(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
The Art of War (~500 BC)
By Sun Tzu
Book #27 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
More of a technical manual than a piece of general literature, The Art of War is a field guide of sorts by famed Chinese military leader Sun Tzu, written it's believed sometime in the 6th century BC (during the period when China was coming together as a unified empire for the first time in history), as a way of instructing other commanders how to have as much success on the battlefield as he had had. (And please know that there's a debate among scholars as well regarding whether Sun Tzu even wrote this book by himself, or if like many other classics from antiquity this isn't in fact a sly compilation, gathering up the best thoughts back then from amongst a whole group of military strategists.) Now of course let's not forget that Sun Tzu was a Taoist as well, so of course his particular advice is going to be Taoist in nature, a very important thing to understand in order to really "get" this book; he sees the best war, for example, as the one that's never actually fought, because you've already dismantled the enemy's forces through sabotage and cunning to the point where they can't put up a resistance in the first place. And so it is throughout this extremely slim book (which in fact is more like a long magazine article) -- chapter after chapter of surprisingly spiritual text concerning the fine art of getting what you want, even when other people are actively trying to stop you from doing so.
The argument for it being a classic:
It's a 2,500-year-old book still being read and studied on a daily basis, argue its fans; what more do you want? And in the meanwhile, it's influenced nearly every Western military leader since first being translated into a Romantic language (French) in 1782, racking up a whole list of self-declared admirers from Napoleon to Norman Schwarzkopf. And if this weren't enough, starting in the 1980s it also gained a whole new life as a surprisingly apt if not Machiavellian guide to the corporate business world, best typified by symbol-of-yuppie-greed Gordon Gekko from Oliver Stone's fantastic movie Wall Street, who is constantly walking around quoting from it as a way to justify his monstrous, inhuman actions. If all of this isn't enough to safely consider a book a classic, ask its fans, what is?
The argument against:
The case against this being a classic seems to be one used a lot with books over a thousand years old; that even if that book turns out to be historically important (and it usually does), it might be better at this point to actually study the book and how it affected society, not read the book itself for pleasure anymore. Always remember, that's part of how I'm defining "classic" here in this CCLaP 100 series, is not just how important that title has been to human history, but also whether it's worth literally sitting down and reading it page-for-page yourself, no matter if you have any specific interest in that book's subject or not. If it's yes on the former but no on the latter, as critics of this book claim, then by my definition it's not a classic, but rather simply a historically important book that should be studied by the general public but not necessarily read.
So let me start by admitting how surprisingly readable this is for being 2,500 years old, and that it really does translate metaphorically to the business world surprisingly elegantly; after all, since it's a guide to war written by a Taoist, it's more of a symbolic examination of how to get out of life what you want the most, even in the face of tough opposition, with advice that is surprisingly relevant to the modern world even when he's talking about the mechanics of medieval Asian warfare. (Just for one example, near the beginning he talks in one paragraph about how a successful commander will literally steal the food of their enemy, both to sap the enemy's strength and to avoid the burden of having to carry all that food to battle themselves; this may not seem to have much relevance to the modern business world at first, until you stop and think about it in terms of stealing talent from your competitors, literally the intellectual "food" nourishing their "army" of goods and services competing against your own.)
That said, though, I think ultimately I'm going to have to side with the critics this time; that unless you're a military commander or corporate raider yourself, most people's eyes are going to quickly gloss over while trying to read this book, merely after the first few pages. Now, don't get me wrong, I definitely think this should be a primer for people who are getting into the profession themselves; this should for sure be a must-read not only for soldiers, for example, but also the politicians in charge of those soldiers' budgets. But this is a perfect example of the surprisingly complicated process of determining whether a book is a classic or not, the entire reason I started this essay series in the first place; because unless competitive strategy actually is your business, most people will find it more rewarding to spend their time reading up on how this book has affected history, and of the circumstances in ancient China that led to it getting written in the first place. There's really only one major lesson in The Art of War for a non-military general audience to get -- that most battles are won based on how well one can surprise the enemy, usually by deceiving them using their own weaknesses (to act incompetent when the enemy is haughty, for example, threatening when they're meek, picking them off at the edges when they outnumber you, destroying their supply lines when they're far from home); for those not interested in the nitty-gritty of how to actually accomplish such things, though, there's actually a lot more to be learned by studying how such a thing has been attempted over the centuries, making the book certainly important but not necessarily a classic.
Is it a classic? No
The next four books scheduled to be read:
Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott
Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad