On Reading

Why “Classic”?

A true Classic

All the recent bloggish debate over “what is a classic” and “what is wrong with the Western Canon” and just discussion in general has gotten me to thinking about terminology and the arts.

I think I may have mentioned in the past that I have a much greater knowledge of the eras and history of art, music, and architecture than I do books, despite a lifetime of reading. This is thanks in no small part to the many semesters I had in school of such history: art history, architectural history, architectural theory,  a semester of “Understanding Music” (history/music appreciation for Western Art music), plus a lifetime of listening to “classical” music. What these arts all have in common, besides a general time-frame development, are fairly well defined (albeit loosely) “periods.” For example, when discussing music, we can talk about the Baroque period (approx. 1600-1750), followed by the Classical period (approx. 1750-1830), followed by the Romantic period (approx. 1815-1910), and so on. (My sometimes faulty memory tells me that these periods align approximately with similar-name architectural/art eras as well.) So, although we can talk about “classical” music to refer to art music from any of these eras, we can also get more specific by saying, “It’s one of the best symphonies from the Romantic era.”

Now, I know enough about literature to know that there are phases like this as well: Romantics, Modernists, etc. But it seems like the conversation usually doesn’t use these terms unless it is taking a more academic turn. Instead, we hang on a label of “classic” to talk about “old” books and then get all hung up in definitional and linguistic arguments. And often, the determining factors seem to be 1) is it old and 2) is it still available, rather than the quality or worthiness of the work. (Admittedly, factors also open for debate.)

My question is why? Why can Composer X create a brand new work (which could be Minimalist or Postmodern or whatever) and it may be automatically considered “classical music” but we have such dogfights when it comes to books? Does this imply an issue of accessibility? That is, does the label “classic(al)” imply that, whether we’re talking music or books, we’re required—or think we are required—to put in some work to appreciate it, and therefore intend it as a term of honor? Has “classical” become a shorthand for “hard?” (And therefore allows a form of elitism or snobbishness when saying “I read classics.” Although that statement’s a touch cynical.) To the best of my knowledge, we don’t apply “classical” to art and architecture in the same way, instead relying on styles or time periods: would we be better served by talking about books in the same manner?

I think a lot of us, when we say we want to read “classics,” what we are looking for is a reassurance that the book is worth reading, that it has some value, that it is part of the cultural currency of book discussion. I’m just wondering if we’re going about this the wrong way.

I don’t have any answers, do you?

13 thoughts on “Why “Classic”?

    1. 😀 It’s a tricky topic, that’s for sure! I think I’m leaning away from personally using “classic,” however, in favor of talking about “great” or “quality.” Maybe…

      1. I think I still like the word “classic,” but as Richard advises, not as a genre label. I still don’t know exactly what it is though. 🙂

        1. Part of my reason for avoiding it, ha ha. Also, why I’m planning on reading Calvino’s Why Read the Classics? soon. Either that, or so I can be confused by another thinker… 🙂

  1. Amanda, I think the main difference between the use of the terminology in music and literature is that “classical” in music has to do with a distinctive style and/or periodization of music (even if it’s a modern composer under consideration, as in your example) and “classic” in literature has nothing to do with any particular style or age for that matter. (I will avoid the ugly example of the term “classic rock,” ha ha.) Different cultures have different classical periods as well, of course, as witnessed by the terms classical Greece and classical Arabic. P.S. I got a kick out of Jillian’s answer here!

    1. I forgot about “classic rock!” Let’s leave that kettle of fish alone, shall we?

      I don’t disagree with the difference between music/books; I suppose I’m mostly curious as to how that (using classic for books) developed over time. And wondering if I want to abandon the convention of using “classic” as it seems to be both overly vague and overly debatable.

  2. The evolution of “classical music” is a strange case, where the name of a single fairly short period somehow becomes the name of a thousand years of composed music. It is as if we called all novels “Victorian literature.” And then to add to the confusion, the original period keeps its original name! But now we’re stuck with it.

    Oddly, I just wrote about this, although you might have to squint to tell. My answer to your next-to-last question is: That is exactly how I refer to books, by style, language and period. I model myself after critics and scholars who do the same.

    1. That confusion of “classical” and “Classical” in music reminds my of an architectural theories class I took in which some of the students couldn’t understand “Modern” as a distinct architectural style as opposed to referring to any current architecture. I’d be interested to know how “classical” developed over time to mean all of a style of music.

      I do see that in your latest post. It makes a lot of since to me to refer to books that way, to place them so specifically. At least, that is, if we are endeavoring to become better readers; it may not matter so much to the reader primarily interested in enjoyment of plot.

  3. I think the academia plays a key role on this. I study English literature and most professors encourage you to read, study and share with the class anything fresh-published as long as it is not “trash” literature (then, what is “trash literature” and who says it is?). But the Spanish literature deparment does not teach or allow students to metion in exams books younger than 60 years, because they are not “classics”. Personally, I don’t understand how professors of literature can think like that, but the problem is that those students are taught to disregard present-day Spanish literature and there are some good authors out there.

    So, for me a classic is, ironically, what most people consider a classic and what the academia approves of. However, we need to be aware that we are constructing the classics of the future by introducing certain books in certain literature courses, talking about them in our blogs and all the study devoted to them (PhDs included here)

    I do see a point in reading the classics, especially 19th century ones because I love that period, but that should never be in tension with freshly-published literature. Margaret Atwood, P.D James, Julian Barnes, Kate Atkinson and Rosa Montero (to mention a Spanish author) are high-quality contemporary writers whose works, themes and style will certainly make them part of the “classics” in the future. And they are as edifying as Dickens, Collins or Gaskell. So, I try to keep a balance: sometimes I’m hungry for the classics, meaning I want to go the past, and sometimes I just don’t, I feel the need to keep up with the world I’m living in, that which is presently being inscribed in literature.

    1. Certainly, I think that academia plays a hand in the definition of “classics,”–studying and telling us “this is important.” But I also read a post recently that suggests the key role of authors in this definition (or at least in the definition of “great” books)–writers who influence other writers become more important by this influence. It’s an interesting thought. (And could also explain, in part, the reluctance of some academics to look at newer works, as they wouldn’t yet have obvious influence.)

      I have no problem with reading the classics, nor constantly updating and revisiting our lists and ideas of classics, but I do wonder if our terminology doesn’t maybe stir up difficulties: with the association of “classic” to “Classical Antiquity” does it perhaps make it sometimes difficult for academics to look at newer works, whereas if they were just looking for “great” books it would be easier?

  4. I’ve been thinking about what makes a book ‘a classic’ as of late, and I think it mainly depends on one’s own criteria. It’s like literature. We talk about literature all the time, but what is literature exactly? Is it just books? Is it fiction? Can a short story be literary? We think about Tolstoy and we say- yes. Then we move over to non-fiction. Is that literature? 15th century travel chronicles are often considered literature. But the vivid descriptions the writers used was simply them following already established chronicle models. So it’s a really tricky question, and I’m not sure we’ll ever get a definite answer.

    1. Tricky, yes, as evidenced by the multitude of discussions on the topic! And also why I’m trying to stay away from using the word “classic” in favor of more descriptive narratives, or alternately, using is as part of the descriptor. For example, “a classic 15th century travel chronicle.”

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