Sunday, March 28, 2010

What Do We Mean By Classic Anyway?

classics month button

I'm so happy that Colleen from the fabulous Bookphilia is here today to talk about classics.  As soon as I started thinking about having a Classics Month, I knew Colleen was someone I wanted to guest post--she's a bookseller, has a Ph.D. in English Lit., is crazy smart, and reads way more classics voluntarily than I ever will, so she knows what of she speaks!  Welcome, Colleen.

What are the Classics, and why should we read them anyway?

If asked, I think most of us could easily rattle off a list of Classic books – how about A Tale of Two Cities, Wuthering Heights, Hamlet, and Moby Dick? We can also, just as easily, come up with a list of Classic authors – let’s say, Shakespeare, two of the three Brontes, Thackeray, and Chaucer.

But what makes a Classic classic? The above examples suggest that age matters. And durability is important, after all. Classics, at their most basic level, are simply books which have remained widely read well beyond and outside their original milieu and context. Within this definition there are two subsets of the Classic. First, there are those Classic texts being investigated in classrooms and scholarly books and articles, but which are also still being snapped up by those with no educational affiliations, people who just want to read good reads that also make them use their brains a little bit.

On the other hand, there are the Classic books read almost exclusively in educational settings. These books are Classics because they represent some major moment in literary history. Chaucer’s works are very readable but they’re important because they were the first major English works written in English; they turned the tide towards writing in the vernacular, and that shift defined English literature ever after. But many of the landmark Classics are not what would now be considered readable; they don’t possess that certain something, seen in the works of Dickens especially (in my view), that manages to make the alien aspects of a context long gone seem both familiar and knowable. I recently read such a classic – Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.

The Castle of Otranto (1764) is not just “A Gothic Tale” as its subtitle tells us – it is the gothic tale that both defined and launched the gothic novel which was to become so widely written and read in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Anyone interested in the history and development of the English novel, in the supernatural in western literature, in 18th century English literature would miss a major milestone of both experience and crucial information if they were to skip this book.

And yet, it is not widely read outside academic circles now. The Castle of Otranto is, however, widely taught because it is useful as hell – not because like, say, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, that it is both useful and a joy to read and teach. The Castle of Otranto is sort of readable, but that’s in part because it’s only 100 pages long. It possesses none of the familiar yet alien contextual elements that Dickens’ work does – it’s pure alien, through and through. As a tale of horror, there is not one thing in it that would come close to either frightening or titillating any modern reader.

Gigantism, portents that lead to nothing, a talking skeleton that keeps its distance and quickly disappears – all would be very either boring or straight up laughable to a reading audience used to literary thrillers like The Turn of the Screw or, at the lower end of the spectrum, films about maniacs who cut your limbs off after trapping you in their hostel. Ghosts and the mere suggestion of divine punishment make no real sense in our cynical, secular world. Insanity and physical maiming, on the other hand, make horrifying sense to us, but Walpole wasn’t going there.

So, I guess my first question is, knowing that there are two streams of Classic literature that often have little in common, does the term still make sense? And what do we want to do with it anyway? What is the value in making a point of reading Classic literature for its own sake, if we don’t read all of it, good and bad? This last question I ask for all of you (and I’m one of them) who has at some point, or often, said to yourself “I should read more Classic literature.”

The “should” issue is a very different one from that of desire. To feel you’d prefer to read Dickens today rather that Dan Brown is not at all the same thing as feeling you should do so. In these shoulds there is a perceived cultural value in reading the things that have long been considered Classic literature. The problem with this perceived cultural value is that it is unaccompanied by anything that proves its correctness; it’s a tautology, a statement which proves its validity merely by restating itself, i.e., Shakespeare is amazing because he’s Shakespeare. (I wish I were making this phrase up, but as a former prof and a book-seller who likes to eavesdrop on people, I have heard such specious assertions more times than I’d like to remember.)

You see, I think we need to ask ourselves what we mean by Classic literature now, and why we mean it, for the label itself suggests there’s something different – more demanding of respect, perhaps – than the light reads we take on beach vacations. Whatever the source of this sense of duty, I think there’s something quite positive beneath our potentially shaming inclination towards the “should” in reading.

I think what it means, quite improbably in a world in which things move so quickly and patience is becoming an archaism of both language and living, is that a large portion of the population not only believes in literary art, but also in art which must be enjoyed slowly and often revisited. Or, in the case of the less readable stream of Classics done primarily in school – we nod respectfully at a literary past which has led irrevocably to a very rich literary present, busy with producing a batch of books which will someday also be Classics. We insert ourselves into a community of readers that spans broad time periods and crosses continents, just like those very best of the best Classics – and that’s worth celebrating.


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