Why Great Literature, Especially Old Literature, Has Become Essential Medicine In the Age of Social Media
First edition printing of Moby Dick from Raptis Rare Books.
Call me Ishmael.
The famous opening sentence of Moby Dick, so short and provocative, is welcoming and familiar to the 21st century reader, who is accustomed to snappy prose with short sentences and lots of white space.
A few sentences later in Melville?s masterpiece we get a sentence that?s more representative of the novel to come.
In just a bit I?m going to quote that sentence, and insist that you read it.
And I mean really read it. Don?t skim it. This essay is about to make the argument that there is value to the way the classics force us to slow down and concentrate, and it will be easier for you to understand that point if you experience it first.
Here?s the quote from Moby Dick. Please read it slowly and carefully:
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people?s hats off ? then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
This brings us to the first and, to my mind, most important reason to read the classics in 2019.
1. You should read classic literature because it forces you to think deeply and concentrate.
21st century media is hell on the attention span.
But you already know this.
You know that our digital devices are shortening our attention spans, teaching us to only skim the surface of ideas, and making us addicts to tiny dopamine bursts that come from (among other things) the Like and Share buttons.
As we near the end of the second decade of the 21st century we?ve developed widespread awareness that our devices have made us shallow thinkers. We?re less cognizant, however, of the effect of the content itself.
Or the style in which the content is written.
Have you ever wondered why so many of the articles you read, like this one, are organized in numbered lists?
Or why the writing in these articles is so often organized into ultra-short paragraphs, many of them only one sentence long?
We, the content creators of the 21st century, have learned to write in snappy lists with short sentences and one-sentence paragraphs.
We write this way because this is what you, the content consumers of the 21st century, choose to read.
You like content that is clear, concise, simple, and to the point. You?re in a hurry (always), and we writers know, God do we know, that we are competing not just against other essays or other books, but against the endless siren songs of Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, and Twitter.
We know that if we ask too much of you, say, if we give you a long sentence or, God forbid, a long paragraph, we might be taxing your mind more than you?re interested in having it taxed. We know that a complicated, multi-layered thought, one that might require you to slow down or reread a sentence or look up from your screen and think for a minute is too much to ask when your phone is bursting with notifications and there?s a new video on your favorite Youtube channel and everyone?s talking about that new show on Netflix but you haven?t even seen the last new show everyone was talking about yet and you?ve got ten tabs open on your browser and 3,000 unread books on your Kindle and holy hell who has time to consume it all just open my vein and fill it with listicles please!
There?s a cost to all this.
In the book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (a 2011 Pulitzer Prize finalist for general nonfiction), Nicolas Carr looks at all the research in neuroscience and psychology about what the Internet is doing to our brains and determines that, yes, our ceaseless attempts to skim this glut of information is making us shallow thinkers who are far less capable of deep, focused, intense thought than our parents and grandparents were.
You should read the classics in 2019 to unlearn the shallowness and impatience you are learning in your hyper-accelerated 21st century life.
When you read Melville (or Hugo or Austen or Tolstoy or Plato or Shakespeare) you are sharing headspace with someone who is much better at slow, deep, meaningful thinking than you are because they?ve never lived in the shallows like you do.
Read this famous sentence from Moby Dick and be amazed at how much deeper into a thought Melville can get than most anyone writing today:
?All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick.?
If you read the above sentence carefully (and if you skimmed it go back and re-read it carefully please) you have already gotten more practice today at deep, precise thinking than 99% of your peers.
Now imagine how much deeper and more precise your thought would become if you practiced that kind of thinking for 30 minutes to an hour every day in 2019.
That?s the promise of reading great literature. That?s one of the reasons why the classics have been and remain the backbone of any rigorous education.
Here?s another reason: Every minute you spend reading classic literature is a minute you don?t spend surfing the Internet.
Which brings us to Reason #2 on our list.
2. You should read more classic literature in 2019 because doing so as a daily practice will force you to turn away from the toxic stew of rage, indulgence, and amusement that is mass media right now.
One of the great American polemics written in the past hundred years (and a must-read book for anyone who is concerned about the harmful neural effects of the digital age) is Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman.
Postman wrote his masterpiece in 1985. He was concerned that television was turning public discourse into entertainment, and in so doing, was making Americans so shallow and superficial that they were no longer able to engage in the collective action necessary to make democratic republics function.
He was correct, of course. By the late 1980s America?s public discourse had already begun to degrade. Through the 1990s, it degraded further as shock jocks on the political right (like Rush Limbaugh) and infotainment comedians on the Left (like Jon Stewart) found that political discourse itself could become our primary entertainment.
