Saturday, October 11, 2014

Why Reading Literature is Valuable

I was listening to the New York Times Book Review podcast (one of the little ways I stay connected to the literary world) when I heard a debate about the value of literature.  As is often the case with literary folk, the debaters were conflicted and ambiguous, pointing out the contradiction between arguing for literature's inherent value, and the frequent argument that reading literature prepares one for the world.

I've never been particularly good at angst--one of the main reasons I always struggled to write literary fiction (and to get dates with my fellow writers at Stanford, most of whom seemed to prefer darker, more brooding suitors).  To me, it's actually fairly easy to come up with a taxonomy of why reading literature is valuable:

1) Entertainment.  People pay money to be entertained; people find literature entertaining.  Ergo, literature provides entertainment value.  Beyond the simple power of page-turning, literature can also make you feel emotions that you wouldn't normally encounter in your everyday life.

2) Cultural fluency.  Reading the canon grants access to a broadly shared set of ideas and experiences.  In other words, reading literature provides cultural fluency.  Eric Cartman of South Park can say, "Captain Ahab has to get his whale," and we understand why.

3) Reading ability.  Literature tends to be a far denser read than, say, TechCrunch posts.  It acts as a training program that enhances both your reading speed and your ability to glean meaning from text.

4) Ideas.  Literature grants you access to other lives and minds.  Not only does it expose you to new ideas, those ideas can serve as models for your own decision-making.  I often use principles I learned from literature and history to make better decisions.

5) Authority.  When you seek to persuade others, citing classical sources seems to have a far greater impact than, say, children's cartoons.  Rightly or wrongly, the judgment of history grants literature authority that you can leverage for your own purposes.  (Though I'll note that I'm always a sucker for any argument that is based on DuckTales)

6) Branding.  Even today, reading literature is considered a key part of being learned.  If you don't know Shakespeare, Twain, and Austen, you won't be taken seriously as an intellectual.

Of course, I would argue that entertainment is the fundamental value.  If you don't find literature entertaining, you'll end up like the millions of American high school students who can't remember much about The Great Gatsby...and were born too early to simply watch the Leonardo DiCaprio movie.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Writing Feedback Loop


Like many things in life, the feedback loop on writing is long and uncertain. When I write a post, I don't know if it will quietly sink beneath the waves, get a reaction or two, or spark a week-long furor. Sometimes, the shortest and least effort-filled posts draw the best.

As a result, only people who love to write stick with it; the extrinsic rewards are too uncertain. You have to rely on intrinsic motivation.

(originally appeared as a comment on Hunter Walk's blog)

Monday, October 06, 2014

Drivetime Consulting

For years, I've been saying that I ought to set up a drivetime consultancy.  I'm in the car for 20-30 minute chunks each day, and I'd rather be talking with people than listening to the radio.

What's held me back is the work involved.  I figured I would need to build a fancy scheduling system, and I just never seemed to have enough time.

To heck with that.  If I can tell entrepreneurs to get gritty and make things happen, I should be willing to do the same.

Therefore, I'm announcing the Chris Yeh Drivetime Consultancy.  Anyone who wants to buy a 20-minute chunk of my time for drivetime consulting (either 8:30 AM or 5:30 PM Pacific, Monday through Friday) can simply send me $100 via PayPal.  I signed up for PayPal so long ago that my PayPal address is actually my old business school email: cyeh@mba2000.hbs.edu

Once you send me the money, follow up with me via email (that same business school email still works, amazingly enough) to schedule your call in the next week or two.

If this MVP works, maybe I'll go ahead and build that fancy scheduling system.  And while $100 for 20-30 minutes may sound steep, it's a pretty hefty discount over my Clarity.fm rate of $10/minute (I'm willing to discount for people who save me from the vagaries of drivetime radio).

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Economic Growth and the Rise of Religion

An intriguing thought, trigger by this Atlantic article, "A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Being Jewish":

What is religion is now a luxury good?

Consider the following: Marx called religion the opiate of the masses.  During an era in which life was brutish, nasty, and short, focusing one's attention on a glorious afterlife made a lot of sense.

But as standards of living rose, the influence of religion waned in the developed world.  Rather than worshiping in temples, people worshiped at the altar of the vast entertainment complex (including sports and the arts).

All this makes sense if religion is an "Inferior Good" (an economic term, not a value judgment) where demand decreases as income increases.  In the 20th Century, Jewishness behaved like an inferior good; higher incomes and education were strongly correlated with Reform Judaism.

But perhaps religion is both an inferior *and* a luxury good.  As standards of living rise higher and higher (for example, even the poor now carry connected supercomputers in their pockets), the ability of religion to provide unique experiences makes it increasingly attractive to well-off consumers.

One might even consider things like Burning Man or TED as evidence of this theory; these secular events show a lot of religious characteristics, such as community and ritual.

Rather than viewing religion as a relic of the past, we might be wiser to see it as a once and future pillar of the human experience.