My brother asked me a question a few days ago that caught me off guard. He asked, “Hey, do you know any good books I can read?”
Innocuous enough, you might say, but his response when I told him of a few great books was certainly not. I told him he should try reading The Hunger Games, the Pendragon series and Inkheart, but he just shook his head and said,
“No. I meant good books. Classics.”
That stopped me in my tracks. I used to say the same thing, reading books like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and A Tale of Two Cities when I was around the same age as my brother (think middle school) simply because they were called classics. I went so far as to think of books like The Uglies series and even Harry Potter (egads!) as juvenile, something you read late at night when you don’t feel like going to sleep.
But really, what makes these books less wonderful than the classics that everyone’s always speaking so highly about? And, more than that, what makes a classic a classic?
The answer to my first question came to me in the form of a New Yorker article. This article argued that science fiction was just as worthy of praise as were the classics, and that Agatha Christie was just as skillful a writer as Tolstoy. The writer stated that it takes an immense amount of skill to write well in any kind of genre, and that whether or not it is labelled as classic does not change its value. A good book should make you interested, make you want to pick it up and finish it through to the very end, and make you never want the book to stop, and if a classical book doesn’t do that (Tess of the d’Urbervilles I SEE YOU!!!), then it isn’t as good as that Bossypants book you have lying there on your table (and as an audiobook. I just love Tina Fey.)
And so I nodded in agreement, put down my The Sound and the Fury that I had been slogging through, and picked up an Agatha Christie book.
But when it came to the second question, what makes a classic a classic, I was stumped.
I believe that a classic should make you think, and it also seems to me that all classics have been written a while ago, so there is a requirement of appealing to the masses throughout a long period of time. But there has to be more than to classify a book as a classic. Is it that they improve your mind? Because there are many other books that do that (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Flatlandia, The Tao of Pooh and many, many more non-classics). What are the classifications for a book to become a classic?
And can some comics be called classics? I know Watchmen is a very deep comic book that many people like, and probably will do for years to come. So in twenty years or so, can Watchmen have the stamp of classical approval on it?
And last, but not least, should I tell my brother to read a few classics to improve his mind, or should I tell him to read whatever he likes to increase his enjoyment of literature?
With all of these questions circling around in my head, it’s a wonder I’m even writing this blog :)