Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Why read the classics? Why not read them? Now there's a question! Answer that, smart guy!

Everyone is assembling their Classics Club reading list, pledging to read fifty classic books in five years.  Or 100 or what you like.  My plan is to read 500 classics in the next five years, mind and health willing, just as I have done for the last five, and the five before that, and so on.  My list of books will appear to the right at regular intervals, under the heading "Currently Reading."

Which classics?  Oh, you know, some of the – he hesitated and made a rippling gesture with his fingers as of an aroma being wafted away – some of the really good ones.

All right, I forced myself to use the word “classics” several times, but it does not feel natural.  The critics I admire use the word rarely, or never.  I can use it with qualifiers, as when I described  The Immoralist as “a great classic of something or another,” and then later as “a classic in the literature of homosexuality.”  But “the classics,” those can be anything.

That was not the case in the distant past, when the classics were the surviving texts of the even more distant past – Greek, Roman, Chinese, and Sanskrit texts not just hundreds but sometimes thousands of years old.  As vernacular literature grew in status, sometimes because of its use or imitation of the Classical classics, the notion of a classic became more pliable.  Given that the Aeneid is a high status classic, what about Dante’s Divine Comedy?  Given Dante, what about Paradise Lost?  And then people started taking seriously the really vulgar stuff like plays and, even worse, novels, and that was it for the classics.

I had to search, but I remembered or found a couple of good critics who are not afraid of “the classics.”  One, Denis Donoghue, I will save for tomorrow; the other is Italo Calvino who wrote a 1981 article titled “Why Read the Classics?”* which really does nothing more than play with the question.   One of Calvino’s definitions has circulated widely:

(6)  A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.

Please note that number, though: this is definition #6 of fourteen.  Calvino has no qualms about contradicting himself, so while a classic is “a book that comes before other classics” (#12), a classic author is – no, not a classic but:

(11) Your classic author is the one you cannot feel indifferent to, who helps you to define yourself in relation to him, even in dispute with him.

So a classic is whatever other people say it is, and also whatever you say it is.  Speaking for myself, I can be sure a book is not a classic if I have never heard of it.  Calvino is more generous with his definitions.  I should note that elsewhere in The Uses of Literature aka Why Read the Classics?, Calvino almost never uses the term “classics.”  It is, of course, too vague.*

So what do I do, how do I organize these old books?  How do I read a hundred of them every year if I do not know what they are?  Good question.  I will think about that.

To all of the Classics Clubbists, by the way:  Best of luck!  You won’t need much, since those lists are full of great books, setting aside the small number of duds, which will only heighten the flavor of the good ones.  Not-actually-private note to Jillian:  there are way better Walter Scott books than Ivanhoe, although none more famous, and therefore classic.

*  A pointless aside:  Calvino’s three essays on Fourier are really great fun.


  1. 'And then people started taking seriously the really vulgar stuff like plays and, even worse, novels, and that was it for the classics.' Love this!

  2. Classics, classics...

    ...ah, you mean books which people haven't forgotten yet...

  3. I've contemplated on participating in this. You have answered the question I posed on a blogpost of a fellow blogger who is participating in the classic club. If all things go well and I am able to make my list of books, perhaps I will go for 50, I will it on my blog. I will also let the definition of classic, as you have provided, guide me.


  4. Seriously though, I don't really want to restrict myself to a particular set of fifty - there are always more 'classics' to be discovered...

  5. Thanks for this, Tom! I found the history of the word fascinating in your discussion. How true -- novels were vulgar. So why are they "classic" now? And who determined it -- on what credentials?

    Ivanhoe? Ha! That one's on my list because it's the one I own. Which titles do you recommend? I was interested in Rob Roy for eventually. And I believe he wrote on William Wallace, which intrigues me because Wallace is my distant cousin.

    (Great post.) :)

  6. As much as I love projects and plans, only when they are short term. And my list would look odd (to me) because the idea is to put classics on the list we have not read, we wouldn't compile our personal "classics best of". It would end up being a very English list as that's where I have the biggest gaps and that would be ironic, now wouldn't it.

  7. I liked Coetzee's take on it:

    "What survives the worst of barbarism, surviving because generations of people cannot afford to let go of it and therefore hold on to it at all costs—that is the classic.

    "So we arrive at a certain paradox. The classic defines itself by surviving. Therefore the interrogation of the classic, no matter how hostile, is part of the history of the classic, inevitable and even to be welcomed. For as long as the classic needs to be protected from attack, it can never prove itself classic.

