Monday, August 27, 2012

What makes a classic?

    1.    A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.
    2.    A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before.
    3.    Classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them.
In 1991's Why Read the Classics?, Italo Calvino has 11 more observations on books that stand the test of time. Yet even in literature departments of universities, authors fall in and out of fashion and definitions of greatness fluctuate. "One man's Mede is another man's Persian" as Dorothy Parker once quipped. To take two stylistic extremes, one person may read Moby Dick or Heart of Darkness and be enthralled, whereas said reader might pick up Jane Austen and be distinctly underwhelmed. Are there any classics you loathed? Any recently discovered ones you'd like to go to bat for? Whether literary or popular, you'll find many affordable and well-designed literary classics in our stacks, including novels by Henry James, Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Joseph Conrad, Henry Fielding, Thomas Hardy, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Gustave Flaubert, Victor Hugo, Elizabeth Gaskell, Kate Chopin, and more. And unlike e-readers, you can even risk reading these paperbacks in the bath!
Who read Classics Illustrated as a kid? I couldn't get enough of them! (Well, as much as my allowance would allow.) Below, Homer and Twain get the CI treatment.




22 comments:

  1. What makes a classic? Great topic today:) I'm always pushing Hardy's "Jude The Obscure." As far as loathing "classics", I have no use for either Hawthorne or Faulkner. Also, James Joyce's novels are too unapproachable and pretentious, in my opinion. "The Dubliners" should be the one on all the lists...

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  2. What do you like about Jude? So many books, so little time. People should read what they enjoy, yeah?

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    1. It's socially critical and progressive. Also, it's uber-bleak. For whatever reason, I'm drawn to those... How about our Blogger? The readers want to know:) Your favorites? Least favorite?

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    2. Did you like "Madame Bovary"? It is also socially critical and progressive, pessimistic and bleak as you like.

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    3. Colm Tóibín recently touted Sylvia Townsend Warner and Elizabeth Taylor on the New Yorker's fiction podcast. I'm very drawn British women writers like them. Also Alice Munro. I want to read more of Dickens, but where is the TIME??

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  3. Funny you should start by mentioning Italo Calvino. He was fairly successful in his lifetime, but he doesn't get mentioned often enough these days. He cranked out classics like it was simplicity itself: If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, Cosmicomics, Invisible Cities, The Baron in the Trees…Calvino's works were unfailingly imaginative, intelligent, lyrical. A thousand years from now, his books won't require footnotes.

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    1. One for our "A" list—thanks for putting him forward.

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  4. How simple the question--are there classics you loathed?--and how fraught with peril for the former Mod. Lit. Crit. student! I began reading fiction like Will Rogers-- never met an author I didn't like, but I was transformed by a Babel of critics into a snarling, suspicious, cornered wildcat who wasn't sure whom to scratch.
    Case in point: The Turn of the Screw--a ghost story, right? But the problems multiply for those double majoring in Psych 101. Is the narrator a near-psychotic governess or a well-meaning witness to a horrible plight? Whether you like the story or not depends upon your interpretation. After finding enough pebbles to follow in both directions, the exhausted reader (me) sits down and decides: The author has failed. In pursuit of a tango disguised as a rhumba, he has tripped on his own feet. And I am bored by advocates of both persuasions.
    For all his contempt of Poe, James has flopped in the same genre. His own insincerity has kept him from following the straight path to the reader's affections, sympathies, or fears. He has lost control of his reader-- the only gauge to me of a story's success or failure.

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    1. Thanks for that superb diatribe on James—I too found that I loathed his writing style and that his books are better as films!

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  5. Thomas Hardy, much like Dostoevsky or D.H. Lawrence, wrote fairly bad prose. But they all laid it on with a shovel until you finally felt the extent of the Human Tragedy. Through sheer verbiage, they achieved memorable (if not always enjoyable) books. Faulkner and Joyce are worthy if self-conscious and greatly overrated. And if Hawthorne's novels are awkward and dated, his short stories are among the very best of all time.

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    1. I am always leery of critiquing the writing style of translated authors. I find such a variation between translators, and when I learned enough French to read Hugo in version originale, I found his prose easier to read than any translation!
      I enjoy today's topic immensely. Let's "tire the sun with talking and send him down the sky"...about books.

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    2. I will have to give Hugo another try (and brush up on my French). I started listened to an audiobook of Les Miz and thought it was awful!
      Right now I am reading "The Flight of Gemma Hardy" by Margot Livesey. Not having read the jacket copy, I was remarking to myself on how suspiciously reminiscent is was of the plot of Jane Eyre. Duh. Well, anyway, it is very well done and falls into that enjoyable genre (like Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea) of riffs and rewrites of classic fiction.

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    3. Totally agree with Cabaret Voltaire about Hawthorne's short stories! 'The Birthmark' is one of my personal favorites. Also, Faulkner's short stories are definitely worth reading...

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    4. His short stories have enlivened many a walk, via podcasts!

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  6. Cool topic I'm going to ask myself those three questions when choosing and reading a book

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  7. I personally think classics are anything that stand the test of time. Classics are books that are banned and reinstated. classics are books they make you read in every english class you'll ever have to take. Classics those book sthey make you read that you don't always understand durning forst read through, but have good re-read potential. I love classics. I don't always agree with the books that are considered classics but they are what shapes the world sometimes.

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  8. Classics are decided by privileged, white men in the ~academy~ who choose
    books that they relate to, or in the case of books not written by other privileged, white men - one's they feel have "overcome" their non-whitemaleness (poor them) to write novels they find...novel. Oh, how interesting, struggles!

    Sorry to be a cynic. But, I'll stay away from the "canon" to decide what I find to be great ~literature~ - since for a long period of time, poetry, spoken word, small press zines and writings were the most accessible for women, especially women of color. And you'll rarely see anything similar in the "classics" section.

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    1. I totally agree w/ you on the historical perspective, which is why I ran a magazine devoted to women writers of all sorts for 10 years, 1985-1995. Small presses very much included.
      Maybe they won't be labeled in the classics section, but novels by Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, Shirley Anne Williams, et al. are now canonical works of great literature, and not just in women's studies or african-american studies!! hallelujah for some advances at least.

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    2. Brittany S. PearceAugust 29, 2012 at 4:35 PM

      I have to respectfully disagree... But personally I don't tend to lump books into categories of race or gender. I think a classic is really just a book which has remained popular over many decades or centuries. Something timeless. It also might give insight to social climates, social norms, political unrest, technological advances, etc etc, of an era we haven't actually lived through. (ie Charles Dickens and the industrial revolution)
      I think not reading a book just because it was written or approved by privileged white men is as silly as reading a book just because it was written by an African American woman... In my humble opinion books should be read with an open mind, regardless of the author. If you think too much about that kind of thing you tend to have all these preconceived notions and judge the book in ways that you wouldn't have otherwise. (Well I mean...obviously there are exceptions. *cough*StephanieMeyer*cough*ShadesofGray*cough).

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    3. Oh I would never say not to read books by men -- i read them all the time, just that many accomplished women writers were overlooked and neglected over the years.

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    4. Brittany S. PearceAugust 29, 2012 at 6:49 PM

      That I do agree with, and I didn't mean to imply you wouldn't read books by men. My response was more to Molly. I know a lot of people who definitely judge books based on who wrote them (or the person's social class, race, gender, political affiliations etc etc )and I just think that's so narrow-minded... They don't know what they could be missing!

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