What Makes a Classic?

#LovetoRead is a BBC sponsored campaign, aimed at encouraging young readers to celebrate books.  “Reading is one of life’s greatest joys and can awaken our imagination, inspire and challenge us – not just as children but throughout our lives,” is the motto that heads their About page. It’s a great project to not only get people reading, but get people chatting and drawing from the present to think critically about what they’re reading. Recently, the organization released a list of 10 books every adult says kids should read.

You won’t be surprised to see that amongst the top ten rank Harry Potter, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Alice in Wonderland.  They’re the same books I’ve encountered on one too many ‘must read’ lists, and I’m sure you have too. This recommendation déjà vu, especially when it comes to kids books, caught the attention of Samantha Shannon, a writer for The Guardian.

Image courtesy of BBC

“There’s nothing new, no sense of exploration or departure from what’s come before – and in the case of lists for children, they don’t always reflect what young people are actually reading for pleasure. By recommending the same stories, over and over, we’re not creating fertile ground for the idea of a modern-day masterpiece,” Shannon writes in her critique of the list.

It’s an argument that’s been boiling for years, and more likely decades – a notable recent incident being the English Major protests at Yale. The tedium of the complaint has brought little change however, and the Guardian’s continued grievance (and boredom) with the same books is evidence enough for the need to expand what we read and reccomend.

When it comes to kids lit, recommending the same classics again and again poses a threat to an open mind. Only recently did the age specific genres for grade and middle school readers emerge, and even the birth of YA is a relatively recent explosion. These new fields by no means deny the importance of their predecessors, but they offer exciting new ground for kids to learn to love reading.

Image courtesy of Slate

As Shannon continues in the article, she raises the question of how calssics come into their standing as crème de la crème. “Is it its age, or how it sells, or both, or neither?” or is the simple answer the draw of exclusivity – does their elite status deem them classic, or good? Whatever reason you attribute to a classic’s rise to stardom, recommending these books alone pigeonholes young readers into a narrow scope of learning. As Diana Gerald, CEO of Booktrust, comments: “Too often, children are given ‘timeless classics’ to read, when there are so many other, newer books that are just as brilliant but can also talk to them about the world they know, in language that resonates with them.”

Although completely overhauling a timeless list with contemporary reads for the sake of relaying ‘my world’ and ‘my language’ seems self-absorbed, there is room for alterations. As formative as the classics are – and such a critical piece of the canon to set a foundation with – contemporary lit is equally important. Classics are classics because at any point in time since their publication, something resonates with the present. Something keeps the book only a gauzy thinness away from real life, and the contingency elevates the novel to its status as a classic, and its the timeless quality keeps it on a pedestal.

It does take time, as Shannon hypothesizes, and decades of readership for a book to climb to fame. Many classics aren’t immediately recognized as great novel pursuits, and many authors live and die without their presently held ‘classics’ ever seeing praise.

Kafka’s work was severely underappreciated in his life time – by himself and his audience (image courtesy of nosweatshakespeare)

Classics are comfortable becuase you know what to read. The ‘scary’ thing about current literature is that there’s no one to tell you what’s good and what’s bad. You can cling to a NYT review or the guidance of a booky but at the end of the day the contemporary reader is often a nomad, paving a book list based on curiosity rather than credibility.

The pinnacle of classics must be a nice place to live – Hemingway is probably sipping scotch poolside up there, Plath is probably spouting water at Updike through a pool noodle – but living down here with us mortals and the contemporary writers among us is as fun and just as worthy. There’s no reason there can’t be room for classic and contemporary on the same list.


Featured image courtesy of Salon.