    "One might even venture further along this road to say that the function of criticism is defined by the classic: criticism is that which is duty-bound to interrogate the classic. Thus the fear that the classic will not survive the de-centring acts of criticism may be turned on its head: rather than being the foe of the classic, criticism, and indeed criticism of the most sceptical kind, may be what the classic uses to define itself and ensure its survival. Criticism may in that sense be one of the instruments of the cunning of history."

  8. Whether intended or not, you make me laugh, Tom: "And then people started taking seriously the really vulgar stuff like plays and, even worse, novels, and that was it for the classics."

    I do love this post. It reminds me of the importance of context. I am guilty of flinging around #6 (though I do love it--so flexible!) without having read the other 13. [Dutifully requesting from library.]

    That said, I've found all the recent discussions of what is a classics, how do we define it, why is it so difficult incredibly fascinating.

  9. A perpetually fascinating topic since there is, and cannot be, any one definition we all agree on. And thanks for the giggle, those vulgar novels have deeply affected my female sensibility :D

  10. One good reason to write about this questionable topic is that it attracts such illuminating comments. Thanks, everyone.

    Lists are an essential part of learning about a field, and making lists can be fun, so I understand why so many people jumped at the chance Jillian offered. I make lists all the time. But I am wary of planning out five months of reading, much less five years, so I also understand the reluctance of Tony and Caroline (and me!). Five weeks of planning maybe.

    On the other hand, Tony, I will bet you that there is no actual restriction here. I predict a great deal of substitution over the next 5 years.

    Nana, I will confuse things in my next post with different definitions of classics. Don't blame me for any of this! These are not my definitions. I am as at sea as anyone.

    So what happened with the novels? Why did the status of novels increase so much? I think I would like to save that for today or tomorrow. Brief answers to Jillian's questions: who determined it - everybody; on what credentials - none. I will complicate this soon. I know these are not the answers in the comments to your Western Canon post.

    I see that Stefanie has hinted at one part of the more complicated answer - "female sensibility," exactly. There have been some significant changes over the last several hundred years to the cultural value attributed to the female sensibility. Perhaps this had some effect on what was found culturally valuable in literature.

    I mean, the "vulgar and trivial novel" business is a joke (intentional, yes!), but funny because it gets at a truth.

    Not to steal Amanda's pleasure, but one last bit of Calvino to tie up a number of these ideas:

    "There is nothing for it but for all of us to invent our own ideal libraries of classics. I would say that such a library ought to be composed half of books we have read and that have really counted for us, and half of books we propose to read and presume will come to count - leaving a section of empty shelves for surprises and occasional discoveries."

    Maybe a little long for a Classics Club motto, but that's the spirit.

    (As for Scott: Rob Roy is at least Scottish. I think you would find some very interesting things in The Heart of Midlothian, which features one of the finest heroines in English literature, but Waverley is also an excellent introduction to Scott. What Waverley will not do is explain why it, and Scott, became so influential - that is a question of literary history. Ivanhoe does have Robin Hood.)

    1. Ah! I just added Waverley to my Goodreads TBR this morning. I will definitely read it. And thanks for the recommendation of The Heart of Midlothian, as well! I'll look forward to it!

      *On the other hand, Tony, I will bet you that there is no actual restriction here. I predict a great deal of substitution over the next 5 years.*

      You're correct. The idea is to create living lists. It's assumed these lists will adapt to our exposure to literature. My list might be entirely different by the time I hit 2017. (Or it might stay the same. Who knows?) The point isn't to challenge people to read by a strict list -- but to create for ourselves a habit and a curiosity about literature that lasts more than a month or so, when a particular challenge ends. :)

  11. My husband reads only "classics" (he is working from Clifton Fadiman's list) because of the winnowing process Rise quotes from Coetzee. He tells me that there was just as much crud written in the 19th century, (or presumably the eighth), as there is today, and this is what we have left: time has decided for us what is good. (Not time alone, I would argue, but that's a different discussion.) So why read contemporary novels or poetry or what not? In a hundred or four hundred years, we'll know whether they're good.

  12. Calvino calls people like your husband "blessed souls" but fears they "will be lost in a timeless cloud" if they do not waste enough time screwing around on the internet.

    Your husband is right about the ever-constant proportion of bad books, but the interesting question is not what happens not with the bad books but with all the good books no one reads any more. You are right that "time" is just a metaphor in that formulation.

    Calvino, or his ghost, should write another essay answering your question, Why read the non-classics? There are at least 14 answers to that question, too.

