Why I’m Reading the Classics and You Should, Too

A few days ago, I saw a tweet from Arianna Huffington from one of the sites that I often frequent: Barking Up The Wrong Tree. The tweet was a quote that came from one of the posts that Eric Barker (the author of the site) wrote:

Those who can sit in a chair, undistracted for hours, mastering subjects and creating things will rule the world — while the rest of us frantically and futilely try to keep up with texts, tweets and other incessant interruptions.

I don’t know about you, but that was a bit of a wake-up call for me. I do my best to stay current with a number of twitter lists (not so much with the texts because I don’t currently use a cell phone). I didn’t realize how exhausting it can be trying to keep up with everything. I don’t know if you noticed, but two days ago ended a streak of 111 straight days of me writing a post for this site. That’s nothing compared to the 5000 that Seth Godin has written (though I don’t know if his were consecutive). In fact, yesterday was the first day in quite a long time that I didn’t tweet anything or post anything to Facebook. Even when I’ve got nothing to share to Facebook, I usually have posted a quote of the day and a picture of some sort. And Twitter, I’ve almost always got a tweet scheduled for a time when I know I won’t be near the computer. Not yesterday. Nothing. No posts. Nada. As I mentioned in one of my last few tweets, I was trying to take my own advice and rest.

In this restful time, I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to sustain the same kind of relationship I have had with the online world. Yes, I’ve learned a great deal about a number of different topics from the way I’ve interacted with the internet, but I think it’s time to transition. Seeing Eric Barker’s quote also reminded me of someone else who shares a similar ideal: Shane Parrish.

Parrish is the author of Farnam Street and as you’ll see from glancing at his reading list, he reads — a lot. According to Parrish, the question he gets asked the most often is where he finds the time to read. Here’s part of his answer:

Where do I find the time?

Let’s look at this another way. Rather than say what I do, I’ll tell you what I don’t do.

What gets in the way of reading?

I don’t spend a lot of time watching TV. (The lone exception to this is during football season where I watch one game a week.)

I watch very few movies.

I don’t spend a lot of time commuting.

I don’t spend a lot of time shopping.

These choices are deliberate. I don’t even have cable TV. I watch NFL through gamepass, which also saves time (if you don’t watch games live you can watch the full game in under 30 minutes).

I live downtown; I can walk to the grocery store, purchase a bagful of groceries, and return home all within 15 minutes.

If you presume that the average person spends 3-4 hours a day watching TV, an hour or more commuting, and another 2-3 hours a week shopping, that’s 25 hours a week on the low end.

25 hours. That’s 1,500 minutes. That’s huge. If you read a page a minute, that’s 1,500 pages a week.

Eye-opening, eh?

With this newfound energy for introducing a healthy diet of reading books, what are the best books to read? Should I read the recent best-sellers, the classics, or some combination of both? It turns out, Parrish also answered this question in a post in August:

If something is still ‘in print’ today and it’s been around for a long time, we can assume there is a reason. The most likely reason is that there is something useful to the book. We can further assume that whatever is useful in the book will continue to be useful in the future.

If it’s useful in the past, useful now, and likely useful in the future, there is an argument to be made that we’re probably dealing with something simple – the basics. Anything fragile gets weeded out by time. … so you’re at least dealing with robust ideas … This is something we should be reading to maximize ROI for reading.

This isn’t perfect, of course. But it seems like a decent heuristic.

Most of what’s new and best-selling today will expire rapidly. If you’re reading things that ‘expire’, you get trapped into a Red Queen situation; you’re running faster and faster but staying in the same place. Or in this case you’re reading more and more but not getting much smarter.

You read more and more of the new stuff (e.g., best-sellers) but your knowledge doesn’t improve because you’re learning things with expiry dates … (narratives, studies based on small samples, or something that’s niche and specialized). When reading anything recent, it’s hard to distinguish if what you’re reading is fragile or not. And the base rate for fragility would be huge – almost everything printed today will prove to be fragile.

(The niche and specialized will improve your knowledge, for sure, but only within one particular domain, it won’t increase your broad based worldly wisdom. So these are useful but possibly not in the sense of maximizing knowledge accumulation. And you’d want to think about half-life of knowledge here too.)

Basic knowledge and ideas, however, don’t expire, which is why reading something like Seneca gets you out of the red queen. You learn more, you learn simple ideas, and those ideas don’t change over time so your knowledge actually increases.

So there you have it. A compelling case for reading the classics. I’m still planning on writing posts here on a variety of topics, but they may not be as frequent as they were before. Some will be of a more academic flavour, as I was just accepted by Research Blogging, some will continue in the same fashion as providing a new perspective, some will be observations, and some will be new ideas.

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3 responses to “Why I’m Reading the Classics and You Should, Too

  1. Pingback: Can You Succeed in Politics if You Aren’t Selfish? | Jeremiah Stanghini

  2. Pingback: Facebook is a Poor Predictor of Performance of Job Applicants | Jeremiah Stanghini

  3. Pingback: Should We Be Reading Instead of Binge-Watching? | Jeremiah Stanghini

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