January 17, 2013

The Classics Club: Meme #3

Regrettably, I wasn't able to post my answer to the Classic Club meme questions between October and December, because I had been under a lot of stress and had major worries over my dog's health. But now that my dog is recovering from a successful surgery, I have the time and am in the right frame of mind to reply to those questions. Let's begin with the question for October.

Ideal Bookshelf by Jane Mount

In October, The Classics Club has asked us to explain why we are reading the classics. However, before responding to this question, I find it necessary to define what I mean by a “classic.”

There have been many smart people who tried to define the term, but I only recently discovered my favourite definition. Last week, in an article on the Huffington Post book blog, in which he encourages readers to read more classics this year, C. Christopher Smith defines books that can be considered classics thus: “A classic is any book that is not a new book, one that merits re-reading, 5, 10, even 100 years or more after its publication.” Smith's own definition is based on the following quote from John Ruskin: “All books are divisible into two classes, the books of the hour, and the books of all time.” Thus, in Smith's view, and I share his opinion, classics are books that have stood the test of time. (Hence, whether Harry Potter is a classic only time will tell.) Time was also my main criterion for selecting the books for my Classic Clubs list; I chose only books that were published at least 50 years ago and are still considered worth reading by a large number of people.

From this it follows that I am reading the classics precisely because these are books of all time. That is to say, these books are like monuments or the Wonders of the World. You simply cannot exist in this world and taking no notice of them. You cannot travel to Egypt and ignore the Pyramids. Similarly, you cannot and should not ignore the classics. Isn't it much better to go through life with open eyes and an open mind? That's my motto!

On the other hand, I'm a nonconformist at heart. Thus, I absolutely understand when people have reservations about the classics, because they believe that even the majority can be wrong. I also must confess that there were some classics that were compulsory readings at school or university and that I simply hated. However, you cannot be critical of something that you don't know, can you? And literary taste cannot be acquired or developed, unless you also read books that you will ultimately hate. Therefore, I am reading the classics also because I want to know why other people consider them classics and whether I'm of the same opinion.

But, of course, I am not reading the classics only because my teachers or my parents made me read them. As Oscar Wilde said once, “It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it.” And at some point of my life, I recognised that classics usually drive home a message as to how to live life. In other words, classics are kind of moral textbooks and may help us to become better humans.

However, all these answers of mine sound too intellectual and this reminds me of a very funny scene from the movie The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996) in which Professor Rose Morgan (played by Barbra Streisand) is asking her students as to why people want to fall in love when it can have such a short run and be so painful? The students' responses are too intellectual for Rose; her own answer to the above question is much simpler: “While it [love] does last, it feels f***ing great.” So, ultimately, I think the answer to the question as to why I am reading the classics is much simpler too. I am reading the classics because they are f***ing great. That's why.

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