Reading the Classics Will Make You Better at Gaming


There's a point in Jane Austen's Emma in which Emma is caught in a carriage with Mr. Elton who begins to "actually make violent love to her." I was 13 or 14-years-old when I read that line, and I had to put the book down for a moment and collect myself. I couldn't believe there was a rape in Jane Austen; why does everyone only talk about the tea parties? Of course, once I started reading again, I realized that Mr. Elton was just talking to Emma about his feelings for her, and the rest of the book really was about tea parties and picnics and advantageous marriages. My point being that the classics are not necessarily very gritty or realistic. My point also being that they don't always get right to the point.

Now, I like Jane Austen, and Tolstoy. I like Shakespeare and the Bronte sisters and I read Moby-Dick and I liked that too. But the classics aren't exactly breaking news, and I'm never sure that they are giving me any particular life skills. Reading classic novels, I frequently feel guilty that I am not working my way through some text on how to help the poor, or stop global warming. Aside from padding my ego, what is the point of reading the classics?

The classics might not teach you anything terribly relevant about politics (unless you have strong feelings about freeing 19th century Russian serfs), but they have some other things going for them; things like game theory.

A century and a bit before John von Neumann's 1944 paper Theory of Games and Economic Behavior Jane Austen was apparently putting those theories into play in her novels. But maybe you aren't into theories of strategic action, and no one really noticed Austen was doing that until recently; is there anything else?

Well, how do you feel about brain improvement and better ways to think? Reading challenging novels makes our brains work. We need to assess the text, reach for context to understand little used words, and plumb the depths of figurative language. It is brain exercise.

If sneaky smart game theory, thinking better, and exercising the brain aren't enough for you there is always that Holy Grail: social connection, and even social skills. Reading books, though it seems like an isolating activity, actually provides the feeling of belonging to something bigger, and allows us to identify with the characters presented in stories the way we connect with groups in life. Not only that, but it allows us to experience the mental and emotional life of characters, and even stimulates parts of the brain used for smell and movement. In many ways, novels allow us to experience life with more depth, or even study social situations that we can encounter in our daily lives.

If you aren't into Victorian tea parties, don't worry, as I've written before the classics can also be as gruesomely violent as any action film, so get out there and read.