Read your Damn Classics!

Boredom is an ailment of the past. No other period in History has seen the ease of access to entertainement we have now combined with the seemingly infinite supply of content. With so many potential choices, simple questions like choosing what to read can quickly become overwhelming. This article is an attempt to provide a way to approach this problem by providing a framework to consume media in a sensible fashion. The final goal: refining one's taste.

Please stop the flood

500 million tweets per day. Enough characters to write À la recherche du temps perdu five thousand times. A sizable portion of these tweets containing not more than an uninterrupted sequence of the poop emoji. The rest using actual words but whose overall meaning is not much different.

The number of content created daily has reached heights never seen before. Twitter is only one of the many examples of this downpour. This abundance, however, has a cost. The first victim, our capacity for focus. Like dopamine crazed rats, our brains pursue the dings of our smartphones with the compulsiveness of a gambler and his slot machine.

The second problem of this abundance of content—and this is what we are going to focus on today—is its overwhelming mediocrity. The reader might object, citing Sturgeon's law, namely that “90% of everything is crap”. Certainly, this fact has not changed. But in terms of quantity, the muck from few centuries ago pales in comparison to today's colossal heaps of dung.

The appeal of classics

In these circumstances, no one has the time and mental resilience to spend hours in the gutter sifting the sewage for gold. What is a man to do then? A simple answer lies in relying on the classics; works which have survived the strictest of all judges: Time. Popularity might not equate with quality, but art pieces that remain in good favour through multiple eras are likely to have valuable things to say. Their sustained presence in the cultural landscape demonstrates their fitness. They managed to outlive the biases of multiple generations after all. Of course, it might entirely be possible for a work to attain the status of a classic in a rather arbitrary fashion. It still remains, however, that a random selection of classics has a higher probability of quality when compared to a random selection of contemporary works. This comes from the fact that no prior filtering was done on the contemporary works.

What contemporary works bring to the table

Should we then abandon contemporary works completely? This position might be too extreme. First, it assumes enough classics are available to last a man for a lifetime. While this is certainly the case in mediums with a long history like literature, we cannot say the same for more recent mediums. Video games for example, have not been around long enough to form a substantial body of classics. In a smaller extent, the same argument could be made for movies, graphic novels and animation.

Digital Minimalism is Cal Newport's most recent work. His concept of foregoing passion for expertise is also worth checking out.

Another point worth considering is that only contemporary works can capture issues unique to our time. While it is often said that every storyline has already been written, societal changes can be profound enough to negate this assertion. Consider, for example, how the combination of uninterrupted access to the Internet and smartphones changed the way we communicate. A work like Digital Minimalism could not have existed at any other point in time.

Finally, for practicing artists it makes sense to include contemporary works in their diet. Staying up to date with the cultural landscape of their medium is an important part of their craft. No work is created in a vacuum.

To briefly conclude, a hefty dose of classics sprinkled by a few contemporary works appears to be the balance to strive for.

28 Mar 2019