Rethinking The Classics
Someone recently brought up in conversation a request for some suggestions on what “classics” she should read this summer, referring to her high school and college years and alluding to not necessarily having read every book that was required of her as perhaps some other students might have. That’s one area of college that I actually excelled in and enjoyed, literature, especially the classics, but really just about anything that had to do with the written word regardless of the subject matter or the time period.
Reading learning studying writing, these are all endeavors that appealed to me since I can remember; nearly equal to my love of art or music or all things creative. There’s a reason why these Diaries exist, and why, much to the horror of my ever faithful programming and design team, the number of entries and posts is so damn copious. Truth be told, though most people outside of the day to day project don’t realize it — managing the Transcendence Diaries is a full time project in and of itself with several people in its employ for almost thirteen years now, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of translating them into digital form, editing them and getting them up online. It’s one of the biggest and longest running projects I’ve ever been involved in.
When I heard Anne’s question about catching up on the classics, it reminded me that I recently found the booklet that accompanied “the 100 greatest books of all time” series I bought years ago. Hardcover leather-bound with gold leaf, each of them, at exorbitant prices that conveniently ignore the fact that one could easily buy them on eBay for one-tenth the price, they are beautiful and make a valuable contribution to the library. With the advent of digital everything now, especially images and the written word, I occasionally question the practical nature of owning such a mammoth book collection at this time. But after a few minutes in their presence, perusing the books themselves, their covers, jackets, sleeves bindings, copyright pages and numerous other aspects of books only available to us in non-digital form, I am always left feeling more than content and relieved that I never abandoned collecting. They may not be as portable as a kindle or iPad — not that I’m not a huge fan of those as well, I am — there is just something inexplicably and palpably enjoyable about a real live book in the flesh; especially an old one.
After perusing this list of “the 100 greatest books of all time” though — some great books in there for sure — I was left with a feeling that we will be soon rethinking and updating it, collectively, as a society. We must remember that these kinds of lists are purely from a Western Viewpoint. Those whose lives are born and bred in other parts of the world, who’s education is not from a traditionally Western background, would not necessarily agree with what we consider “the classics”. But from a purely Western Civ perspective something really bothered me about looking at this list. I was familiar with every book on there, having had to or wanting to read all of them in either high school or college, but it just seemed stale to me. Seeing Canterbury Tales yet again but nothing by Kurt Vonnegut for example. A decade or two ago one would never dare utter such a sentence, at least not in the vicinity of certain company. But today the idea seems almost downright quaint.
I know it may seem hard to fathom, but I feel we’re in for a big shift w/ certain long thought of “classics” being taken off the list and some newer ones being added. Either that or we need to create another list entirely. That may be a more feasible approach. Regardless of which list one references, The Harvard Classics is a fine example, the top 100 always looks very much the same. Perhaps it is time we create a new list, call it something like “The NEW 100 Greatest Books of All Time”. That way we don’t begin dismissing heretofore classics and deny the pleasure of their acquaintance to younger up and coming intellectuals.
I have always maintained, to the chagrin of my peers, that there is a difference between literature and great fiction. Where that proverbial line in the sand is I would assert is impossible to determine. Many books now long considered classics were once nothing but best selling works of fiction; for those that are fictional that is. Some classics are not fiction at all lest we forget. Take the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche or Marcus Aurilieus(sp?) for example. But for those that are, not all of them started out as “literature”.
For all its flowery pomp, brilliant wit and poetic wordplay, Shakespeare — (whatever we eventually decide about his true name and personhood) — wrote plays for both the royal court AND the throngs of unwashed masses of his day. Not exactly the most learned of the world of academia. Soap operas really some have said. Moby Dick most will remember is a book that was thoroughly panned upon its release. Now its taken for granted as literature in some circles. Baccacio’s Decameron was and still is soft porn, poetic or not. It may be a classic but is it literature?
Much of what has been released over the last fifty years has not entered the realm of “the 100 greatest books of all time”. But many are great works of art, some have sold in the millions, and some have huge cult followings. No one is going to argue with Catcher in the Rye being called a classic now. But what about Stranger in a Strange Land or 2001 A Space Odyssey? I honestly am not half as familiar with the best selling works of fiction from the past fifty years than I am with the traditional classic. That’s just where my heart happened to land when I began my love affair with reading. But that’s just one of the reasons why it may be a good idea to start a new list of classics. For people like myself who aren’t as aware of the newer classics as most contemporary readers are.
I still feel like a rethinking, a retooling, of the top 100 is bound to transpire imminently. It’s a hunch and my intuition almost never fails. But in the end I’d prefer a newer secondary list, whereby we could keep the old standards in place as they are, stale or not, just to make sure that nothing of great import falls out of place and out of reach to newcomers to the glorious joy of getting caught up and enthralled with a truly life-changing great read.