When was the last time you reread the classics? Catcher in the Rye, maybe, or The Great Gatsby? Frankenstein or War and Peace? Whiz up and down through the centuries and you can add almost anything by Shakespeare, Faulkner, Twain, Bronte, Hemingway, and so many more to the list of books you ought to read—or reread.
But who’s got time? Especially when your night table’s sagging under the growing stack of books and magazines you keep dumping on it.
Especially when you’re buried under all the blogs and emails and articles and videos that people send you.
Especially when you’re committed to building your social media presence and need to read through Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter and Google+ and Instagram, not to mention Tumblr and Reddit.
Especially when you’ve already read those books in high school or college and were bored to tears. Why would you read them again?
With all due respect to the younger readers among us, when was the last time you took a reading recommendation from a 17-year old? Because if you’re deciding what to read today based on your high school memories, that’s what you’re doing.
So what’s the point in rereading these musty tomes? Besides the simple pleasure of enjoying the words of great writers and enjoying their stories, there’s so much to learn. One of the reasons these books have stood the test of time is because of the universality of their subjects. That is, the situations that authors were dealing with generations and centuries ago can be just as relevant today as they were back then.
Remember, too, that despite the way we pinball through the millennia sourcing content, all history did not happen at once. So even though we might think these noted authors were contemporaneous originators and it’s just us who are standing on the shoulders of giants, what a little research uncovers is that they too were repeating the tropes and themes that had been written and developed by earlier authors.
Gary Schmidgall – who has written extensively on both William Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde – points out that the supernatural picture, the main literary device of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, was not original to that author. Instead it was “astonishingly ubiquitous (in) Gogol’s The Portrait, Hawthorne’s Prophetic Picture and Edward Randolph’s Portrait, Disraeli’s Vivian Grey, Henry James’s Story of a Masterpiece, and Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer.” Plus “…dozens of other haunted pictures (can) be found in long-forgotten novels” written years before Wilde’s masterpiece.
What Wilde’s book and so many others tell us is that we all look at the human condition with the same eyes and we often see the same things. It’s not a matter of copying or plagiarizing what has come before; rather it’s a matter of interpreting current events and activities in a way that is relevant for our readers, our clients, and our audiences.
Back in the not-so-distant dark days of Web 1.0, I belonged to a group of entrepreneurs, engineers, and marketing types called The Internet Users Group. We would meet once every couple of months in San Francisco and talk about how the new Internet technology was developing and how we could use it. Most of the group was made up of young tech types buzzing on giant cups of Peet’s Coffee. Only one member of the group, a bearded historian from Stanford University, was older.
At each meeting the jittery techies would argue over their visions and the historian would quietly scribble in a little steno pad. But during one heated conversation, he spoke up and disagreed with the most strident speaker.
“Why should we listen to you?” the techie snapped. “You don’t know anything about the Internet, you just know some creaky old history.”
“You’re right,” the historian answered. “I don’t know very much about the Internet. But I do know what you don’t – I know what’s going to happen. You see, the technology we’re studying has never been seen before. But the people who are involved are the same as the people who caused the Dutch tulipmania in the 17th Century and the Great Depression in the early 20th Century. Thanks to history I can chart exactly how the Internet will boom and bust and then grow again. I might not know exactly where or exactly when it’ll happen, but I know exactly what will happen.”
And wouldn’t you know it – everything the historian predicted that foggy afternoon came true. Maybe not exactly the way he said it would but pretty damn close. And while I didn’t become a tech gazillionaire when the tech bubble inflated, I also didn’t lose everything I owned when the tech bubble burst.
THAT’s the power of history: providing us with an understanding that while the tools may change, the rules never do. And the power of the classics is that they provide brilliant, enjoyable commentary on the human condition that you can count on time after time after time.