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SHIEKH: Personal time has to be valued, cherished

Column: From the Mountaintop

Some books make one important point and then fade into nothing. 

There are complete works which can really be distilled into a single, well-put sentence. There are complete works with no more than one well-put sentence, but that sentence would never have happened without the surplus surrounding it. 

Kurt Vonnegut graded his books, in hindsight. He thought that his A+ books were "Cat’s Cradle," "Mother Night" and "Slaughterhouse-Five." It was not that the other novels were crumby, it was that he knew most of his works were not masterpieces — they had flaws, dead ends, dead characters and a shortage of well-put sentences.

As lives go on, there is only so much time for us to read books and only so much time for us to waste on bad ones.

Economically, this boils down to scarce resources with a bit of supply and demand.

Malcolm Gladwell might call these special sentences sticky, as in they are prone to being remembered.

In my terms, this is a bandwidth problem. Bandwidth is, as I define it, a metric of one’s useful or productive time and energy. It is organic, flexible and subjective. This is a bandwidth problem because we have a ceiling on the number of books we can read. This ceiling is determined by how much we like reading, how long it takes to read a book and interest in each individual book.

Part of why this issue interests me is because I like to write from a bottom-up perspective. Good sentences can be hard to come by. A novel delivers crystallizing sentences only occasionally. Most of a textbook is explanation and practice. Some of the most important equations of the past 3000 years have used a dozen or less characters.

A bottom-up perspective is that each sentence has to be polished, edited, configured and modulated until the fat is removed and the idea is fully exposed. 

A bottom-up perspective, in terms of writing, is that each paragraph delivers the idea clearly and only the necessary explanation is included. Sometimes that means only delivering the crystallizing sentence and leaving readers to deconstruct it on their own.

There is value to the opposite opinion as well. Minimalism has value, but maximalism does too.

On this topic, a maximalist might say that the rest of the novel is essential to delivering that well-put sentence. They might want to note that if the novelist were only to expose the idea and throw away every bit of text it is couched in, it would be neglecting context and a deeper and fuller understanding of the ideas at hand. 

A maximalist might say that there is beauty in filling the covers of a book, because it provides every opportunity to illuminate the issue in a new way or to connect to another issue. They might also think that due to the subjectivity of art, what one person considers unnecessary another might see as the absolute best part of the book. 

I think that recommended reading lists can be valuable. Once one’s own list of books, movies, TV shows and YouTube videos runs out, good reading lists can be helpful to find books worth reading. It is never fully clear whether a book picked up and perused at random is going to turn out to feel worthwhile or worthless. Recommendations can help decrease the chance of wasted bandwidth. Book reviews can fill the same space, though lists are less prone to spoiling endings. 

The lesson of this idea is simple: Make the most out of the time you devote to your hobbies. The broader lesson is to make the most of your time. My system of figuring out the quality of a piece of literature is different from those of others. I would recommend forever putting down the books that just are not good enough. I would recommend reading classics, books that have withstood the test of many generations of readers. Mainly I would recommend looking for the books that make you feel very deeply and very clearly for others. 

When I read, I enjoy references to other works, fields or phenomenon. I like that Herman Melville references Shakespeare in "Moby-Dick." Somebody else might dislike intertextuality entirely. 

My practical use of this lesson is likely going to be different than that of another. 

Mustafa Shiekh is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in public health. His column "From the Mountaintop" runs on alternate Thursdays.


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