As I’ve been diving more into the world of classic books I’ve had a few thoughts rumbling around in my head.
What makes a classic book a classic anyway?
If I asked you to name 5 classic books, they’d probably come off of a list like this one.
You know the Pride and Prejudice, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick’s of the world. Those are by all measures, by any list, considered classics.
Is it because it’s awesome or groundbreaking? Or because it’s stood the test of time?
Maybe that’s the same thing.
But maybe it’s more that the ‘powers that be’ deemed this book is better than that book and people just went along with it. And from there, it snowballed.
As always, when literary questions come to my mind, I turn to Brain Pickings for an answer. Of course, there is a post on this very topic called Italo Calvino’s 14 Definitions of What Makes a Classic.
I think my favorite definition is this:
The classics are those 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 (or just in the languages and customs) through which they have passed.
To me, that just feels right.
A classic is something that is likely old and has been interpreted a million times over a million places, leaving a trail in our culture.
If I make a joke to any friend about someone being a “Mr. Darcy” they know exactly what I mean. Even though Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice over 200 years ago, it still has a place in society (thanks, Bridget Jone’s Diary).
But, that doesn’t mean my own journey with the classics have been a cake walk of deep feelings and awakenings, in fact, it’s more like the opposite.
A Break for Some Middle English
The one that best describes my own struggle with the classics is more like this:
The classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable, and when they hide in the layers of memory disguised as the individual’s or the collective unconscious.
I always had an issue with classic books when I read them in high school. I rarely ‘got’ what it was about them that made them amazing.
That’s not to say anything against the people who taught me. Some of the best educators I had in my educational lifetime were my AP English teachers who assigned and guided us through these books.
They loved literature, I had one teacher who read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales aloud in Middle English.
Incidentally, when I was searching for videos on Middle English sounds like (for the untrained ear), I came across this absolute gem autotuned slow jam version.
Once you get that out of your head…
So yeah, we’re were talking about how I had trouble ‘getting’ classic books. As I got older I just stopped reading them. I figured if I was missing the point of these books, with full instruction, then maybe I should stick to non-fiction.
But, I actually think it has more to do with my second thought about classic books.
FOMO: Book Edition
Maybe 16-18 is just far too young to read them.
I get that we’re sort of stuck a paradox here when it comes to this. In truth, I do think reading a classic book in high school, for many kids at least, might just be too young. We haven’t had the depth of experience that helps us to relate or feel the deeper meaning.
At 17, I hadn’t really experienced love or death or overcoming odds besides in connection to winning a soccer game or passing an exam. I wasn’t looking for anything beyond what was written on the page.
But at the same time, there’s another problem: reading is on a dangerous downward trend. A recent poll from Pew found that 26% of American’s hadn’t read a book in the last calendar year. Compare that to the graph below:
So it feels like the danger is unless you’re motivated to read these books later in life, chances are, you’re not going to read them (or anything) later.
Admittedly, I’ve rarely been someone to read the same book twice. In the past, I’ve stuck to the idea that there are just too many books out there for me to read. There’s so much to learn. If I re-read something I’m missing out on the potential of something else.
But as I’ve gotten older, I think the opposite might be true. Readers who I really admire are those who don’t plow through books. They slow down, absorb them, take notes, and deeply learn.
You can’t do that reading a book just once.
Now, that’s not to say I’m looking to only re-read the books I’ve read. But, it’s opened my mind to re-reading books from the past. Especially those classics from my high school days that stuck in my mind.
Ready for a Re-Read
I remember loving The Scarlet Pimpernel, A Tale of Two Cities, and The Lord of the Flies.
If I read them again, would that change? Would something deeper be discovered as to why I loved them? Or was it the 17 year old me was in a mental and emotional place that was ripe for these books that featured lots of action and adventure?
I remember absolutely hating Catch-22 (ironically my sister’s favorite book), despising Daisy Buchannan in The Great Gatsby, and viscerally disliking The Glass Menagerie.
Back then, that meant something was wrong with the book. Now, I get that having such a strong reaction (good or bad) is actually a great thing. The author succeeded. I was driven to an emotion that years later I still feel when I think about it.
It makes me think these are the books I should re-read too. Maybe the dislike would stick, or maybe I’d have a better understanding of why I felt that way.
As I go through my own reader education this year, I plan on re-reading some of those classics. It will help test out my theory that they might be wasted on the young.
What do you think?