Classic undertaking

I’m not going to talk about New Year’s resolutions again. That ship has sailed. I’m sure that by this time, three weeks into 2010, you’ve made and broken yours. I decided that as I couldn’t even remember what mine were for 2009, it makes no sense to test myself and my feeble resolve. Besides, all that New Year, new decade stuff is way overdone.

Moving on. What I am doing in the service of self-improvement, and in reflecting on my column of last month in which I admitted that my 2009 reading list was, well, thin, is to read or reread the classics. My self-imposed challenge is to have read 12 of the best books of the ages by the end of the year. In a normal year, I plow through roughly 60 books. Ostensibly, classics take longer to read because one must pause to reflect on the language, to enjoy the density of the prose. A classic shouldn’t be read with the same haste as a modern page-turner, so the quantity may be affected by the quality of my choices.

Which begs the question: what makes a book a classic? Is it purely the fact that it appears on the syllabus of any good college-level English course? “Beowulf”, “Crime and Punishment.” Is it that we read it in Miss Trinkus’s sophomore English class in high school? “The Pearl,” “The Old Man and the Sea.” Or do classics penetrate deeper into our collective psyche? Disney has helped countless numbers to “know” the stories of Victor Hugo and de Maupassant. We know the basic story of Anna Karenina; can probably fake a familiarity with “Pride and Prejudice,” if only from constant association with the cottage industry that is Jane Austen. But have you really read the book, that is, the original, the one with all the digressions so beloved by writers in the 19th century?

Going to the dictionary, in this case the “classic” American Heritage, the term is defined as: Of the highest rank or class. The second definition: Serving as an outstanding representative of its kind; model. And, finally, the usage most often ascribed to old movies: Having lasting significance or recognized worth. “Wuthering Heights,” “Moby-Dick.” Is it simply a matter of being in print after 100 years? Or, can a classic present itself at birth with all three definitions applicable?

Taste and experience make us all highly subjective. I think that the Albert Payson Terhune collie books are classics; someone else might find them outdated dog stories. No one debates the classic-ness of Mark Twain’s oeuvre, but how is it these sly, adventure stories make the grade? They endure because they are taught. Dickens is taught. Homer is taught. There are some modern books (that is, written in the last half of the 20th century) that have already become classics because their themes and their writing are of the highest caliber, and they consistently appear on reading lists. “Beloved,” “Poisonwood Bible.” In another half century, they will still be widely read and taught; good stories and complicated themes live on. So yes, when a book makes it onto an academic reading list, decade after decade, whether high school, college or graduate school, it has a place in the pantheon of classic books. It ceases to be a subjective choice; it becomes part of the human experience. