Living

Five Centuries

Though in the future I may widen the field of what I publish to include living authors, for now I will start by publishing classic fiction and non-fiction, and I am proud to do so. There are a lot of good reasons to read classic literature. Aside from being an example of the Lindy Effect, a work of classic literature is an artifact made by the hands of another human being living at another time, and in studying that artifact, in addition to every other joy and truth we get from the book, we learn something about the person who made it, about the world they lived in, and about ourselves.

Mary Shelley was born in 1797 and died in 1853. Frankenstein, the first book that she wrote, likely ranks among those efforts into which she put the most care in her whole life. In reading it, you gain something like a glimpse into the mind and soul of this woman who lived, mostly in London, 200 years ago, and maybe you will find that the two of you have some things in common. Read carefully, a novel can be something like a diary. Reading classic literature reminds us that we are not only of this generation. We did not suddenly materialize; we were all born of women who are themselves the next link in a lineage of people who lived rich and deep, varied and interesting lives, the records of which stretch back millennia. It reminds us that we are players in a grand story that continues to unfold.

As speakers of English, we have an unusual benefit in that we can read literature that is up to about 500 years old in its original form. Many languages do not have this benefit for two reasons. Some languages do not have much literature that is 500 years old. English, thankfully, has plenty. Other languages have literature that is that old and older, but the modern form of that language has changed too much to allow the reader to read those older texts. For example, a Turk needs special training to read Turkish that is more than about 100 years old, which is commonly called Ottoman Turkish and is written using the Arabic alphabet. It is roughly comparable with learning a new language, though maybe a little easier. Anyone who has tried to read Chaucer in the original Middle English will have an idea of what is like for a Turk to read Ottoman Turkish, if Middle English were also written in an alphabet entirely foreign to the Latin alphabet we use today.

We are the heirs to a five-century literary legacy that we can still easily access, if we will but take ownership of it. In doing so, we expand our own vocabularies, and by expanding how we speak, we expand how we think. In George Orwell’s 1984, Syme, who is a Newspeak specialist and a coworker of the protagonist Winston Smith, hopes to give the party further control over the minds of the people and to make revolt impossible by gradually and imperceptibly constricting the language that they use. Learning and using better and more precise words to describe particular circumstances or phenomena would counter such encroachment. In the dystopia Aldous Huxley imagined and described in his great novel Brave New World, the road to that nightmare is cleared by “a campaign against the Past; by the closing of museums, the blowing up of historical monuments… by the suppression of all books published before” a particular date. In their place stand the vacuous hypnopedic slogans “history is bunk,” “progress is lovely,” and “everyone is happy now.”

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