Why I'm ditching mindjunk and reading classics

Back in my days as a journalist at a daily broadsheet in Australia, each day I'd head into the office and be confronted with half a dozen newspapers whose content I needed to be on top of. I'd log onto Twitter and scroll through the pithy contributions of the wise, the egocentric and the influential. I'd scan government reports, corporate propaganda and activist press releases. I'd come home and flick through magazines and hunt down quirky stuff on the internet. I might make some progress on a book on contemporary politics, business or culture before bed. And then I'd get up and do the same thing the next day.

In short, my literary diet was a poor one, filled with constant snacking on food of only moderate nutritional value. Largely out of a sense of "missing out" on something pertinent to my job, I was filling my stomach with things that seemed tasty at the time, but were unlikely to be remembered years, weeks, days or sometimes even minutes after they were consumed.

True, things could have been worse: I could have been among those who are constantly craving a literary sugar high, and satisfy their craving with swift and lurid morsels from the internet. Constantly raiding the snack machine for digital Kit Kats and Burger Rings, as it were.

But even if I'd dodged that fate, I sensed I was lacking literary carbohydrates and the occasional fine meal.

(Here endeth the metaphor.)

My own definition of a cultured, intelligent person is one who has a broad knowledge not just of his or her own time and place, but of others. Inherent in that is a familiarity with the major cultural objects of those times and places, which in many cases are the works of literature that helped to define them.

A familiarity with "the classics" was something I respected and admired. A person who could quote from Chaucer, Eyre or Rand with authority and conviction didn't just carry a veneer of intellect, but usually the wisdom and insight that comes with such knowledge.

I, however, was falling well short of my own definition. I'd read a handful of classics at school, and in a reflection of both myself and a modern university education, had no exposure to them during my time as an undergraduate arts and commerce student. Then as a working journalist I felt I didn't have the time or energy to spend on something without a clear, speedy benefit.

Moving to Indonesia and taking on a new job with a newspaper in Jakarta was the perfect opportunity for me to do something about it. True, I'd still have a daily paper or two to get my head around, and face the constant lure of interesting things from home and abroad online, but I felt content to remain out of the loop on the happenings I previously felt obliged to be intimately familiar with.

This was my chance to move closer to my idealised well-read person: Homo culturae, if you'll excuse my pseudo-Latin. I made it my mission to read the works of literature that have stood the test of time and helped shape the world. A daunting prospect, I know, but a richly rewarding one, as well.

I knew that in my lifetime, let alone just my few years planned here, I would barely scratch the surface in reading great things. My choices of books would be a little odd at times, driven by a desire to mix up the heavy with the light and the mainstream with the obscure. It would also be driven by the more pragmatic issue of what I happened to stumble across in Jakarta's eclectic sources of English-language literature.

First up was Heart of Darkness, the 1903 novella by Joseph Conrad that captures the folly of King Leopold II of Belgium's colonial efforts in the Congo and is perhaps most famous as an inspiration for Apocalypse Now. There's something about Heart of Darkness that resonates as a westerner living in a developing country, effectively the situation that Conrad's protagonists finds themselves in. One can only hope they avoid the madness and amorality that awaits Kurtz. This one I picked up at Drive Books, Not Cars, a fantastic second-hand book fundraiser.

Next up was Ayn Rand's 1957 tome Atlas Shrugged, an 1100-page epic considered a sacred text by libertarians and capitalists but derided by many others. I expected a treatise on economics and political freedom, and that I got. But what I didn't expect was the rollicking story filled with captivating characters and tremendous drama. It's a breathtaking piece of storytelling, ambitious in its scope but hugely satisfying in its execution. Rand's also remarkably persuasive in advocating her Objectivist philosophy not only in the political realm, but in the personal, demonstrating the need for a rational approach to sex as well as business. This one I picked up from Borders in Singapore.

