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.

giphy6

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.

giphy7

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.

 

How Reading can Prevent Sexual Harassment

I’ve been thinking a lot about Harvey Weinstein lately and how appalling he was to so many women. Mr. Harvey was like an incubus always searching for his next penile power grab. A lot of women have come out against Harvey, and the world has generally begun to talk more about the closeted topic of sexual harassment. Some of my friends on Facebook have written “Me Too” on their wall to show people that these disgusting acts are happening close to home. The question is how to fix this epidemic? Obviously, we must continue conversations about sexual harassment and push the message that it is never okay to take advantage of another person. That is an excellent starting point, but in my opinion, it falls short of what will actually help the problem.

giphy3

Let’s first point out the obvious – the majority of sexual harassment involves women as victims and men as predators. Not all men are like Harvey Weinstein, and not all men are predators, but a lot of men have a second brain dangling between their legs. This second brain is exceptionally persuasive. How powerful is it? Speaking for myself, when I went through puberty, my penis was like a mini-Danny Devito continually giving me commentary throughout the day. Suffice it to say, Danny Devito never really goes away because of the evolutionary urge to procreate. The primal default of a man is to spread his sperm throughout the world. The penis is constantly screaming “ME, ME, ME, ME, ME!!!!”

giphy4

These urges along with other primal tendencies, like aggression, are kept in check by societal norms, laws, and morals. Norms can only go so far; when push comes to shove, that second brain gives a rat’s ass about standards, punishments, or consequences. Sexual harassment usually occurs behind closed doors when the predator can get away with the act. So what can be done to control that second brain? I think a lot of men have a good handle on their Danny Devito because they were taught from a young age what was right and wrong. Maybe they had a great set of parents who modeled a healthy male/female identity. Maybe it was a community role model who exemplified the attributes of respect. Maybe it was a religious upbringing that taught the importance of the Golden Rule.

danny_devito_cover

Whatever the reason, some men have no problem shutting down that bald-headed beast. But, not everyone is so fortunate to be raised with these types of people or messages – and sometimes even with these efforts – some men miss the point. Speaking for myself, I was raised in a home with excellent parents who taught me morals, and I had friends who came from similar backgrounds; in later years I found out that some of my friends did sexually harass women. So how can we fortify this cracked roof of parental advice and community support so that young men won’t continue to slip through and cause irreversible damage? The key is empathy.

empathy3

In my opinion, empathy is the single hardest trait to master in life. Empathy entails stepping into the mind and body of another person: seeing what they see, touching what they touch, feeling what they feel. It is such a complex idea that no person will inadvertently acquire it as a skill – one has to be deliberate. So how do we become empathetic? One of the key ways we evolved to acquire empathy was through storytelling: stories allow us to use our imagination, gain knowledge and think more deeply about problems. Books provide the most in-depth opportunity for storytelling through first-person and third-person accounts; allowing one to fully understand the emotions and personalities of various characters. Reading permits people to step into worlds which are very different from their own and to explore divergent viewpoints. I was never very empathetic until I started to read the classics and entered the masterful characters of Dickens, Tolstoy, and Melville. These stories force a person to see, think, and feel what a character feels – empathy anyone?

giphy5

I never grasped the magnitude of rape, murder, harassment, and adultery until I took the time to sit down and open a book. This brings me to my ultimate point: We need to push young men** to read great works of writing so that they can begin to understand what it feels like to see life from different vantage points. Parents, teachers, and community leaders need to stop thinking books are for SAT prep or just entertainment and start realizing that they are instruments of empathy and deep-psychological understanding. For example, try to read Anna Karenina, The Count of Monte Cristo, or Les Liaisons Dangereuses without wrenching over the emotional states of the main characters. There is no excuse for not reading to your child, setting time for your teenager to read, or sitting down to read yourself – only a high source of empathy will allow a predator to stop – and step – into the soul of its prey.

This post started to get a little long (I actually want to turn this post into a book), but I would love to hear your comments on the effects of reading on your own empathy and how we should go about sexual harassment prevention. 

**We obviously also need young women to read, but this post is mainly targeted towards young men. 

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.

giphy2

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.

seven-layer-salad-featured

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.

tricks-header

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.

ray-of-sunshine

The Diary of a Nobody

“It’s the diary that makes the man.”

