Mash's Musings

Don't read what others are reading

Published Apr. 19, 2021

In a couple of recent discussions with friends around books to read and suggestions, I drew some ire around my stance on recommendations and book clubs—I am not open to contemporary or topical books. This draws criticism without fail and yet my conviction on this has only strengthened.

One compelling argument is summarized well in a Farnam Street blog post:

If we're reading what everyone else is reading it's harder to think differently about problems, decisions, or life.

There is definitely an element of truth to this but, as my friend pointed out, the Murakami quote around the other boys being crap is elitist at best. While this vague call to a sense of independence is appealing, there is a much better reason to focus on classics.

As Adler points out in How to Read a Book, the reason to read classics is not to feel "cultured"—it's to understand the rich literary tradition behind everything we know. One cannot really understand the significance of Reading Lolita in Tehran without first reading Lolita. Or truly walk with Dante through Hell without knowing of Virgil. And this lack of understanding is often much worse in nonfiction. People nowadays praise Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century with no knowledge of Marx's Capital, which Piketty is transparently trying to build upon. And of the few socialists who have actually read Marx, almost none have read Adam Smith, whose theories Marx was rebutting. To read only contemporary books is to spend your life skating on the tips of icebergs, blind to the centuries of thought that have led us to where we are today.

Accepting this truth is one thing, but acting on it is another. This path can seem extremely daunting; once you start looking for predecessor after predecessor, you realize it's turtles all the way down. And that realization can be demotivating enough to justify abandoning the pursuit altogether. Fortunately, there are some excellent reading lists out there that help stop the infinite regress. While it would take many lifetimes to traverse the entire iceberg of human knowledge, you'll be surprised to see how far along you'll get simply by reading The Odyssey or The Epic of Gilgamesh.

As the ancient Chinese proverb goes:

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

So dear reader, try taking that first step. Once you cross the chasm from Heather's Picks to Homer's Picks, you'll never look back.