanted more of the buildup. I got this buildup from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Dickens is the master of text for the sake of text. While reading the book I kept going back to my 13 year old self, “come on and get to the fricking point!” At last I reached the end and it was like my brain exploded with pleasure. All of the crap at the beginning actually mattered – I took away so much from the end because of the formidable journey. It’s the difference between climbing a mountain and getting to the top – sweating, crying, despairing, rejoicing – compared to driving to the top of the mountain – rushing, distracting, yawning, appreciating.

It is this change of heart that has led me to yet another over-arching goal for this blog: I will read all 1,300 Penguin Classics by the age of 60. This is a quintessential component in my search for wisdom and it will push me to read books that are arguably the best in human history. For each book, I will write a blog post explaining what wisdom I gained from the experience. The posts will not summarize the books because you can easily Wikipedia that information. I want to look into myself and at the world in a deeper manner; I believe this journey will greatly help these aims. In the end, I hope to create a book with all my posts that I can reminisce on.  A Tale of Two Cities inspired this venture and hence it is my first post. The love story in this book is one of selflessness and sacrifice. Unlike the love triangles in the Hunger Games and Twilight, the one Dickens constructs makes you question the true meaning of love. If two men are fighting for a girl can they truly love her equally? When is failure both a blessing and a curse? Is it worth getting what you want at the expense of others? Read A Tale of Two Cities and let me know. Let the journey begin.

Click here for a complete list of the classics. You can also visit the Penguin Classics Website.

A Confession: Reading Fiction Hurts

Labor Day represents the end of summer and the beginning of the new school year for millions of children. Kids are going back to school with their freshly purchased school supplies and a whirling set of emotions-ranging from excitement to dread. I always hated the first day of school. Summer was the best time in my life because I got to sleep in, watch TV all day, and eat carbs whenever I wanted. I always felt a tinge of PTSD whenever “Back to School” commercials began to inundate the airways. Why did I hate school so much? I always loathed the pointless homework and the assignments that supposedly stimulated our creativity. “Alright class, we are going to learn about George Washington…everyone go home and make a poster-board collage with magazine cutouts that remind you of our first president.” These types of assignments are present in every grade and I even see tinges of them in my wife’s doctorate program. In addition to pointless busy work, we had to read famous literature like Mark Twain, Of Mice and Men, A Tale of Two Cities, The Old Man and the Sea, etc. I was good at reading but I struggled to see the appeal in these books. Sure, I did enjoy some parts of these works but the process of reading fiction was usually tedious. Fiction for me made books unappealing and I saw no point in reading during my free time because movies and TV were so much more entertaining. It wasn’t until I was 24 that I realized nonfiction books were interesting and I could read over 50 of them a year without a ounce of misery.

Fast forward a couple years and I have read close to 100 nonfiction books that have taught me more information than my entire K-12 experience. With my newfound love for reading, I figured I should give fiction another shot. My old roommate loves John Steinbeck so I picked up some of his books-these were doable. My friend from high school loves Ernest Hemingway so I borrowed For Whom the Bell Tolls. I labored through this book like a fat guy running his first mile. In the end, I had to SparkNote the last chapters (sorry Megan) because the overall story line was driving me crazy. This experience has taught me an important lesson about myself and about people in general. Everyone is stimulated differently and likes to learn in their own unique way. It’s okay if you never pick up a 700 page book about George Washington and instead make a collage from magazine cutouts. It’s okay if you haven’t read Charles Dickens and instead you prefer to watch The Muppet Christmas Carol. It’s okay if you love classic literature but can’t stand to pick up a National Geographic magazine. In today’s world there is way too much information out there for us to absorb everything. Read and watch the things that you enjoy because life is too short; with that said, Breaking Bad can be just as academic as classic literature. The only thing I think is important is that you stimulate your brain by discussing things with others. Whether it is a book, TV show, movie, or magazine discuss it with someone else. This way we all learn from each other even though we all have very different tastes. Are my days of fiction over? Not completely. I think with a little more effort and discussion, I will find the books that make that fat-man mile a little easier.

Made in Brazil-Paulo Coelho

Just this last Christmas my Mom bought me a very interesting book-Paulo Coelho: A Warrior’s Life. My lovely mother had the best intentions with this book but I don’t think she knew exactly what the book was about. I say this because my Mom and I had never heard of Paulo Coelho and she didn’t realize the book was a biography of his life. So, the book has been collecting dust on my shelf for the past 5 months and I have honestly had no desire to crack it open. Knowing that I would eventually have to read the book, to ensure future Christmas presents from my Mom, I decided to read some of Paulo Coelho’s fiction. I went to the library and checked out The Alchemist, Veronica Decides to Die, and 11 Minutes. As most of you know, I am not the biggest fan of fiction and it is rare that I get into books that do not teach me about philosophy, psychology, or history. Well…I devoured these three books like a fat boy devours cake on his birthday. Paulo Coelho is a amazing writer and his books dig deep into the human psyche. His writing is very philosophical and intricate while simultaneously entertaining. It is no wonder that he has sold over 200,000,000 copies and has published over 15 award winning books. I currently have 9 more of his books checked out from the library and have finished reading the 500 page biography my Mom bought me for Christmas. Thanks Mom for introducing me to this awesome author!

Paulo Coelho de Souza was born August 24th, 1947 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He was a very eccentric, odd-looking young man who grew up during the tumultuous times of dictator rule. Coelho came from a wealthy family but he was a problem child who disobeyed his parents and lived life on his own terms. His parents would eventually have him forcefully committed to a psychiatric ward on three separate occasions where he was given electroshock treatment and a myriad of psychotropic medications. Coelho did have many quirks about him but he was not mentally insane-just a rebellious kid raised in the hippy-era of the 60’s. Eventually, he moved out of his parents house and began a bohemian lifestyle that included copious amounts of drugs, sex, and counter-culture activities. He would become a amateur Satan worshiper in his 20’s and publish many articles for magazines with hidden messages about alternative societies, UFOs, and psychedelic beliefs. Brazil at the time was very strict about media censorship and on two separate occasions Coelho was apprehended by the police for his publications. On one occasion he was thrown into a car with a black bag over his head and subsequently threatened with torture during a week long interrogation. Following this scare, and a supernatural encounter with the Devil, Coelho denounced Satan worshiping and went back to his Catholic roots.

Coelho started his artistic career as an actor and producer in small production plays. He would eventually move on from the theater and make a large amount of money writing lyrics for popular Brazilian songs. From the time he was a young boy, he wanted to become a famous writer and throughout his young career he never lost the desire to write. It wasn’t until he was 35 that he published his first book and it wasn’t until he was over 40 that he became famous with The Alchemist which sold over 80 million copies and has been translated into 67 different languages-the world record for most translations of a book by a living author. At current, Coelho has published 30 books which are published in 170 countries throughout the world. I admire his tenacity and ability to maintain his passion for writing; it is no easy feat to continue a dream as you get older. The sad fact is that I never had heard of him nor any of my friends. I highly recommend his books because you will gain a deeper appreciation of life, relationships, imagination, and your own passion. Start with The Alchemist-you won’t be disappointed.