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Personal best: Can a book be a classic just because you say so?

December 10, 2009

Ray Bradbury: A classic?

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.

Fire away!

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Tommy permalink
    December 10, 2009 1:31 pm

    Fun! “Good Omens” by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman fits perfectly into Cox’s second classic classing “the ones you’ve read five times and pressed upon all your friends.”

    I’d also throw “1984” by George Orwell and “The Fall” by Albert Camus into the fray, yet I think those both have secured a position in “classics” without my fawning.

    Chauncey, you beat me to the Catch-22 punch. (They are shooting at ME!)

    Your list of classics contains two books which I have read, “Kim” and “Golden Apples of The Sun” (so I count six more books moving onto my to-read list) and yes, Bradbury is a classic if we say so.

    “Doctor Glas” by Hjalmar Soderberg must be mentioned

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 10, 2009 3:13 pm

      Tommy, those are all justifiable selections. Anyone who loves Camus and Bradbury is a-okay in my book.

  2. Connie permalink
    December 10, 2009 1:44 pm

    London Fields by Martin Amis deserves to be a classic. A modern one, perhaps. So does Zadie Smith’s White Teeth which was published in the UK in 1999 so maybe it’s a bit early to list, but…by God it will deserve a spot there someday.

    The Sound and the Fury. As I Lay Dying. Light in August. You see where I’m going with this.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 10, 2009 2:53 pm

      Well, then, let’s go right on down south to Wise Blood and the Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor, why don’t we? No argument on London Fields, doubtless Martin’s masterpiece, though I did much like Experience (t00 recent for my list), his autobiography of growing up with a famous dad. Which leads me to Kingsley Amis, and his comic masterpiece, Lucky Jim.

  3. Candice Simmons permalink
    December 10, 2009 1:45 pm

    Sometimes what is good and relevant to us depends on where we are in life. Having said that, I will add “The Magus” by John Fowles. I was in college when I read that, and it was perfect for that period of time when all of life seems like mystery and you are pondering various philosopies to try and figure out who you are and what you want out of your life.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 10, 2009 2:55 pm

      Indeed. Many books I read with pleasure or awe at an earlier time of life I’d barely think of today. Examples: Catcher in the Rye, anything by Ayn Rand, Of Human Bondage, anything by John Steinbeck or Pearl Buck…

  4. December 10, 2009 1:58 pm

    Elmer Gantry, The Grapes of Wrath, the USA Trilogy, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, War & Peace, Anna Karenina, Crime & Punishment, The First Circle, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Lolita, Ironweed, 84 Charing Cross Road, The Big Rock Candy Mountain, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, This Boy’s Life.

    I’m getting a headache, but like you I could go on and on. The Things They Carried. One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Centaur, The Call of the Wild, Revolutionary Road.

    Time to go to work.

  5. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    December 10, 2009 3:03 pm

    I have not read Wallace Stegner, a lamentable gap in my education, I admit, but your mention of Big Rock Candy Mountain puts me in mind of John Gardner’s Nickel Mountain, though I prefer Grendel. And while I’m in that vein, I much admire John Barth’s Chimera, not to mention Robertson Davies’ Manticore. For Tim O’Brien, I’d pick Going After Cacciato, but The Things They Carried is super, no doubt about it.

  6. rachel permalink
    December 10, 2009 5:11 pm

    I loved a lot of the books that we were forced to read in high school, the classics. That’s how I discovered Jane Austen and “The Great Gatsby” which led me to things like “The Picture of Dorian Grey.” But I didn’t like them blindly, there were classics which I could not tolerate: “The Lord of the Flies,” “Crime and Punishment,” “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”

    I don’t know though I think that 1999 is too soon, I think that the cutoff needs to be further back, if time is actually going to count for something. Okay, I obviously agree with “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” Also with Duff Brena on “Lolita” and many other things by Nabokov, such as “Despair” and “Invitation to a Beheading.”

    What else? What else? This is a good question Chauncey Mabe. I don’t think that things that are “classics” can simply be books that you liked a lot. I think that there are books that have not been canonized that ought to be, but I don’t think that it is just simply that they were good and you liked them. There has to be something more to it than that. I think that it requires a great book that is very important and did something important. Yes, just because you say so, but I think that you should have a reason to back up your saying so.

  7. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    December 10, 2009 5:48 pm

    Rachel, as so often is the case, you are exactly right, and I could not say it better myself. It is not enough to simply love a book, we must be able to defend its merits on the basis of literary quality, importance, etc., etc. Although I could take issue with some of the books suggested here — anything, for example, by John Steinbeck, including Grapes of Wrath (though it was an important book, if not a masterpiece of literature), they are all defensible — with the exception of Good Omens, which is a fun novel, for sure, and one I’ve recomended, but sadly lacking in distinctive writing. Sorry, Tommy.

    • Tommy permalink
      December 10, 2009 9:56 pm

      No need to apologize, Chauncey. Good Omens isn’t memorable for Gaiman/Pratchett’s writing prowess. I was applying Cox’s guideline of a book you have read five times and pressed upon all your friends. Also, Good Omens rescued my love of literature. I had forgot how fun reading could be. How books could make me laugh. Thank you for being gentle though.

      Rachel is right we should be able to defend our choices with stronger arguments than simply “we like it, we like it a lot” when shouting classic in a packed library.

      “Doctor Glas” is deserving of classic status due to Soderberg’s touching use of imagery, intimately detailed characters (yet describing them in as few words as possible), the topic handled while considering the time of publication (abortion in 1905) an unrequited love story that brings tears to the eyes of the reader tears the writer deserves.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        December 11, 2009 2:20 am

        Well defended, my friend, well defended. As for Good Omens, it is great fun, and we all have a few indefensible favorites. Those of us who are honest, anyway.

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