Back in August 2012, I signed up for the Classics Club challenge: 50 books to read within five years. It took me a while to come up with my list of books. I went for a mixture of books I had always meant to read but never got around to and titles that came up frequently on recommended reading lists. I also gave thought to filling in gaps in my previous reading – ones that people always seem to talk about but had never been on my radar.
I’ve changed the list around a few times but what I didn’t do in 2012 and haven’t done since is given any thought to what I mean by the ‘classic’. It wasn’t until I came across an essay by Italio Calvino, the Italian author and journalist, that I started to give this any serious thought. And what I’ve realised is that I have books on my list that really don’t fit – they may be old and popular but that doesn’t make them classic.
Calvino’s essay Why Read the Classics starts with a 14 point definition of the term:
- classics are books about which you usually hear people saying “I’m rereading….” never “I’m reading”
- classics are books which constitute a treasured experience for this who have read and loved them, but they remain just as rich an experience who reserve the chance to read them when they are in the best condition to enjoy them
- classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable, and when they hid in the layers of memory disguised as the individual’s or the collective consciousness
- a classic is a book which which each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading
- a classic is a book which even when e reading it for the first time gives the sense of something we have read before
- a classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers
- classics are books which come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations and trailing behind them the traces they have left in the culture or cultures through which they have passed
- a classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off
- classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them
- a classic is a term given to any book which comes to represent whole universe
- ‘your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define ourself in relation or even in opposition to it
- a classic is a work that comes before other classics, but those who have read other classics first immediately recognise its place in the genealogy of classic works
- a classic is a work which regulates the noise of the present to a background hum which at the same time the classics cannot exist without
- a classic is a work which resists as background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway
Some of these resonated more with me than others. Re-reability (points 1, 4 and 6) is a key one for me when I think about those ‘classics’ I’ve enjoyed the most. They are usually ones that have withstood multiple readings – my favourite has to be Middlemarch by George Eliot, with Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening – three books that every time I read afresh I find some new aspct I had missed before.
I don’t quite ‘get’ points 13 and 14 so if any of your brighter sparks can shine a light on those it will be helpful.
Point 11 about a book being a personal response also struck a chord. The best reading I’ve experienced is where I feel the text is not simply going in part of the brain and out of another without any thinking in between. I love books which make me think, make me stop and question whether it accords with my views or with which I disagree o which cause me to challenge preconceptions. A perfect example about engaging so strongly with a novel that it was an emotional journey was Petals of Blood by the African author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. There were times it made me despair and other times it made me angry at the way in which politicians and leaders in some of the poor countries ignore the needs of their populations while feathering their own nests, and our western governments condone this by giving them yet more grant aid. Watching tt coverage last week of the UK Prime Minister’s visit to India I got very irritated by seeing displays of the country’s air force put on for her benefit. The money used on fuel would more have been better spent on providing clean drinking water in rural villages.But then this is a country where they are proud they have a space program yet not millions of people without a roof over their head. Yes I know this is a soap box moment but it shows that the best novels – the classics if you like – are ones to which as Calvino says “you cannot remain indifferent”.
Who decides what is a classic and what is not? Sometimes the term is far too quickly applied – it was used for example not long after Harry Potter hit the streets. But it was too early to really apply any critical judgement or to determine if it did stand the test of time. The term was really used just because it was selling fast and had grabbed kids’ imaginations. But popularity alone is not enough to label a text classic – if it was then we’d have Fifty Shades of Grey take that label (heaven forbid).
So it has to be a novel that will stand up to critical re-assessment and evaluation – there has to be quality element and an ability for new layers of meaning to be located (as Calvino indicates in point 8). Feminist and post-colonialism criticism has done a lot in this regard to bring older and forgotten texts back to our attention (The Awakening is a case in point in fact). But sometime I wonder if they are looking for evidence to fit a theory and trying desperately to find something new to say?
There are of course other definitions of ‘classic”. It’s a question that has occupied some of most esteemed literary minds from T.S Eliot to Mark Twain. Alan Bennett, English playwright and author, gave a rather tongue in cheek response when he said that his definition of a classic was
… a book everyone is assumed to have read and often thinks they have read themselves
Guardian writer Chris Cox commented in 2009 that
that there are actually two kinds of “classic novels”: The first are those we know we should have read, but probably have not. These are generally the books that make us burn with shame when they come up in conversation… The second kind, meanwhile, are those books that we’ve read five times, can quote from on any occasion, and annoyingly push on to other people with the words: “You have to read this. It’s a classic.”
This one from Richard J. Smith’s The “I Ching”: A Biography had the benefit of being short and rather more considered:
First, the work must focus on matters of great importance, identifying fundamental human problems and providing some sort of guidance for dealing with them. Second, it must address these fundamental issues in ‘beautiful, moving, and memorable ways,’ with ‘stimulating and inviting images.’ Third, it must be complex, nuanced, comprehensive, and profound, requiring careful and repeated study in order to yield its deepest secrets and greatest wisdom. One might add that precisely because of these characteristics, a classic has great staying power across both time and space.
What does all this mean for my Classics Club list? I’ve made changes in the past but a more radical re-think is on the cards. I have already removed:
- A Parisian Affair and other stories by Guy de Maupassant published in 1880s. I will probably find something else by him as a replacement. Recommendations and suggestions welcomed
- The Charioteer by Mary Renault.I will read something by her at one point but I don’t see how it fits the criteria of re-readibility and lending itself to new meanings
- The Invisible Man by H G Wells published in 1897 – maybe it would be a considered one of he best in the genre but it doest seem stack up against the other titles on my list
- Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim published in 1922. I added this only this year after reading other people’s reviews. But on reflection, as good as they made it seem, it doesn’t feel like a classic.
- Removed The Way we Live Now by Anthony Trollope published in 1875 and Dr Thorne from 1858. I think I have these on the list only because I was part through his series. They will go into my Trollope project instead.
I’ll probably take out one of the two Joseph Conrad’s on the list – I already have read his landmark novel Heart of Darkness so the two left probably are not at the same level. I may add a few more yet but will be very choose – just because a book is considered a classic doesn’t mean I will enjoy it. Hearing about Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov and its use of satanic figures and fantasy, I know it will not appeal to me. I would be reading it simply to say as Chris Cox indicates that I have ticked a box. And that doesn’t seem to be a good approach.
I’m likely to therefore leave out titles that other readers consider essential classics. But this is my list so I get to choose….. Having said that if you think there are serious gaps, do let me know. And also tell me what your definition of a classic is….