Tuesday, August 6, 2013

What if I Hate Wuthering Heights?

If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking. –Haruki Murakami

'Classic.' A book which people praise and don't read. – Mark Twain

Are the classics intrinsically great, or are they simply famous and influential? Is there a way to identify the “truly” classic books, and if so, must we read them to be educated?

Because I believe in classical education (or really, in a neoclassical education that I haven’t yet fully defined— which is OK, because my baby-in-utero doesn’t know Latin yet), this question nags at me. I have embraced the idea that education is accomplished through the study of the best available examples of everything. I know that I won’t become a great writer by reading potboilers any more than I would become a great cook by sharpening my palette at McDonalds. Yet sometimes I can’t help questioning the awesomeness of the classics. I don’t even like them all. Sometimes I even wonder whether there is an intrinsic benefit to studying Homer (or Shakespeare, or Kipling, or Hemingway), or whether The Iliad is merely useful for cultural literacy.

The funny thing is that when someone proposes that we should read the great works of Western civilization merely because they are always being reinvented and we should be able to understand the modern authors who subvert them, it rubs me the wrong way. It sounds too condescending. It sounds like someone looking down his enlightened nose and saying, “Well, yes, let’s study this funny little man who was Shakespeare so that we can put on a version of his play with all the genders reversed and the weapons replaced with pink balloons.” Good grief, folks, no one will be able to “get” Shakespeare if they are too busy being superior to him! 

I’ve come to realize that there are a number of qualifications that can get a title onto somebody’s list of classics. Some are more valid than others.

The book:

1. Has been regarded by multiple generations as artistically masterful or philosophically profound, and/or continues to be purchased by the public long after the author is dead.

2. Was the first (or most influential) to try something new that subsequently changed the way books are written.

3. Enmeshed itself in the cultural consciousness and is frequently referred or alluded to by later writers.

4. Comes from a time period that produced very little competition.

5. Was written by a woman in the nineteenth century.

6. Was written by a non-dead-white-male before the 1960s.

7. Shocked a lot of people with its contents (especially if it encouraged people to throw off moral constraints that have since become unpopular).

8. Has an expired copyright and so can be reprinted by anyone, usually with a piece of late Victorian art on the cover.

This list has helped me realize how I define classic literature. I think that whenever we attempt to construct a list of “The Classics,” we are attempting to gather profound examples of how human beings have grappled with universal questions and answers, and how human beings have turned those questions and their proposed answers into things of beauty. We call our list “classical” because it is universal enough to inspire and instruct readers across the lines of culture and time. This is why it is silly to talk about “modern classics.” We can’t yet know whether a recent book will speak to readers from a culture that has moved beyond our own. Perhaps this is why various lists of “The Top 100 Books” are essentially the same when they cover ancient, medieval, and early modern titles, yet diverge radically in their evaluation of nineteenth and twentieth century masterpieces.

However, the very universality of classical books means that they are not tailored to the needs and interests of any one individual. Just as a fantastic classroom teacher may not be the ideal fit for a particular student, not every enduring work of literature will speak to all of us. Perhaps this is especially true of the books that have survived at least in part because of their place in the evolution of literature—they may not be the very best examples of a particular technique or idea, but they are the most historically significant. They are a source of future inspiration and are read in order to understand later writers.

This leads us back to a pragmatic-sounding reason to read books. However, the problem is not in saying that we read certain books because doing so is useful. The problem is forgetting that we should be looking for profundity and beauty in those books. If we cannot see that beauty (despite an honest investment in learning to read the cultural language of another era), we should move on and find other books where we do. I think the reason that we read the classics is simply because they help us learn to read properly. They present ideas without the obscuring fog of our own culture (which can make a book appear more profound than it really is, simply by appealing to our cultural sensibilities). They help us realize which of our thoughts are universal and which simply cultural by showing us the minds of people from other times and eras. They do this particularly well because they are particularly good examples of great writing—as indicated by their enduring power. The classics educate our minds, but they also train our attitudes. They teach us enough humility to read Shakespeare without  the security of pink balloons. 

C.S. Lewis has an interesting take on why we should read old books:

“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it…. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.”

The classics endure. They even keep selling, as discussed by Slate. Even if I happen to hate Wuthering Heights (too recent a book for us to know if it's really a classic), it doesn't matter. The classics will endure and I will educate myself by reading (at least some of) them. 


This is NOT how we should approach the classics.


  1. So true. When I was in my early teens I threw out the list of "classics to read at your age" because it annoyed me. (And "Modern Classics" is such a laughable label!) But as my literary tastes have matured I discovered that some books are worthy for the writing quality alone (something I was too immature to appreciate at the time). I hope people will be inspired to try Shakespeare after enjoying some of the modern adaptations. :-)

    1. Yes, there is definitely a reason why the classics (that nebulous term!) stay in print. They take more work to read, but they can be read indefinitely, and that's saying something huge.


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