I recently read part of Italo Calvino’s set of essays, as collected in; “Why read the classics?”, which now has me questioning;
- What are my classics?
- How do I define a classic?
- What is the general definition of a classic?
- Why are they classics?
- What makes them so?
- Who says they are?
For example, something that strikes me as…ODD is that his book, “Why read the classics?” is published by the Vintage Classics range. I wonder if he knew that, and if so, did he appreciate the irony? Having checked the front I can see that he cannot have known, he died in 1985, and the book wasn’t published in the UK until 1999.
I wonder if the fact that he was published as a ‘classic’ would tickle him, or irritate…and prove that they hadn’t read/paid attention to his essays in the first place.
Having literary of historical connotations and importance? The definition is not in the standard dictionary, this is pretty much an assumption on my part…but it doesn’t work, I mean what viable purpose could “Lorna Doone”, for example possibly serve except to bore the modern masses.
Who says they are?
A line from the film “Mona Lisa Smile” might suffice here in place of serious argument or discussion.
Teacher: “What is art?”
Student: “It’s only art when someone says it is”
Teacher: “It’s art!”
Student: “The right people!”
I was wondering, then, if this was the same for the classics, at least in essence. A bunch of white (that much is pretty evident from the obviousness of some of the selections) middle class men…I think this would cover it.
How do I define a classic?
I’m a classicist by degree, so to me, technically, the classics reference any and all things ancient Greek or Roman, which obviously in this instance is wholly beside the point and besides, that they are the classics. A classic is much harder for me to define with any degree of certainty.
I like Calvino’s sixth statement about what makes a classic in his view (After some thought, I have come to disagree on a few of his other reasoning’s, but number six at least seems applicable to my way of thinking)
“A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers”
A truer word quite possibly never said Mr. Calvino.
What are my classics?
So then, what are my classics? This isn’t about which books are my favourites…well, obviously it is to some extent or they wouldn’t be my classics. More so then, that this is about books that are faithful and treasured friends, without meaning to sound so horrifically trite about the whole affair, more so because I don’t class any book as a friend.
I realise that whilst I am a voracious reader (a term which I am not applying lightly, I assure you); at only 26.9, the sheer quantity of books that I have not read is phenomenal and outfacing to think about. (When I am roaming the library for something to read, that will appeal to me at that moment in time, the quantity of books I have to choose from is vast, yet so many do not appeal.) So, in choosing your own classics, obviously you can only work with those books that you have read. Subsequently, my list of classics is subject to change, as I age and as I read more, a concept which is hardly beyond the edge of reason and hardly difficult for me to conceive and as I add wider and even more varied titles to my ever growing lists of those that I have read.
In the name of classics, I think there are two types; those that you feel you should read out of some form of obligation because they are a classic and those that you choose to read because they are your classics. My one and only true classic (I have others, as will be detailed later, but this is key and has long-standing on its side) is Louisa M. Alcott’s “Little Women”.
Louisa M. Alcott -“Little Women” 1868
Ironically, in my mind, this is one actually classed as a classic by the general consensus of the literary world. A view which both vexes and amuses me, vexes because I don’t like the fact that by labelling it a classic you’re potentially altering the readership from those who pick up out of love and those pretentious few who ‘read the classics’ or ‘have read them’ because they are classics, not that I think there should be such segregation when it comes to reading, simply because I dislike the thought that a classic of mine is merely something to ‘rack up’ in total of classics read for others. Amuses because I don’t think Alcott would have expected to have seen her work held in such esteem, 141 years after she wrote it.
I should clarify, when I talk about the novel ‘Little Women’ I am referencing the English edition, which is the first half of the American version only. The American version is ‘Little Women’ and ‘Good Wives’ all in one book.
My mom started reading it to me (I don’t actually recall if she read she whole thing to me, or just enough to get me hooked on my own behalf) when I was 10 or 11, I liked it well enough, finished it even, but at that time I was more enamoured with Susan Coolidge’s “What Katy did” and “What Katy did at school” which I adored and still do, but don’t necessarily class them as my classics, the protagonists, Katy and Clover Carr where closer to my age than the four girls in “Little Women”, which I think is what drew me to them more at the time. Ironically ‘What Katy did’ was a book that was written purely because of the success of Alcott’s work.
