Living Rich: Read Great Books

Jane Austin’’s “Pride and Prejudice” may be the best-loved novel of all time. Yet, when I first read it — in my late teens — I found it both formidable and inconsequential. Its language — the diction and the syntax — was too antiquated for me then. And the content — the politics of love and family — was nothing I cared about. I was told by my betters that it was a great book, but I liked disliking it (I’’ve always enjoyed being contrary) and would have never given it a second chance except for a decision I made recently. I decided I was too old to bluff my way through conversations about “the great books.”

In conversations that touched on “A Tale of Two Cities” or “A Farewell to Arms,” I was not comfortable basing my comments on essays I had read about these books or, worse, movies derived from them. So I found somebody’’s list of “The 100 Best Novels of All Time” and have started going through them. Most recently, I read Jane Austin’’s “Pride and Prejudice.” And I’’m glad I did. “Pride and Prejudice” is not only a lovely story (of which there are too few being produced these days), it is a masterpiece of good writing. The way Jane Austin presents her characters — lovingly, ironically, lucidly — provides as much gratification to the reader as the drama itself.

Her art reminds me, in particular, of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” And that is just the beginning of the fun. “Pride and Prejudice” is also a wonderful inside look at 18th century English gentry, a culture that is gone, but not completely. I read the second half of the book in Vienna, while I was learning about Mozart and the Hapsburg dynasty. There are remarkable connections. But this isn’’t a book review.

I’’m trying to persuade you to try some of the great books you’’ve never read before. I recommend that you get hold of a list of “best books” (there are several available online), then go to a bookstore and take a look at a few of them. If you peruse a half dozen, you will find at least one that will suit your mood. Buy that and read it.

How Great Books Are Like Carbohydrates

As an accomplishing person, you have only a limited amount of time for leisure, so you need to get the most from it. That means you must be selective. You must choose activities that are likely to give you rich and long-lasting pleasure. Like carbohydrates, pleasure comes in two varieties: simple and complex.

Simple pleasures, like simple carbs, are easy to enjoy, give you quick enjoyment, and tend to be addictive. In the long run, alas, simple pleasures are not good for you. Simple carbohydrates include sugars and starches. Simple pleasures range from eating simple carbs (chocolate chip cookies) to watching television to having slam-bang sex. Simple pleasures are easy to like, hard to stop, and, if done excessively over long periods, destructive.

Complex pleasures, like complex carbohydrates, are not immediately and easily pleasing. You usually have to learn how to like them. Because they take effort, many people never even bother to try them. And since they don’’t please those who haven’’t learned how to enjoy them, they are often dismissed as “hoity-toity.”

Complex carbohydrates include broccoli, squash, and Brussels sprouts. Complex pleasures range from drinking fine wine to reading good books to appreciating opera. There are, of course, many degrees in between. Reading is more complex than television watching (see Message #268) and certain kinds of reading are more complex than others. It is easier to read a John Grisham novel than one by Jane Austin. It is easier to read DC Comics than Elizabethan sonnets. But easier doesn’’t mean better.

On the contrary. I’m arguing that what comes easy goes easy. It’’s true of business. And it’’s true of pleasure too. I don’’t want you to take my word for it. All I want you to do is this: Take some time to read a really good book. Not a book that your best friend tells you to read. And not an Oprah best seller (though some of those are good).

Find yourself one of the great books that has passed the test of time — on that has been judged “great” by critics for decades or even generations. You are not going to love every great book you dig up, but I am sure that if you find even one that you like, you will have a reading experience that will be deeper, stronger, and more lasting than you have ever had with the quick and easy stuff.

If you are willing to give it a shot and you don’t want to do your own research, I recommend the following five great books that I can’t imagine anyone not loving:

1. “Pride and Prejudice,” Jane Austin

2. “Huckleberry Finn,” Mark Twain

3. “Moby Dick,” Herman Melville

4. “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald

5. “The Sun Also Rises,” Ernest Hemmingway

I know. These are so predictable. They are on everybody’s “100 best” list. But that’s the point. They are there for a reason. A good reason. Start reading today!