Stop Reading Books, Start Reading Literature

I used to read a lot self help books. I figured I could learn how to manage myself and my direct reports better by reading, so I read books like Think and Grow Rich and Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and How to Win Friends and Influence People. I also read popular business books like Good to Great and The Tipping Point and Who Moved My Cheese. Then a couple of years ago I made a New Years resolution to read a classic piece of literature. I picked up Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and I’ve been reading classics ever since.

I did learn a lot of practical advice when reading non-fiction business books. I learned a business vocabulary, and I kept up with the new and popular management models. But I also read a lot of stinkers. I began to find business books shallow, more or less describing common sense. I also found books on the same subject with different prescriptions for action. I was looking for something more.

Literature is about the human heart. Reading Twain’s dialog, Melville’s symbolism, and Tolstoy’s omniscient narration is an emotional experience. It’s this emotional response to great works of art that inspires people. The great masters of literature write stories that illuminate the spectrum of human emotion and deepen the readers’ understanding of the human condition.

After reading Hemingway, I wondered what was more valuable to a business manager. Was it better to read a practical book about the latest approach to a business problem? Or was it better to read a timeless work of art that would deepen the manager’s understanding of the human heart? Do managers lead and inspire employees through practicality or through the heart?

Reading literature is harder than reading the often straight-forward rat-tat-tat style of business non-fiction. For starters, many of the books are longer, and the language is tougher, which makes for slow progress. It takes focus, patience and commitment to stick with a seven hundred plus piece. Coincidently, focus, patience, and commitment are useful skills for a manager to practice.

Then there’s the symbolism. Sometimes the real meaning of a book is cleverly hidden, and the reader has to decipher the author’s allegory. Things aren’t always black and white in literature. The reader has to figure of what is really going on, what the author’s intentions are. Things aren’t always black and white in the real world either.

After reading a couple of classics on my own, I discovered that comedian Norm MacDonald is actually a literature buff. He’s an expert on the subject and he hosts an online book club on Twitter (@normsbookclub). Norm said in an interview that there were plenty of lousy books written in all periods of history, not just today. But we now know which books are enduring. Norm says that the world has already shown us exactly where to find the gold bars. So why should we waste any of our time sifting through dirt?

Here’s the best news yet – the great works of literature are FREE. Copyright laws expire 80 years after publication or 70 years after the author’s death. If you have an eReader like a Kindle, or a smart phone like an iPhone, or a tablet like the iPad you have access to more free literature than you could read in a lifetime.

I suspect that even the best non-fiction business books of our time will not be read one hundred years from now. Business changes too rapidly for one of today’s books to be a relevant piece of the zeitgeist in the future. The human heart, however, will not change, and the great masters’ works which describe the human heart with such beauty, will always be waiting.