By Barbara Woshinsky
Originally published in the February 2016 issue of 1666 Coffman Newsletter
Last year, in response to the Library Committee’s annual request for new acquisitions suggestions, one resident asked whether we had a good selection of “classics.” Yes, faithful reader, our library does contain works by Shakespeare, George Eliot, Dostoevsky, Henry James, and others that many would consider classics. But this query caused us to ponder further. What, in fact, is a classic? Is it just a book we were forced to read in class, perhaps turning us off it forever? In reality, “classics” are not necessarily dusty and fusty. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil were censored for obscenity, and that American icon, Huckleberry Finn, remains one of the most frequently banned books in U.S. libraries. When Mark Twain heard that a librarian considered his works dangerous for children, he commented that they were written for adults, and cautioned her not to leave them lying around near a Bible. Suppose children should get hold of that!
Returning to our initial question: one common definition of a classic is a work that has stood the test of time—that communicates universal values beyond the period when it originated. It also possesses an artistic power that is hard to define but easy to recognize. According to Italian writer and Nobel Prize recipient Italo Calvino, “a classic is a book that people say they are rereading, or else that even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of rereading.” What works give you that feeling of familiarity? Another writer, the ninth century French critic Sainte-Beuve, sums it up in this way: a classic is “an old author, canonized by admiration, and an authority in a particular style.” Given that definition, can there be a “modern classic?” Will Lord of the Flies or Catch-22 retain their classical status in 2216, or will they descend to the level of texts read only by English professors and their graduate students?
Sainte-Beuve’s definition reveals a close connection between “classic” and “canon.” Originating in biblical study, the term “canon” denotes works of great cultural or moral authority that every educated person should read. A twentieth century attempt to define the canon was made by the famous “Great Books” program at the University of Chicago. Its first edition of fifty-plus volumes was heavy on ancient Greek literature (the original “classics”), philosophy, and English and American authors. It contained no women writers. Since the 1960s, this traditional canon, with its focus on books by “dead white males,” has been hotly contested. Works by African-American writers like Toni Morrison, many of which we would now consider “classic,” have been added to the canon. Other forgotten writers have been rediscovered.
So the answer to “what is a classic?” is not as simple as it may seem. Like so many aspects of culture, the “classics” are not fixed by some immutable authority but evolve through time and social change. What are some of your favorite classics? Let’s continue the dialogue and fire our own canons!
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