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A few years ago, I had a discussion with a good friend of mine about the quality and merit of classical and modern literature. She argued that classical literature is well-crafted, deals with universal themes that are still relevant, and has such a cultural significance that it needs to be read. At the time, I was hesitant to agree, since I did recognize that classical literature is of high quality, but I just couldn’t grasp why something written in modern times couldn’t be of the same or higher quality. An author in modern times has had the chance to read classical works and improve upon them. So how can most classical literature be of such high quality, while a far greater proportion of modern literature needs to be filtered out to find works of similar value? This question has lingered in the back of my head for a few years now and I think that I can say now that she and I were both partially correct. There is a wide range of quality in the literature that gets filtered out over time, and since mostly the good works survive, those are the ones that we see afterward. That process takes time and therefore has not yet occurred in modern literature, which means that there is still the whole range of quality available and we have to manually filter out the lower quality works rather than letting time do its work.

Randomness gets removed over time

Classical literature is not inherently superior to modern literature, but it may seem that way because most of the poorly written works from that time period have been filtered out. It only feels like modern literature is of lower quality because we are exposed to everything. Taking a look at the bestseller shelf in an airport will leave you asking if we are truly the pinnacle of organic life. But within the mass, there are a few gems that are truly brilliant. But those are far harder to find. When we consider the sheer amount of books published per year, it becomes clear that only a small percentage of them are of exceptional quality. In the year 2011 more than 3 Million Books were published worldwide and 300.000 of those in the US alone. But how many become bestsellers? Maybe a few thousand. And how many are of outstanding quality? After a short research, the best books of 2011 were probably “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, “The Beginning of Infinity”, “Sapiens”, and “The Information”, followed by the Steve Jobs Autobiography and “Dance of Dragons”. Overall I found around 15 Books that are worth being considered “great”. Even after being very generous and assuming that I missed many, I would set the count at 50 great books. That is 50 out of 3 Million. That is less than 0.001% and even assuming that my numbers are a magnitude of that is a very small number. Now one has to figure out how many books were published in some time period that is considered to be “classics” and then check on how many of them survived. I couldn’t find exact numbers, so that is why I have to speculate here, but it seems very unlikely, that every book produced in earlier times was a masterpiece and I suspect that there was also a ratio of around 1% of excellent books. So if the ratio of masterpieces per year stayed the same (and the absolute amount maybe even went up, because there are more books written now) then why are the classics considered to be so much greater? Well, as I mentioned earlier, it is because most of the bad stuff has been filtered out. All the cliche drama, poorly written dialogue, and stories with flat characters did not stand the test of time and are not visible today anymore. The classical works that we do see have proven their quality and value and survived. On the other hand, modern literature, due to the sheer volume of books published per year, has a much higher probability of containing mediocre or poorly written works. The main difference between classical literature and modern literature, then, is not a matter of quality, but rather a reflection of the filtering process that occurred over time and the cultural impact that certain works have had.

The Lindy Effect

After the low-quality works got filtered out, it is mostly due to the Lindy Effect that they stayed alive until now. The Lindy Effect is a concept that suggests that the longer something has been around, the longer it is likely to continue to be around in the future. The idea is based on the observation that many things that have been around for a long time, such as books or technologies, tend to have a longer lifespan than newer things. The Lindy Effect can be applied to a wide range of fields, including technology, economics, and the arts. It is often used as a way to predict the future lifespan of a particular product or idea. For example, if a book has been in print for a long time, it is likely to continue to be in print for the foreseeable future. Similarly, if a technology has been around for a long time, it is likely to continue to be used and supported for a longer period of time than newer technologies.

In conclusion, while classical literature is not inherently better than modern literature, it may seem that way due to the fact that time has filtered out many of the poorly written works from that time period. This process has not yet occurred in modern literature, which means that we have to manually filter out the lower quality works rather than letting time do its work. However, this does not mean that we should not read modern literature or that it is not of high quality. In fact, there are many modern works that are of exceptional quality and that are worth reading and appreciating. Therefore, it is important to read both classical and modern literature in order to have a well-rounded understanding of literature and its evolution over time.