Personal best: Can a book be a classic just because you say so?
That’s the question posed by Edwin Frank, editor of the New York Review of Books Classics, which recently celebrated 10 years of republishing underappreciated books like Daphne Du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now or Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago. His answer, as you might guess from those titles, is a resounding “Yes!”
“During a debate in London last week to celebrate the series’ anniversary,” reports Chris Cox at the Guardian, “Frank explained that their choices are often simply governed by personal taste: if they think something deserves to be launched into the firmament as a classic, they go right ahead and do it.”
Wait a minute. You mean any of us can, on the basis of personal taste, gut feeling or whatever, decide what books are classics? In a moment I’m going to ask what, in that case, some of your classics might be, and offer a few of my own suggestions. But first:
The mind reels. As a book reviewer, I believe in the existence of more or less objective aesthetic principles by which a book’s quality and value can be judged. The canon, however stuffy and off-putting is filled with titles that reward the effort required to master them.
On the other hand, I will never forget deciding to reread Crime and Punishment 12 or 15 years ago. After soldiering through the opening, page-long paragraph, I quietly set the book down with the shuddering thought that life is too short. If memory serves, I read Robert Olen Butler’s Tabloid Dreams instead.
But let’s not dismiss the canon casually. In high school I abominated Shakespeare. I despised Dickens. I dismissed Poe. Even in college I found Madame Bovary a bore and a chore. Coming back to these authors and works later in life, however, I found them rich, alive and — believe it or not — fun.
Plus, once you break the code of a Great Book, once you get past the museum mustiness and discover that the immortal writers were actually flesh and blood men and women like us, you can experience a miraculous foreshortening of time, a kinship and sense of identification with people who lived long ago in places far away.
But today I want to celebrate not the acknowledged classics, but every reader’s right to revere the books of his or her choice. As Chris Cox argues, there are two types of classics, the ones we know we should have read but probably haven’t. And the ones you’ve read five times and pressed upon all your friends.
Cox offers from his personal list: Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea; The Tenants of Moonbloom, by Edward Lewis Wallant; and the Frank Bascombe novels of Richard Ford.
Off the top of my head, I add: Little Big Man, by Thomas Berger; Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome; The Gods of Pegana, by Lord Dunsany; Trilby, by Georges du Maurier; The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera; Kim, by Rudyard Kipling; Seven Gothic Tales, by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen); Christy, by Catherine Marshall; The Fixer, by Bernard Malamud; It Looked Like Forever, by Mark Harris; Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut; The Golden Apples of the Sun, by Ray Bradbury; West with the Night, by Beryl Markham.
Wow. I could do this all day (Lord of the Rings!), but I’d rather (Catch 22!) hear what books (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter!) you think should be considered (Old Yeller! –okay stop that) classics. My only ground rule: Time does count for something, so nothing published after 1999.