-George Grossmith

Did you ever have a diary? I always thought a diary was for wimpy little girls who needed to get their emotions on paper via multi-colored pens. I kept a paper diary only two times in my life. The first time was a dismal attempt at recording my “feelings” after coming home from a mission trip. We were told to read the Bible and write about our sinful teenage misgivings – after writing “I looked at a girl’s butt” for the hundredth time, the diary got thrown out. The second time was when I lived in Honduras for three months. My Mom recommended that I record all the happenings so in the future I could look back at the events with greater detail. That diary was actually a success, most of its contents included missing Christina (my future wife) – and with parallels to my first diary – her well-shaped contours.

img_4503_zpsbpuegqrt

I still thank my Mom today for suggesting the diary in Honduras, and I think it primed me in some ways to create my third diary: SAPERE AUDE. This blog is really just a public journal with an overarching theme of discovering wisdom; it’s kinda like a log for a runner but instead of miles ran, it is the number of books read. Blogging is an incredibly rewarding experience that channels my inner little girl to express myself to people all over the world. Throughout history, people have kept diaries in the hopes that they would be published for public consumption – this was most popular in the 19th century and led to the classic The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith.

giphy1

The Diary of a Nobody is the fictitious diary of George Pooter who is a lower-middle class Englishman in the 1880’s. Pooter writes in his diary in part to record important moments, witty jokes, and mishappenings which are regular occurrences. Mr. Pooter personifies the class structure of late 19th century England; the lower classes try to be more like the upper classes, and the upper classes scorn their faux ladder climbing. One attempt at modeling the upper class was writing a diary which many wealthy people kept to later publish – making them quite famous. The problem is that Mr. Pooter is a “nobody” in a family that makes fun of the idea of his diary becoming syndicated; it’s the modern day equivalent of a friend saying they deserve a reality show because of their exciting life – (cue eye roll). 

giphy2

The thing is, I identify with Mr. Pooter with this blog. I know that it is just me rambling about weird subjects, but sometimes I think it may make me famous one day; maybe my post about the War of 1812 will go viral! One can fantasize, but the real motivation for keeping any type of diary is the ability to look back in time. Life is so fascinating that writing consolidates details that may otherwise be forgotten – thankfully I can share those memories with my readers – even if I never surpass the status of a “nobody.”

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.

 

Lucky Jim

Christina and I went to see the new Beauty and the Beast film a couple of days ago. I was not forced to see this movie and the sexy Emma Watson was not used as a bargaining chip. Disney movies bring me a lot of happiness and those catchy songs always bring a smile to my face. The only thing I didn’t like was the attractiveness of the “Beauty” and the “Beast.” Why did they cast such a good looking Bell? The whole point of this movie is not to judge people by their appearances. Even the Beast is attractive for a monster. I could think of a million things worse for Bell to fall in love with – Jabba the Hutt anyone? I like stories where two misfits fall in love – the nerds, the dweebs, the outcasts. I have always been between social groups my entire life. I get along with the jocks and the nerds: never overly obsessed about sports or comic books. I was a momma’s boy who primarily enjoyed the company of my parents – I could socialize but my special spot was always on the couch eating ice cream. All of these things were going through my head while reading my second classic, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. In this story, Jim is an awkward professor who doesn’t fit in with anyone – he goes about the story in a perpetual state of social discomfort. Jim has no passion except for hanging out at pubs and complaining about his job. This was a story with my kind of character.

Jim, throughout most of the book, has the worst luck at work and in his social life: his job is on the line, his foreplay gets squashed, his jokes fall flat, his research gets stolen, his cigarettes run out, his drunken tirades end badly, his coworkers tattle on him, etc. Jim seems like he deserves most of these problems but at the same time it is hard not feeling bad for the guy. In the end, he does end up with a lucky break that made me not only happy for him but happy for myself. So many times we are conditioned to think that the best things happen to the most popular-beautiful-smart-sporty-(fill in the blank with a stereotype) people. A great example of this is modern day comedies. Who usually plays the laughing-stock? Is it a smart-sexy man or woman? No it is usually a fat actor who is a royal screw up. Thankfully, real-life is not a TV show and we can be a successful human being without having the attributes of James Bond or a Victoria Secret Model. Appearances and personalities are what make us special. Our weirdness is not a handicap but rather our greatest asset. Was Jim lucky or did he actually deserve the good things at the end of the book? Are we conditioned to think that success is the result of skill for the popular while success is the result of luck for the unpopular? It reminds me of the eagle who was always told he was a chicken – never attempting to fly and always pecking at the ground. Embrace who you are, spread those chicken wings and don’t apologize for their stubbiness – they’ll get you farther than you think.

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.