Book Summaries

Read the Classics First (Week 1 of Wisdom)

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The Inequality of Quality

There are too many mediocre books which exist just to entertain your mind. Therefore, read only those books which are accepted without doubt as good.

—Lucius Annaeus Seneca

What you will notice, after reading many books, is that a minority will have a lasting impact your life, that is why you should read the classics first. The often-cited Pareto rule applies here. It is not only that most of the sales go to a small number of writers, but most of the best work belongs to a small number too.

Years ago, I avoided reading the classics, because I thought they were outdated, or not relevant to what I wanted to learn. I felt there was a disconnect between the pace of modern life and reading a classic work. But I was wrong. To say a book is a classic is not the same as to say that a book is outdated.

Better to know a few things which are good and necessary than many things which are useless and mediocre.

– Tolstoy

You will find in the minds of writers who lived hundreds of years before your time, wisdom that is more succinctly and elegantly stated, than anyone who lives today. As we move forward in time, it is true that we become more proficient in many things, but we also lose many skills.

What We Should Recover

A simple example of this is writing. Socrates was famous for being opposed to the practice of writing things down. He believed that it would ruin your memory and your oratory skills. Now, Socrates did not know how much more could be achieved by writing things down, both from a personal and social standpoint, but he wasn’t wrong.

There are certain styles of writing that no longer exist. We communicate differently in every age, and this is because of the economic demands placed on us. In the modern world, the best writing is what is simplest and easiest to read, with the smallest number of complicated words. So there are subtleties in communication that you can only find by reading the classics.

More important than that is the wisdom that has been accumulated throughout the ages, and the perspectives on life that help you focus on what matters. There are many distractions that steal away your time, and if you allow yourself to be distracted for long enough, you will become ambivalent about where you want to spend your time, what little of it you have after tending to the banalities of daily life, an idea expressed brilliantly by the Roman stoic, Seneca in his essay ‘On the Shortness of Life.’

The books that have been around for many generations are the only ones that continue to be relevant today. Most of what is written recently is quickly forgotten. This was called the Lindy Effect.

Why Read the Classics?

Read the best books first, otherwise you’ll find you do not have time.

—Henry David Thoreau

Italo Calvino was an Italian journalist and writer of short fiction novels. In 1986, he wrote an article that outlined the reasons why we should read the classics.

Think about the books people say they are re-reading – this is an excellent indicator of the quality of the book. It is a good rule of thumb to only read books that you would re-read.

In Mortitame Adler’s How to Read a Book, there is a great passage about how the difficulty of a book can be a good gauge of how much you are learning. If you read a book and you have understood it perfectly, then you have not learned very much. To learn, to stretch your cognitive abilities, you need to read a text that is difficult to understand. Learning is painful, it is never easy. When you learn something, you are re-arranging the thought structures in your mind, and this requires strain and effort.

Of course, if you read a text that is too difficult, you will not understand anything at all, and this is also not recommended. The concept of Flow is a good description of the middle line you should aim for, when deciding which level of difficulty to aim for.

There is also the Mythology

In mythology, there are two things the hero must do. One is to encounter chaos and create order, but the second is the descend into the underworld, and implement tradition and order in chaos, and allow it to re-emerge again.

Nietzsche recognized that pathological order existed, and he attacked it with ferocity. But Jung and Eliade were cautious of dispelling with tradition completely, they argued that there was value in going back to the past, and rescuing the archetypal father from the belly of the beast.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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