Why I Read These Books: Part 1

Phew. September was a crazy month. Crazy busy, at least. My feed reader is in a dreadful state and I’m afraid I’m going to have to apply the dreaded “mark all as read.” But I’m otherwise caught up now, and with a backlog of posts I need to write, of course. I hadn’t intended that any of that backlog include the monthly Classics Club question, but that is in part because I’m a month behind, and October’s question, as it happens is one I ponder with some regularity. I’m going to cheat here, and make this a two-part response. I’ll link this post, Part One, as it’s the more emotional response and therefore just more…fun! Tomorrow, or perhaps Monday, I mean to post as Part Two some thoughts on reading that came to me as I was in the early part of Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders, which I initially intended to post a month ago. This is the more intellectual response, and as such probably not the post that will convince reluctant readers to try Old Books by Dead People. So I link this one!

Why do I read the classics?

I’ve touched on why I read “classics” in the past, several times. Why I want to work on  a personal “Great Books” project. Why I Read, at all. Having read many classics in middle school, high school, and college (university), I can say that many I just plain enjoy. No great motivation, no attempt at some sort of intellectual sophistication. Sure, Shakespeare sounds intimidating (looks intimidating–have you tried his plays without any notes?!), but a good live performance of one of his plays and you know how entertaining they can be. I found one of the earliest mysteries, Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone  unputdownable. And Dracula? Dracula I found so purely enjoyable that I’ve read it twice and would gladly read it again. But it’s not just that. To say it’s just surface enjoyment seems inadequate. Earlier this year, I was reminded of how powerful reading great books (many of which we call classics) can be, and I don’t think I can explain it better now than I did then. (Full original post HERE.)

But this year, so far, most of  my reading has been outstanding. And I’m reminded how much I like the “difficult” books.

The truth is, not all books are equal. Some are just plain better than others. These are usually the sorts that make the lists. But how we define what is great, what is good, what is a classic, that is a mystery. We can’t really predict, not truly, what will endure. My own experience leads me to agree that “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” (Italo Calvino) These “great” books, these classics–they’re the ones that don’t let me go, that I can’t escape. Returning to them with gusto this year–and reading one or two that aren’t–I remember why I prefer them. It is a response both emotional and eventually, as I learn, analytical. It is critical. It is visceral.

And this takes me back to the early days of this blog.

Way, way back, before anyone really read this, I proposed for myself a goal of searching out the greats, of trying to learn why they are so classified, what elements make them great or best. It was an analytical goal. But I’m learning that it is an emotional goal as well. It’s one I’ve neglected, but as I find myself returning to the best books, I find I don’t want to abandon it again; these are too good, too powerful to ignore. I want to be abducted by these books, to have my world-view turned upside down, to lose myself to their seductions.

This is why I read, why I read the great books. I’d just forgotten it for a while.

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?