Then it was to the Freedom Library in Menteng, where I found a copy of Mary Shelley's Gothic novel Frankenstein, a gripping and self-assured book all the more remarkable for the fact its author was just 21 when she wrote it in 1918. Then I picked up A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf's witty and caustic 1929 extended essay on the question of whether a sister of Shakespeare who possessed the Bard's innate talents would have had a chance to succeed.

Right now I'm wrestling with Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky's 1866 book. This Russian one's tough to like, filled with characters that are tough to distinguish, a plot that seems to move nowhere fast, and prose so thick with fog that it's difficult to know what you're looking at. I'm half way through, so perhaps the payoff is still to come.

Trudging through Crime and Punishment does bring into sharp relief one down side of my personal endeavour: reading this stuff is not always fun. If I were reading strictly for enjoyment, I would have dismissed this one many chapters earlier. But I'm keen to understand the world view of the author and the time and place in which the work is set. And perhaps most of all, why this work has been revered for more than a century. It's possible that its place in the cultural canon is the product of high-minded literary masochism by generations of scholars, but more likely there's something at the heart of it that makes it worth celebrating. The challenge of the reader is to find that something.

Waiting ahead for me on the bookshelf is Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, an American classic that doesn't seem to resonate as much in the rest of the world, and Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, a work almost eclipsed by the film based on it. And then there's the content of the Freedom Library, whose shelves are heaving with tempting morsels.

Reading long and challenging books has become a lot tougher in the era of ubiquitous internet. Social media creates the opportunity for continuous social contact, meaning that when users log off there is a frequent, gnawing fear that they're missing out on something. And the nature of the writing on the internet has shortened attention spans, harming people's ability to stay focused on a task that lacks swift gratification.

But the rewards of reading classic works are great. There's something satisfying in knowing that the book you're reading has had its quality recognised across time and culture, and that the subjects at its heart are universal such that a reader living in a vastly different world to the writer can identify with the experience. It's awe-inspiring to know that the work you're reading has changed people's view of the world, perhaps even shaped history, and may yet shape the future. And when done well, it's a heck of a lot of fun to be guided by an author around a world that exists only in their mind - and soon yours.

Long after the newspaper article, vain autobiography or indulgent blog post has disappeared from memory, a great work of literature will stay in the reader's mind and shape their character. That alone makes the endeavour of reading from the canon a worthwhile one.


Unknown said…
Hey Ari,

I am glad that you are back writing on the blog. I agree with at least the first part of your argument and recently wrote soem related blogposts.



I am not necessarily convinced that you need to resort to the canon. We live in the times of some truly excellent writers - Jeffrey Eugenides is my current favourite example. That said, I commend to you Burmese Days by George Orwell.

Jane Stewart said…
wow - nothing like a post on books to read to spark a Melbourne Uni reunion!

Glad to see you're still updating your blog Ari...I like reading your tweets.

You need to get onto the Graham Greenes...Travels with my Aunt and the Quiet American are both goodies.

Ari Sharp said…
David - both your pieces make very fine points.

I suspect the answer to The Fear you identify is a quality over quantity solution: If we can be content with reading a select sample of high-calibre things, we don't need complex ways to browse/intake the enormous volume of material. True, that then prompts the question of how to access that select sample - personally, I pick a handful of outlets I respect and regularly see what they have on offer - but it does get us a step closer to a solution.

As for the merits of classic literature to the modern stuff, my thinking is that we need to take in the work of people in fundamentally different circumstances to our own - be they different cultures, different times or different lifestyles. The classics, almost by definition, achieve that, whereas modern authors are less able to achieve the aim I identified. Having said that, I haven't read any of Jeffrey Eugenides work, but would rather like to.

Jane - It does feel like a bit of a reunion. All we need is a unlistenable grunge band performing under the north court sails at lunchtime and we're all set.

Quiet American is another book I'm quite keen to check out. Not familiar with Travels With My Aunt. If it's anything like travels with my aunt, I might avoid it!

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