There are no wrong answers when it comes to the arts: Life Hacks by Charles Assisi
“You were right. I didn’t know what had hit me,” the teenaged daughter mumbled as she opened her eyes way past noon on a Sunday afternoon. I’d been waiting for her to wake up and pass verdict on South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami. I had bet in my head that it would be impossible for her to stop reading once she got started. This was a path I had trod more than 25 years ago and one I was intimately familiar with.
After recommending Night, an account of the holocaust by holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, I thought she could do with a morally ambiguous love story. Night had been a gut punch for both of us, when we first read it decades apart. I recall feeling numb for days after reading it as a teen.
The book recommendations aren’t an attempt to wean the daughter off her streaming platforms. Nor am I trying to add misery to her already tough life in these strange times. Instead, I am hoping that experiencing these works of literature, among other things, will eventually teach her to question conventional wisdom.
It all began when I stumbled upon a copy of Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky on her bedside table. This copy dated back to my younger days. Whatever could have compelled her to give up binge-watching to invest her time in this, I wondered. “My friend said it’s an amazing book,” she said.
“But what do you think of it?” I countered.
Some hemming, hawing and a pregnant pause later, she admitted that she thought Crime and Punishment terribly boring and impossible to comprehend. We both laughed. I confessed that I had attempted to read it when I was about her age, because a friend had told me the book was a classic. I hadn’t been able to get through it either, but I’d been embarrassed to admit that then. A few attempts to plough through later, I gave up.
Now, critics have it that Crime and Punishment is among the greatest accomplishments in literary history. I’m sure there’s merit to what they say. But like the famed biologist EO Wilson, I’ve come to believe the time invested in the arts must serve a purpose — entertain, inform, transport. When I was as old as my daughter is now, it was writers such as Wiesel, Murakami, the evolutionary theories of Jared Diamond, the intellectual ferocity of Richard Dawkins and the sobriety of J Krishnamurti that engaged, challenged and transformed me most.
Perhaps the times have changed, or perhaps it was always so — that some are better served by looking back while others examine what is now and still others look to the future with wild surmises and extravagant hopes. If it weren’t so, there would be just one genre of literature, and music, and film.
Some are transported by Hariprasad Chaurasia’s flute, others by the compositions of Vivaldi, still others by the poetry of Bob Dylan. I discussed this with my daughter. She nodded her head. I’m unsure if it was in agreement or in silent exasperation that her father should still hold on to the ’70s. Eventually though, she must learn to discard convention and be true to herself. Because there is a difference between trying to challenge and elevate oneself, and just following the herd. Art is not enriching if it does not resonate. If the only reason one sticks with a book or stands before a painting is because popular opinion demands it, well, one might as well spend that time listening to the tunes of Taylor Swift.