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.

 

The Count of Monte Cristo

“All human wisdom is contained in these two words – Wait and Hope”
-Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo

The past couple weeks were quite busy for me because of Christina’s graduation and a particular book that I needed to read. This book was The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, and I was putting off reading it because of its sheer size – almost 1500 pages. To read this many pages in a span of two weeks required a lot of time, patience, and questioning. I say questioning because it is not every day you see a person walking around with a massive gray book. On a couple of occasions, young children asked me if I was reading the Bible or the Dictionary. People thought I was a Jehova Witness or some sort of hipster-encyclopedia salesman trying to pawn off printed editions of Wikipedia. The book itself became my second half and each night, depending on my mood, I would stare at it with elation as the best book ever written or dread as the longest book ever printed.

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I just finished it today, and without a doubt, it is one those books that forever changed the way I look at literature and the potential of writing to impact human thought. The plot is one of revenge and redemption: a young man is unjustly sent to prison, escapes, and returns to bring ruin to those who wronged him. Most people have seen the movie, but the plot of this novel is nothing like that of the 2002 film; a 10 season HBO drama would barely give it justice. To better understand this epic story think of those 200 layer salads your aunt brings to a potluck; at first, it looks too formidable to eat, but with each successive layer, you find yourself enjoying the complexity, and eventually, you crave reaching the bottom which contains that mysterious jello.

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The Count of Monte Cristo is a story about revenge, greed, death, despair, hope, love, and wisdom. Throughout the plot, there is an overarching theme of contrast – characters swing from the highest peaks of happiness to the lowest states of depression; opulence is juxtaposed with impoverishment. The main character, The Count of Monte Cristo, was at one point on the verge of death from starvation and at another the most wealthy host of a grand dinner party in the heart of France. This contrast is highlighted throughout the book because it represents Dumas’ ultimate point to the reader, “Wait and Hope.” Or put in another way, one must be patient in life and hope that God will look favorably upon their plight. The Count of Monte Cristo waited and hoped for his rightful revenge, and his wrongdoers were eventually punished.

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Alternatively, other characters in the book waited and hoped for their loved one’s safety and were rewarded with both a stronger relationship and a greater appreciation for life itself. A fuller life is the ultimate reward of “Wait and Hope,” because it allows one to not only reflect on the future but also appreciate what is had in the present. One of the best examples comes at the end of the book when the villain is eventually imprisoned. He has lost his family, his fortune, and his fame but still he waits and hopes that a savior will come. His savior does come in the form of the Count of Monte Cristo, who through his own ability for hopefulness forgives his transgressor. Life is burdensome, and when we don’t feel like it is in our favor remember that even in the lowest depths of existence, hope and patience are tools that can carve a way out of any indomitable prison.

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Worry Wart-Remover

Have you ever been called a “Worry Wart?” I have on several occasions and throughout my life my worries have grown. As an adult there are a million things to contend with which can induce worries: paying the bills, keeping up with health, climbing the social ladder, maintenance of relationships, etc. Then there are the irrational worries that are usually propagated from movies or news: flesh eating diseases, serial rapists hiding in the bushes, razor blades in candy, movie theater shootings, sex-slave kidnappings etc. And to my luck, I live in Flint, so now I get to worry about consuming toxic water whenever I turn the tap on. So suffice to say, we must grapple with our worrisome thoughts everyday. How can we let go of our worries? To be truthful I don’t completely know but there are a few key things that help me get through storms of mental despair.

  1. Prayer: Release your worries to God because He has your back. Talking to the big man upstairs is not only therapeutic but strengthens your spiritual relationship. I know this the Sunday School answer but it really will lift a weight off your chest. You don’t have to formally pray or say anything at all-just clear your head and notice God’s presence. You’re not alone. We didn’t worry nearly as much when we were children; be a child in God’s presence and know He understands the big picture.
  2. Yoga: I’m a huge fan of Yoga because it forces you to be mindful of the present. Yoga is not meant to be some ab-shaping-calorie-scorching workout, it’s meant to bring you more in tune with your inner self. My favorite instructor is Tommy Rosen and he focuses on breathing throughout all the movements. When you learn how to breath you learn how to listen to yourself. Your true self is constantly being bombarded by outside influences that many times create negativity and anxiety. That may sound like a bunch of hippy crap but I promise if you practice mindful meditation/yoga you will make it priority in your daily life.
  3. Watch a TV series: I love well made TV shows: Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, The Wire, Mr. Robot, etc. There are so many great series on TV right now that you can find the perfect show that fits your personality. Why would a TV series reduce worries? One word-Flow. When you get into a show you forget your worries and enter into the emotions of the characters. For a short moment you aren’t focused on your worries but rather the story unfolding in front of you. Of course, any flow experience is good but I like series for reducing worries because my problems are nominal compared to my beloved fictional characters. Walter White’s worries of selling meth to pay for his cancer treatment trumps my worries of not having pooped in the last two days.

These are three tangible things that you can practice in your life that will help reduce your worries. I love this quote…

The Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most about humanity, answered “Man…. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”

Let us let go of our worries by seeking God, being more mindful of the present, and realizing that our worries really aren’t that big of a deal in respects to the big picture. Your thoughts can make your life like heaven or hell. It’s all up to you, your thoughts are your own-what will you choose?

Trust me in your times of trouble, and I will rescue you, and you will give me glory.

Psalm 50:15 NLT