So I came back to “Little Women” at about 13 or 14, when I was closer to Jo’s age, since she is the main protagonist (she starts the book at 15, Meg 16, Amy 12 and Beth 13). I read it…then re-read it, then eventually realised that there were three others in the March family set of books and read those too, which, whilst I liked them and still re-read the other three, I’ve never returned to them with the same regularity that I have “Little Women”, which is almost yearly.
“Little Women” remains my main comfort book, on multiple levels; I read it, on average, as many times as twice a year, though often only once, from being about 14/15, which makes for between 9 and 20 times…possibly more, which is a lot of page turning for one book to take. I especially like to read it at Christmas, or at the very least in winter, even though only the first handful of chapters centre around that time of year, I still consider it to be an innately Christmas/winter book, I don’t know if that is a conclusion I reached myself, or whether that is simply the time of year when I first picked it up. I read it when I’m sad and require comfort from an ‘old friend’, but also when I am happy. Finally I re-read it when I can’t make up my mind what I want to read. When I’m feeling indecisive or uninspired by anything else at that moment, I read “Little Women”
And in that, I think I have finally pinpointed my definition of a true classic
“A true classic is a book that you are always ready and willing to read, even in the face of all other options.”
This book is most certainly that for me.
Fannie Flagg – “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café”
Whilst I might not have read this one as many times, or as frequently as “Little Women”, we’re still talking in the double digits of reading times here. Likewise it is a book I turn to for comfort…though I’m not crazy about the title. However, unlike “Little Women”, due to the nature of the way this book is written, in segments of time that vacillates between; characters, time and place, both past and present, I can dip in and out of this book, in and out of the storyline to when and where I choose. Alternatively I can choose to read the segments that only relate to one of the multiple story/character arcs…at whim.
I saw the film first, which surprises me in thinking about it, for it is a strange turn of events that I would pick up a book because I have seen the film already.
I had to order the book, because WH Smith (where I did all my book and film shopping at that age…you know, back when they were still good) didn’t normally stock it, and I remember it taking a long time to get there. (That was the same year I ordered the film “Boys on the side”) I don’t recall how old I was, maybe 14? Give or take a year? I ordered the book because I enjoyed the film and because I’d fallen in love with Ruth Jamison (or Mary-Louise Parker, the jury is still out on that one), not Idgie like most other folk I know, no, I was Idgie, I loved Ruth.
Of course all of that is all highly irrelevant and I digress.
This book is one of my classics for so many reasons. Firstly it surpassed the film, I find it’s rare if I watch then read that I get as much out of the book than if I had done it the other way around. Secondly, I came to realise that I had not imagined that the relationship between Idgie and Ruth wasn’t actually something more; Flagg’s book confirmed to me that the film had ‘copped out’ on the matter.
But none of this answers the initial question, why is this book one of my classics? Every time I read this book I fall in love with Ruth just that little bit more, I get something new from the book every time, even if it is just a feeling of comfort and well-being, or if it is noticing a finer nuance of the text.
The interaction between me and the characters deepen with every reading, I am able to see the events play out more clearly in my mind, to hear and smell the things that they experience more with each re-read. That I can get something different, new or even the same thing just more intensely from this book every time I read it and that I always enjoy it no matter what my mood, makes it one of my classics.
Ultimately, it is incredibly difficult to explain to somebody else why a book is your classic. It is something so profoundly personal and is not necessarily a judgement or critical reading of the novesl you identify, but rather an emotional connection you have with the novels, so it is virtually impossible that you could ever clarify your reasoning in a satisfactory way.
There are many other novels that I have read, and re-read that come close to becoming my classics, but none have been read so much as the two above. There are many books that I turn to again and again because there was something within the pages that called to me, made me want to experience the story being told over again.
Some of my favourites which didn’t make the cut
- Strangers in Paradise – Terry Moore, this one is right on the cusp and I suspect is about to fall over the edge to become classic number three.
- Pages for you – Sylvia Brownrigg, this one is very close to making the list, but somehow hasn’t managed to make the leap, at least not yet.
- The Gospel According to Larry – Janet Tashjian
- The World Unseen – Shamim Sarif
- The Shell House – Linda Newbury
- Becoming Bobbie – RJ Stevens
- Wicked – Gregory Maguire, I don’t think I will ever quite get over my love for Elphaba
- The Perks of being a wallflower – Stephen Chbosky… though the more times I read this, the less I think it would ever make my classic list.
There are others, but when doing these things it isn’t always easy to recall such things that would merit a mention. A shame but the list might become rather large if it were so.
What are your ‘classics’? How do you define a classic?