If, like many white collar workers in today’s modern economy, you are “time poor” and constantly swamped by the ever growing torrent of information coming at you every day, despair not. Help is at hand. But is comes in a somewhat unlikely guise. It’s not yet more sophisticated news aggregation text-mining algorithm, nor is it the next-gen web 3.0 nano-blogging, retweeting, Facebook-posting multifunction one-stop web-accumulation app for your smart phone. No. It is those leather bound volumes gathering dust on your bookshelf and that set of penguin classics you bought in a fit of self-improvement last year and have never read.
Let me explain.
The idea of being “time poor” really comes down to a balancing our desires. If we want to do more than we have time for, we say we are time poor. There are two possible solutions – either want to do less, or find a way to do more. Focusing on the latter solution, for many professionals, a closely related problem is that of deciding what information to consume and create at what time. Most professional occupations involve information processing - whether it be consumption, comprehension, dissemination or creation of information, or decision making based on information.
The problem can be described as follows. Each of us has a certain bandwidth or ability to ingest, digest and make sense of information each day. The question is, what is the optimal manner in which we should consume information? How do we decide what is the most important information to read on any given day? How do we decide when we should stop consuming and start creating? With the information age, this problem has become ever more pressing. In times gone by the problem was getting the information. Now it is deciding what not to read.
My observation is that because of the easy access to vast amounts of low value information the quantity of high quality output has dwindled. Would Tocqueville have produced a classic like Democracy in America if he was constantly answering emails, checking his Facebook page and posting on Twitter? Many people or good at the day-to-day detailed information - the immediate and the short term but long term investment in substantial texts is often lacking.
My solution to the problem of being time poor is to make some time in my busy schedule to read the classics. When you read you invest your time and energy, your attention and comprehension in understanding the text being read. In order to make the most of your investment you are best advised to read those books which are commonly regarded to be the classics of the western canon. Because by definition, a classic has stood the test of time – which is to say that many people, over many years, decades and sometimes centuries, have decide to invest their psychic energy into the effort required to read the book. This indicates that the classic contains and expresses something worthwhile about the human condition, something what transcends the day to day and speaks to that which is common between and among people from one epoch to another.
However, by no means does the value of reading a classic end there. The return on the investment of your time is multiplied many times over by the references to these classic works which you encounter as you read subsequent classics.
These observations on the benefits or reading the classics are not based on just a passing acquaintance with the subject. About eight and a half years ago a friend and I decided to read our way through a selection of the Western classics (I don’t mean the screen play of True Grit). Simon is a banker, I’m a data scientist, so we are both reasonably well educated but not formally trained in the classics, history, philosophy or literature. Nevertheless, we could see no reason why, if we put our minds to it, we couldn’t read these texts and derive some significant benefit from doing so.
We didn’t get too hung up on what was defined to be a classic. We looked at lists such as the Encyclopedia Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World and the more eclectic list to be found in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon but we ended up choosing as our guide: Invitation to the Classics edited by Louise Cowan.
It wasn’t meant to be an onerous task either, so we would read in our own time and then meet to discuss the book over a leisurely lunch at The East Sydney Hotel, the only pub in Sydney which doesn’t have poker machines and where you can have a decent conversation without competing with a juke box or MTV. (During the 2008 American elections when it was looking as if the US was about to elect its first African American president, a patron approached the bar and asked if the television could be turned on. The barman first eyed the patron suspiciously and then, looking at the TV as if it was an alien invention from another planet grudgingly replied, “Well, I suppose so … but no sound.”)
While our regime was fairly relaxed, there were some informal guidelines we tried to stick to. Firstly we wanted to read to classics in chronological order. Our thinking was that in doing so we would have a better chance of understanding any references we came across to previous classics.
For example, by reading The Iliad before The Odyssey we have a better picture of who Odysseus is, what he has been through, and the perseverance he shows in order to return home. By reading both these text before approaching Aeschylus’s Oresteia we understand something of Agamemnon, his brother’s misfortunes and his sacrifice of Iphigenia to propitiate Artemis. Having read these texts we are then better prepared to understand The Aeneid, the action of which follows directed after the sacking of Troy and which make numerous references to the Odyssey. Finally, when we get to the Divine Comedy and learn that Dante has chosen Virgil as his guide, the name carries weight and meaning for us. In this way every time a work we have read is referenced, we reap the rewards of our prior reading. When, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Saint Claire says he “can’t turn Knight-errant” and free every slave, we reap the rewards for having read Don Quixote. These bonuses can be found in the most unexpected places. Who would have thought we would be rewarded for the effort of having read Euripides The Frogs in the middle of Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman?