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"The Classics"

My day is going by slowly. Thus, in order to alleviate some boredom, I thought that a discussion might be nice. I want to talk about "The Classics" as in those books that are part of "The Western Canon." Those works of "Literature" that are widely and generally understood to be "Very Important Books" that people ought to read (and are often required in school). The books that often get referenced in other books, that have taken on their own mythological status in the popular imagination.

What are some of your favorites? What ones do you find tedious, boring, dull, obtuse, bland, or otherwise unappealing? What makes a book one of "The Classics"? What ones have you not read yet, but desire to do so? What ones do you need some heavy convincing in order to tackle?

Basically, this is a rather open discussion. So long as you can connect your comments back to this general theme, feel free to post away.


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 18th, 2009 07:27 pm (UTC)
I think the thing that makes a book a "classic" is whether it successfully captures a sense of something unique to the context in which it was written (current events, values, everyday life) but in a way that can be understood by future generations. As much as I loathe a lot of Dickens' writing, he was able to write about real issues and ways of thinking that were peculiar to his era and still encapsulate it in fanciful stories. Even with stories we consider "timeless" like Shakespeare's plays, which have a great deal of flexibility in adaptation, there are still ideals and opinions that are important to his contemporary age and help us understand them better because so much of the rest of what he wrote around those ideas is so universal.

I'll write more later, perhaps! But that's an idea to get started.
Feb. 18th, 2009 07:51 pm (UTC)
Yes, I think that you're on to something there. Also, I think that a key component is often innovation. Writers who pushed boundaries and did something new. One that comes to mind is Chaucer with The Canterbury Tales, where he took familiar and well-established genres and did unexpected things with him--breaking the "formula," if you will.
Feb. 18th, 2009 07:47 pm (UTC)
To me, a book becomes a "Classic" with the capital C at the point when general knowledge of it has become a piece of cultural literacy for at least a generation. In other words, you're expected to "get" the reference to it even if you haven't actually read it, and you're at a social disadvantage if you don't "get" that reference. It's a book Everyone Has Heard Of (not really everyone but the "everyone" that is looked to for such things) even if, in fact, MOST people haven't actually read all of it. (Why is the Bible coming to mind here?) Examples that I have enjoyed include The Scarlet Letter, Jane Eyre, A Christmas Carol, The Canterbury Tales and many of Shakespeare's plays.

A book can be a little-c "classic" within its own genre or subculture, as well - Tales of the City as a "gay classic" or I, Robot as a "science fiction classic" for instance. The idea here is that if you're interested in the genre/subculture at all, this is something that you'll quickly acquire passing familiarity with even if you don't read it.
Feb. 18th, 2009 08:10 pm (UTC)
I don't know if I buy that. I've never felt at a social disadvantage or like I'm missing a reference to War and Peace.

Feb. 19th, 2009 05:42 am (UTC)
Yeah, but couldn't that be because you come from a (relatively) privileged background? Maybe I'm wrong, but given what I know of your background, I bet that (like me) you've been familiar with the idea of "the Classics," and possibly even reading them, since you were tiny. But if you looked at a list of the Western canon and had only read, say, 10% of them, there might be more of a sense of disadvantage there.

I do think that capital-C Classics definitely come with a lot of cultural baggage, and that is, I think, part of what defines them. The more cultural baggage a text trails in its wake, the more canonical it is, or something.
Feb. 19th, 2009 05:45 am (UTC)
I think we took AJ's comment differently. I thought she meant that missing any big-C "Classic" in and of itself meant missing out-- not missing large chunks of the canon. Clearly anyone who has missed huge chunks would be at a disadvantage, but I don't think that a way to define a single volume as a big-C classic is by how much you're missing culturally if you've not read it.

Edited at 2009-02-19 05:46 am (UTC)
Feb. 19th, 2009 11:57 am (UTC)
But, I think that it does hold up for single volumes. Someone who doesn't "get" a reference to Dracula, for example, would likely be treated as somehow lacking by a lot of people: "How could you not get that reference?! Ohmygod! Everyone knows that book!" And that's just the things that people will actually say. There's also a lot of internalized judgement that tends to happen, an assessment of a person as less than.
Feb. 19th, 2009 02:15 pm (UTC)
It holds for only a cross-section of single volumes, and that's why I don't think it works as a matrix for deciding what's a classic and what's not, and most of that cross-section is determined by what's been made into a movie-- it's generally references to the movies that people are shocked if someone doesn't get, not references to the actual text. Like, people are going to be much more judgmental of someone who doesn't know Bela Lugosi's portrayal of Dracula than someone who doesn't know who Quincy Morris is.

And while it's definitely true of Dracula or Romeo and Juliet, I very highly doubt that in any normal social situations that aren't academic circles, people are being berated or judged for not having read The Brothers Karamazov or Mrs. Dalloway, but I don't think anyone would deny their prominence as classics. I don't think that many bits of our cultural collective consciousness depend on them, though. I think someone's much more bound to miss a joke or be socially out of the loop if they don't know what Twilight is than if they don't know what Mrs. Dalloway is, and I really hope Virginia Woolf is considered a more important writer than Stephenie Meyer. Or, to make the analogy with something that isn't currently on the tips of everyone's tongues, Animorphs or Baby-Sitters' Club. I have missed far more jokes or misunderstood conversations for not knowing what those are about than I have for not knowing what Hemingway's written.

Uh, sorry for the multiple edits.

Edited at 2009-02-19 02:23 pm (UTC)
Feb. 19th, 2009 02:52 pm (UTC)
It doesn't entirely work, thinking about it more. It was more a starting point than an absolute.

The concept of cultural literacy and Things People Just Know (and you're at a weird disadvantage if you don't) has been on my mind a lot lately, for a number of reasons. Many are outside the scope of this discussion/this community, but some of the reason it's been on my mind is having just read The Three Doctors' We Beat the Streets (which, BTW, I highly recommend).
Feb. 19th, 2009 03:28 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I think it's a definition of something, and an important thing to take into consideration in terms of cultural literacy, but I think there's probably a Venn Diagram for Cultural Literacy Necessities and Classic Literature more than a definite rubric to use something's importance in the collective consciousness as a way to determine its provenance as a Classic.
Feb. 18th, 2009 08:11 pm (UTC)
I think that that's an interesting idea. The first thing that comes to mind is that I know there are books considered "Classics" that I would not "get" a cultural reference to. For example, I can understand quite a few references to Dracula, Frankenstein, or much of Dickens, despite not having read any of them. On the other hand, if someone made a reference to The Sound and The Fury... well, the title I would know, and I'd know that it's by Faulkner... but anything beyond that would go wooshing over my head. Although, perhaps "most people" would get it? I don't know.

Or maybe there are "classic" novels, as you've defined it for various genres and subcultures. Although, I should probably be modifying that as "Novels"... Which would place something like Moby Dick as a "Classic" but Absalom, Absalom! as a "classic".
Feb. 19th, 2009 06:00 am (UTC)
I honestly don't think any normal people would get a reference to The Sound and the Fury. I do think normal people would get a reference to Dracula even if they haven't read it. Frankenstein, they'd get a reference to the Whale film, but I doubt most normal people would get a reference to the actual book.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )