Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Are Classics A Lost Cause?

Are classics a lost cause? Were they ever viable off the life support of public school reading lists? What IS a classic, anyways?

Confession: Despite being a bookshelver and an English major, I despise most classics. Loathe, actually. To me, "classic" meant some boring, incomprehensible book that some hoity-toity professor with tenure decided was worth time boring us to death over. Usually, such a book involved some wacked-out analysis of feminism, incest, Freud, or class warfare. (Why no, I'm not bitter and disillusioned, why do you ask?)

However, I realized that such a definition would not serve for this discussion, so I did a little digging.

Once upon a time, a French literary critic named Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, hereafter referred to as Charlie, asked the same question we are asking now - "What Is A Classic?" His answer?
“The idea of a classic implies something that has continuance and consistence, and which produces unity and tradition, fashions and transmits itself, and endures…. A true classic, as I should like to hear it defined, is an author who has enriched the human mind, increased its treasure, and caused it to advance a step; who has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered; who has expressed his thought, observation, or invention, in no matter what form, only provided it be broad and great, refined and sensible, sane and beautiful in itself; who has spoken to all in his own peculiar style, a style which is found to be also that of the whole world, a style new without neologism, new and old, easily contemporary with all time.” (Wikipedia gathered the quote for me.)
For all of you thinking TL;DR (that's "too long; didn't read" for you not hip in the know), the summary is that a classic is something that endures through time, that teaches the reader a valuable lesson about himself or the world around him, and continues to instill such learning and arouse passion through the course of time.

Here, I think, is where our lit classes often fail us, because rarely are children shown how great such a book can be. Instead they're told, "It's a classic; therefore, it's good. Read it. You'll like it."

When was the last time you saw a parent force the kid to eat a food and the kid reply, "Gee, Mom, I'm sure glad you made me try those asparagus tips! They're awfully tasty!"

Just about never.

When kids come into my store for classics, it's because a teacher has given them a reading list. They're being forced to read books that are presented to them as "classic," which probably brings up the same caustic definition in their minds that I presented at the very beginning of this post. They don't want to read these boring old books where everyone talks funny! And by "kids," I mean everyone from elementary-schoolers to grad students.

If a classic is to have a chance at all with kids, two things must happen. First, I believe it should be updated in one way or another. Now, I don't mean all copies of Hamlet should be replaced with Lion King storybooks. But which book do you think a reader is most likely to pick up?
Or this?
Second, the reader must be allowed to choose. The books I loved most as a kid were the ones I found myself - the classic Beauty and the Beast, the full and unabridged Treasure Island, And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. I picked them, not teachers or professors. Even if schools aren't willing to give kids full autonomy, partial autonomy is still possible. Some schools, instead of giving kids a list of ten books they must read, instead give the kids a list of thirty and tell them to pick ten. The kids pick things that interest them, the teachers still get to feed their students classics, and who knows? Maybe the kids will even start swapping books with fellow classmates, because what's more contagious than a good book (just ask Harry Potter and Hunger Games)?

In my opinion, so many classics hang around because some old fuddy-duddy says they're classics and no one bothered to question it. Or, more likely, they were fresh and innovative for the time, but that time has passed (more on that in a moment). So what are we stuck with? James Joyce's Ulysses. Everything by Ayn Rand. Proust. That awful American Colonial novel that even my professor admitted to hating. Books that may be innovative for their time, may say something deep and meaningful and philosophical (thereby satisfying Charlie), but that in the end are atrocious to actually read for pleasure!

I mean, does anyone ever toss Ulysses to a friend and say, "Hey, this book has great characters, a killer plot, and man, what a twist ending!"? No! Yet that's what we evaluate other books on, books that aren't protected under the sanctimonious label of "classic."

Charlie had a glimmer of this himself when he quoted Goethe (and I'm quoting Wikipedia quoting Charlie quoting Goethe):
“Ancient works are classical not because they are old, but because they are powerful, fresh, and healthy.”
That's the key, isn't it?

Our society's list of classics must be allowed to evolve and morph. We've done some work in pulling away from the pitfalls of the Western Canon, which tended to favor dead white guys. Now we have diversity in the form of Virginia Woolf, Salman Rushdie, Eileen Chang, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, N.K. Narayan, and others.

But so many of these (to me, anyways) still glorify structure over story. That's why I inwardly cheer every time a student comes in to buy Hunger Games or Holes or another "modern classic" for school. These are books that revel in quality writing, spectacular characters, and riveting plot. They also fulfill Charlie's qualifications for being labeled a classic. They make us think, they fill us with passion, and they reach us lessons about ourselves and our world.

So no, I do not think classics are a lost cause, provided that they are neither pushed down our throats merely for the sake of being a so-called classic nor are allowed to malinger in complacency by never-updating and never presenting itself anew.

But enough of my thoughts. What do YOU think? How do you define a classic? What do you think is wrong or right with the way classics are presented to the general public today? How would you change the status quo? And what books would you give the label of "classic" to?