Good? Great? Or, Why I Read These Books, Part 2

This is Part Two of my response to this month’s Classics Club question, “Why do you read the classics?” (Part One HERE.) The post is actually about a month old, but I didn’t have a chance to put it up before now, and it seems to tie in well with the Classics Club question. It began as a mid-reading response to Geraldine Brooks’s debut novel Year of Wonders, but turned into a reflection on the books I choose to read.

At 60 pages in, there’s something, I can’t quite put my finger on it, that dissatisfies me about this novel (while at the same time finding it completely engaging). It seems to lack weight or something; it is just a story, well-told. Yet…are any of the Victorians any different? I believe that I read somewhere that novels currently being written are pretty much in one of three strains: 1) modernist 2) post-modernist 3) neo-Victorian. That is, I’m under the impression that most novels that aren’t “experimental” or “Literary” (important capital there), are still in the Victorian mode. So what I’m really struggling with here is why are certain novels, that seem to be primary story/plot, still read and considered “classic”?

There’s certainly the importance of “firsts” or “precedents.” The first [genre] writer, the first use of [technique].  I’ve seen the suggestion that classic status is determined based on what influences other writers. We certainly still read these books, presumably writers do as well; certainly writers of previous generations read their Victorian and Modernist predecessors. Dickens was important not just for entertainment value, but for social issues. But then, why do we better know Charles Dickens than Elizabeth Gaskell? Is there a difference in quality of prose, is it a gender issue, is A Christmas Carol just more memorable than any other Victorian novel? Do we still read John Steinbeck because of the important social issues (poverty) he touched upon? Why then F. Scott Fitzgerald, when his stories speak more of the very wealthy, a rarefied class most of us don’t belong to and therefore don’t so readily relate to? Classics are supposed to touch upon the human condition–but would not a novel such as Year of Wonders (which covers the response of a seventeenth century English village to the plague) also touch upon that? Or is that what I’m stumbling up against, that the focus on the story has yet to reveal human condition? I AM only 60 pages in….

What I wish to make very clear, is that this is not at all a complaint. Year of Wonders is very engaging as a story–so much so  that I managed to continue to read it while in the middle of an hour and a half wait in line, not something easy for me to do. I find the writing at times poetic. I’m enjoying it, I in no way regret picking it up. But. It’s that little niggling suggesting in the back of my brain that there’s something just not there…what I really wish to know is “what is missing? What is different about this book?”

But this is why I want to do this reading project, the Personal Great Books/Classics Club–to look at acknowledged greats alongside possible greats (future), to work out why some books are praised and other aren’t. This is why I want to read widely (if not deeply), because I want to know if the only reason Gaskell was nearly forgotten is because she was a woman or if it was something more intrinsic to the writing; if for the sake of diversity we are allowing into the pantheon of “greatness” what is merely “good,” or if the power structures that were/are have allowed “good” into the pantheon because it was by the “right” player while the “great” work of the “other” was kept out. Essential to this, of course, is my belief, that there is good and bad, good and great. Starting with books we call “classic” begins to give me an entry into the definition of great. I begin to realize the need for comparison/contrast. I need to look at books that aren’t great–merely good, perhaps even bad–to see the difference. To perhaps find that this acknowledged classic isn’t so grand. That the ignored is underrated. Or that the mass consensus is right after all. But I can’t do that without knowledge, and the knowledge comes from the reading. So to the reading I must keep.

5 thoughts on “Good? Great? Or, Why I Read These Books, Part 2”

  1. You may have heard the thing about influence on writers from me. So I will go ahead and suggest that A Christmas Carol is an exception. Sometimes a writer creates a character who sort of escapes the text. It is as if the culture had a hole that the character fills.

    So Scrooge looks like one of those to me. Robinson Crusoe is another. Don Juan. Faust. Don Quixote – that novel has everything.

    The clearest test of the difference between good and great is to read books that are contemporaries, mediocrities from 200 years ago. Books off of this list, for example. We usually only do this with books by authors who did at some point writer something great (as when I recently read good-but-nowhere-near-great novels by Kipling and Stevenson).

    1. Yes, I believe I probably did read “the thing about influence” on your blog–I obviously liked it enough I remembered the idea if not the source!

      I hadn’t thought of comparing mediocrities from the past, but it makes sense. Thanks for the link–it’s quite interesting to compare “best of” lists from the past with our “best of” from today–it certainly shows how difficult classifying anything can be. And is quite an interesting list too!

  2. That’s a very interesting take on the ‘what makes a classic’ issue. Sometimes I find myself reading books that are not classics, and yet I feel certain that someday they will be. The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the Harry Potter saga being the main examples. At the same time, I read books that, while I consider them wonderful, I don’t believe will ever become real classics- A Song of Ice and Fire being the first name to come to mind. Is this subjective or is there something that truly touches a potential classic, something that is so deeply engraved in a story that it will never not touch the reader’s heart? I don’t have any answers yet, but it’s a valuable question to ask.

    1. I’ve found that the books that don’t seem to want to let me go are those that are generally considered “classics” or “classics to be,” yet I’m never sure if my reaction is because of the book’s worth or for some reason not pertaining to its merits (say, a character is struggling with something I can relate to) or if I’m simply influenced by the prevailing sentiments. I feel that I have read so comparatively little and so much yet to learn that I can’t begin to answer. But that’s the bonus–it just means I must keep reading! And always questioning.

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