    The thing I like about Rise's Coetzeean definition is that it solves none of these problems, none of them. Rise, is that Elizabeth Costello, or is it actually Coetzee? Is there such a thing as the latter?

    1. It was signed 'Coetzee', but now that you mentioned it, it could be an alter-ego of E. Costello. The whole lecture is worth a look, from the collection Stranger Shores.

    2. I was just skimming these comments when I was struck by the allusion to the views of Elvis Costello - alas, I was mistaken.

      If only...

    3. Don't say a word
      Don't say anything
      Don't say a word
      I'm not even listening ("Watch Your Step")

      Elvis Costello does have advice useful to bloggers, at least.

    4. Lots of that—"sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking when I hear the silly things that you say..."

      Hahaha, this is my contribution to the classics discussion, lovely

  13. I'd like a list of lost classics - and yes, "the good books no one reads anymore," since as Jenny starts to point out, it's not time alone that determines what's good. I think of the nearly lost: Banffy's trilogy, censored by politics for most of the 20th century, Grossman's Life and Fate, barely escaping fate with its life, T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, left behind on a train (or was it a truck?) and reconstructed from scratch. What of the ones that didn't make it, the ones for which we only have the shape of their existence, like the caves that held the Bamiyan buddhas?

    1. I have a copy of Cicero's Hortensius, highly recommended by Augustine, that seems to be out of print. It makes one hell of a coaster, I tell you!

  14. Those living lists have a strange habit of growing when you think they should be shrinking.

    There's a clever book on the subject of lost books (The Book of Lost Books, Stuart Kelly, 2006) that is about Ovid's "Medea" and Samuel Johnson's autobiography and similar books or shadows of books that really are gone forever, where we are lucky to have even the shape, as per your fine metaphor.

    A good companion book would include your examples: The Book of Nearly Lost Books.

    1. Thanks - I will look up that Kelly book. Meanwhile, I've thought of another companion volume: The Book of Non-Existent Books. I've started to compile a list of fictional books that only appear inside other fictions. It'll make for quite a library.

    2. You may wish to have a look at The Invisible Library, which is just such a list.

    3. Oh, of course! That was niggling at my memory. Levi Stahl, who has been known to visit here, is one of the proprietors of the Invisible Library.

      Thanks for the link.

  15. "Why did the status of novels increase so much?" should be an interesting topic, but I'm not sure how far back in time you intend to take the argument. Are you going to compare contemporary readers' embrace of the novel as the supreme literature form to Victorian readers, who were often uneasy about it? Or are you going to compare the contempo West's love for the novel to medieval Europe's greater appreciation for poetry or ancient Greece's fondness for history? It seems to me that the simplest answer is that novels were unfairly disparaged at first and now they are appreciated. Why? Well, I'll await your post, smart guy!

  16. Unfairly disparaged at first and now over-appreciated, says I.

    I would or will stop with the Victorians, actually, which is when, near the end of the period, thanks to Henry James among others, the novel conclusively wins the argument and becomes officially accepted as at least potentially Great. It was a heck of a struggle, though.

    1. Over-appreciated how? In comparison to poetry, short stories, non-fiction, or film or just over-appreciated in general?

  17. I should unpack that joke, "over-appreciated." It was mostly a joke. We live in the age of the novel now.

    But I do regret the decline of the audience for poetry, acknowledging that the mass audience of the 19th century was an unrepeatable historical accident. Film seems to be doing all right.

  18. Jill's Classic club is a great idea. For sure one reads on your idea of a classical novel will expand. In my own case, three years ago I had read no Japanese literature, now I consider five or six of their writers to be must reads for anyone. In reading Irish short stories, my list of classics is growing at a very fast rate. In reading goals, the more you read, thefurtherfrom your goals of reading what you consider classics you will be.

  19. A few reasons for reading "non-classics":

    They were written by friends (I read all the books of a writer who had appointed me his medical proxy).

    They're classics for a limited audience, specialized but rewarding (Fort, Crowley, Korzybski...).

    They're linked to other writers you like (I've been reading Benjamin DeCasseres, colleague of Don Marquis, Fort, Mencken, and others; and he's worthy company).

    You find a forgotten title by chance, and it looks interesting (odd vanity press books, for example).

    Tere are, after all, many ways and reasons to read...

  20. "There are", of course. I did however, get "Korzybski" right.

  21. There is always a lot of curious activity off in the margins and shadows.

  22. Nothing wrong with settling down in the shade with a book now and then.