Rick Rubin on submerging in great works

The benefits may surprise you

Jim Esch
3 min readJun 10

I’ve been reading The Creative Act: A Way of Being, a set of meditations on the creative process by Rick Rubin, the famed record producer. I received the book as a kind gift from a friend and have been lapping it up like a thirsty dog.

The Creative Act

In one of the early chapters titled “Submerge (The Great Works),” Rubin speaks of the need for “broadening our practice of awareness” as a choice fueled by a hunger to consume beautiful things that help us feel more deeply.

We’re drawn to greatness like plants angling towards sunlight. One pathway towards this end is to submerge oneself in the canon (books, cinema, art, music, architecture, etc.).

Rubin rightly admits that the canon is constantly shapeshifting. This is a good thing. It’s not a monolithic bourgeois bucket list. Nevertheless exposure to great works as they have been generally defined in our cultural moment “opens doors of possibility.”

As we seek to broaden our creative awareness, so we can see more possibilities for art, he suggests a habit shift that makes a lot of sense to me:

Instead of reading the news feed each day, why not try reading classics every day for a year and watch what happens.

I don’t know if Rubin performed the experiment himself, but he claims that after a year you will have “a more honed sensitivity for recognizing greatness.” He’s not simply talking about great art. We will also become more attuned to greatness in friendship, conversations, and our thinking.

“All these aspects affect our ability to distinguish good from very good, very good from great. They help us determine what’s worthy of our time and attention. Because there’s an endless amount of data available to us and we have a limited bandwidth to conserve, we might consider carefully curating the quality of what we allow in.”

I couldn’t agree more. This resonates with my own attitude about reading classics. I don’t read great books to be elite and snobby. The point isn’t to show off what great taste I’ve cultivated and become the world’s most interesting man. It’s more accurate to say that encountering the classics keeps me humble in the face of greatness.