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It’s all a little bit overwhelming sometimes, right? We’ve looked again and again at various ways to escape the barrage of online content so we can get more work done – but never so we can take a break and reconnect with other content. Perhaps, the kind that comes under the category of “literature.”
Let’s face facts; there is some great content online, but there’s more rubbish. At least when you pick up a book in a bookstore, you know it’s been through a rigorous editorial process and most of the rubbish has been weeded out. Evidently, the keyword here is ‘most’ – just the other day I was at one of those huge chain bookstores where I noticed they were still selling copies of Dianetics!
While we are always in pursuit of the perfect way to manage and minimize our content intake, somewhat like the diet-crazed society of the second millennium, it’s important to realize that just as with food, quality is more important than quantity. If we cut down on the noise but have no signal, then there’s no point trying to begin with.
And almost like the blogs in your feed reader, the bestseller list in the bookstore is constantly changing. But what if we had a collection of classics that have stood the test of time to prove their worth that could keep the signal high and the noise low? Here is one take on what that list might look like, bearing in mind that it would be hard to agree on and create a list that could be considered complete.
Homer’s The Iliad & The Odyssey
Homer’s works are sometimes considered introductory and prerequisite into the world of classic literature, and since they’re not light reading, you may as well start on a full stomach. An embodiment of the literature of ancient Greece, considered to be the forefather of modern Western thought, these epic poems speak through heroes to deliver very different messages. The Iliad, the story of Achilles, is about strength and brute force. The Odyssey is about a hero who relies on his mind, despite his strength, to win his battles.
Plato, the Great Philosopher
Perhaps one of the most often referenced philosophers of all time, Plato wrote important works that were often delivered through a dialogue in which a particular concept or issue was explored, in the style of his teacher Socrates. Plato’s works are broad-ranging, discussing everything from whether virtues can be taught, to the nature of justice.
If you thought Plato had covered a varied list of topics, his student, Aristotle probably went further – in one treatise exploring biology and in another, aesthetics or politics. Aristotle was trained in medicine before he became a student of philosophy, so it’s understandable that where Plato put more importance in ideas, conceptualization, reason and intellect, Aristotle saw the world as physical reality, that can be dissected and researched. He was probably the grandfather of modern scientific bureaucrats – if it can’t be labeled by science, it doesn’t exist!
The Meditations – Marcus Aurelius
Moving on from the Greek era, Aurelius was a Roman Emperor who, in the inherent spare time that come with positions of high office, was also a writer. Machiavelli called him the last of the Five Good Emperors (theorizing that those who adopted the throne usually ran a good government, while those who inherited it ran a bad one). In his Meditations, written as a form of introspection for the sake of his own self-improvement, Aurelius promotes ideas such as that of human freedom and that virtue is to live in accord with nature.
Perhaps most importantly is Aurelius’ idea that what makes us human is our mortality.
The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer
Some of the most famous storytelling of the medieval era is that of Geoffrey Chaucer, not so long ago revived in the movie A Knight’s Tale (in which Chaucer is made a character). The movie is based on The Knight’s Tale, the second tale from The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stores written in poetry and prose. Some scholars contend that this is the work that marked the tipping point when English overtook French as the Western world’s primary literary language.
Machiavelli’s The Prince
In our latte-sipping, iPhone-swinging world Machiavelli would’ve had one heck of a scented resume, wearing a multitude of hats – diplomat, philosopher, musician, poet and playwright, and a central figure in the Italian Renaissance. He is best known for his classic work The Prince. It explores Machiavelli’s ideas on political theory, which place a high priority on maintaining stability above all else. A book on politics, theory, and practicality that the clever can apply to many areas of their lives – including productivity.
The Bard, William Shakespeare
As soon as I mentioned classic literature you saw this name coming; Shakespeare is either synonymous with it, or he is it! Shakespeare wrote tragic love stories in the masterpiece that has become a modern cliche for romance – Romeo and Juliet – and slapstick in works such as The Comedy of Errors. While he wasn’t the icon he is today while he was still alive, Shakespeare remains relevant because it was written timelessly; at one level or another, his plays are about humanity and its nature.
Milton’s Paradise Lost
John Milton was a civil servant for England in the 16th century on one hand, but on another a writer of poet and prose. He condemned censorship, a problem then and now, in Areopagitica, but his most famous work is the epic Paradise Lost. In this book Milton romanticized the fallen angel and looked at the ancient story from a different perspective, the character Lucifer becoming a big influence on Byron’s characterizations. For the modern reader who is looking for material that assists in the field of personal development, this book could provide some food for thought on the topics of individuality and freedom.
War and Peace by Tolstoy
Bemoaned for its length, which is epic in and of itself, War and Peace was written by Russian writer and count Leo Tolstoy, and is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of literature (like everything else in this list). War and Peace has broad and sweeping themes of giant proportion including, of course, war and peace, as well as other facts of life; aging, youth, and relationships. It is unique from many of the other Western classics presented since it came from a Russian count, and a totally different culture.
These are only a few classics that are part of a very long history of deserving titles, but these are some of the most well-respected in history – not to mention more than enough to get you started and keep you busy for a long while.
And when you’re done, you can fire up that feed reader again!
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