Sunday 17 June 2012

A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read - Mark Twain

So who exactly decides what makes a classic?  It's a question I raise simply because the word blocks me.  It affects my whole approach to a book. 

Labels are nearly always divisive.  The "classic" label is no different.  And carries with it such pressure. An obligation to enjoy the book at hand.  Or at least recognise its superiority.  I mean, what if you don't?  What if you don't like it at all?  What does that mean?  Are you an inferior reader?  Are you lacking something?  Will you be marked forever?  Condemned?  Cast out?

A (very) quick cyber check tells me this is a question that has been raised through the ages and has not been definitively defined.  Or finished with. Certain criteria are proffered as the generally accepted basis of a classic:  standing the test of time; universal, popular, pertinent.  A mould-breaker.  Expounding words of wisdom.

And pure enjoyment in all that?  I can't help but think that just saying something is such cannot make it so.  The reader reads to be satisfied.  If not satisfied, that book was not the right one for that reader at that moment. Maybe another time.  Maybe never. No worries.  Surely?

But my reasoning is flawed.  In all things, would it not be foolish to think that absolutely no guidance is needed? In school, there were only classics on our reading lists: Shakespeare, Hardy, Dickens, Austen.   Not for the faint-hearted, I grant you.  But I really appreciated the introduction to Shakespeare and Austen, Keats and Wordsworth. 

On the other hand, I never did get to grips with Dickens or Hardy.  Even after multiple efforts.  It was the hard slog through (what seemed to me) a quagmire of needless description that put me off.  Does that make me a bad reader?

That said, I recently helped a friend's daughter in France with preparation for her English bac.  The chosen book was a rather dark and dreary account of some youngsters in a contemporary London school: drugs, teenage pregnancies, violence, aggressive slang.  The lot.  Definitely not my idea of a classic.  Not even close.  And strangely not what I'd want my children to be taught.  If I had children. 

It felt like a betrayal.  Of all the most beautiful English literature to introduce to young hearts and minds, this was all they could come up with?  Shouldn't someone police these things?? I wanted to rage about the classics on offer, that should be offered. I did rage to the poor girl.  Hypocritical, n'est-ce pas?

So classics? For me, they can only be the books that fill my little universe with everything that satisfies me.  The good books that I love. And that I love to share.  The rights and wrongs of this choice I'll leave to the intelligentsia.  Whoever and wherever they may be.


  1. I used to have (and still do have) the same issues with the "classics".Put Dickens or Austen in front of me, and I will weep from knowing how much pain, blood, and sweat will go into reading them. The subject material is usually of no interest.

    However, put their "contemporaies" (I use the term loosely) in front of me, E.A. Poe, Verne, Stoker, Wells, and I will devour the words on the page! For me, a classic is a book that I can take in hand, and not put down again until I've finished it because of how it immerses me into the universe created, and takes my attention from all else.

    My 2 cents worth! :-)

    1. Thanks for those wise words. Worth more than 2 cents, I'd say!

  2. Ah, so good to see I am not alone! I have however been inspired (for the first time) via one of my favourite authors (John Irving) to try out a classic...Madame French no less! This, along with another novel, was mentioned in Irving's latest novel 'In One Person'. Will let you know how I get on...

    1. The best recommendations are always from those we love and admire the most. Bon courage! Do let me know how you get on.