The advent of the digital age accelerated this process. The purveyors of political entertainment soon found that no form of amusement is more addictive than the dopamine burst that comes from raging at your enemies.
By the time we all moved onto Facebook at the end of the last decade, this neural pathway of entertainment via rage indulgence was firmly set and everyone used the Share and Like buttons to carve the pathway deeper into their brains every day.
By the early years of our present decade the whole ecosystem of mass media had already become a toxic stew of aimless raging, our glowing screens serving as always-available give-me-another-hit delivery mechanisms for delicious outrage.
Was it any surprise that our outrage addiction online spilled over into the real world?
Are you an outrage addict?
Do you know, at some level, maybe a deep level you haven?t wanted to contend with in your conscious mind yet, that you are not making the world better by reading/writing yet another rage Tweet, and that maybe all this righteous outrage you?ve convinced yourself is the proper response of an ethical person to a world full of villainy isn?t actually helping, and may be (almost certainly is) making the world worse?
As with any addiction, Step 1 towards recovery is turning away from the addictive behavior.
And Step 2 is finding some better behavior you can engage in to replace the destructive one.
For Step 2, I suggest classic literature.
Not only does classic literature provide the kind of stimulation your mind craves (a craving which is easily exploited by opportunists who know you?re going to click on their link if they make you ragey enough), but it also explores the timeless questions and struggles of what it means to be human.
And when you explore those questions, exercising the deep thought that classic literature demands, you emerge with valuable insights, which makes you better equipped to actually solve problems rather than simply gripe about them.
This brings us to the third reason you should read more classics in 2019.
3. The hive mind makes it too easy to share only the most superficial parts of ourselves with each other.
We?ve been using Moby Dick as our example work in this piece and I can think of few novels that provide a more timely insight for our times.
Moby Dick is about how rage and thirst for vengeance leads to obsession, and obsession leads to destruction.
After you?ve read Moby Dick, if you took the time to truly grapple with it, you?ll start to recognize Ahab whenever he shows up in your own life, whether in the form of your own obsessions, or in the behavior of others. You?ll see how obsession is such a powerful salve, one that allows a person to hide from his own pain and those parts of his life he?s desperate to avoid.
Read Moby Dick and you?ll also understand, on a deep level, how obsession, when mixed with charisma, becomes a dangerous cocktail that draws in other people who form cults that are so hell-bent on meeting the primitive psychological needs of the narcissistic leader that the followers lose themselves to the cause. The destruction of one man becomes the destruction of many.
Does this sound like anyone you know? Does this sound like America, or more specifically, the various factions of American politics and culture right now?
Moby Dick is, of course, just one treasure in a chest full of them that our ancestors have left for us. Classic literature is our greatest inheritance and we are fools not to take it, not to use it. For centuries humans have been writing down their thoughts, and the passage of time has withered away all but the most useful. What?s left for us is time-tested wisdom from the greatest minds that have ever lived.
Now contrast that treasure with the drek that our current media environment serves up for you every day.
As we head into 2019 we live in a world that is more connected than ever, but only to itself. As the competition intensifies for each other?s attention, we are aiming more and more for the primitive parts of the mind that seek quick pleasure and amusement, and less for the parts of the mind that build civilization and character.
We are social creatures that seek to emulate one another, and as we head into 2019 we are in danger of emulating the worst parts of other people, and only putting forward the worst parts of ourselves for others to emulate.
The result of this is not only that we are becoming shallow and distractable, but also that we are losing the broader context in which we live. As Neil Postman noted, the information age has made the world into one neighborhood, but it?s ?a peculiar one, populated by strangers who know nothing but the most superficial facts about each other.?
Reading on the Internet is like speed dating ad infinitum, a progression of faces, one after another, each stopping in front of you for the briefest interval and trying to grab your attention with some appeal to your lizard brain. A selfie of a pretty young woman in a bikini, a short video of somebody?s violent yet strangely amusing misfortune, a particularly rage-inducing Tweet?
Reading classic literature is the opposite experience. Reading Moby Dick requires a good 20 hours of dedicated time with one voice who just happens to be one of the smartest, most poetic, most insightful voices America has ever produced.
To read a work of classic literature is to engage with the best work of the best minds, and do it in a way that challenges you to be better, to seek out and appreciate beauty, to ponder the big questions, to follow a line of thought, to concentrate, to transform symbols of language into an image in your imagination, to weigh assertions, to analyze, to exercise your faculties of reason.
To nurture your soul, rather than titillate your amygdala.
In 2019, let?s all do more of that.
Spencer Baum is the author of 7 novels and the Administrator of Deep Thinking About Great Books, an online reading group that studies the classics. Starting on January 1st, Deep Thinking About Great Books will study Moby Dick by Herman Melville.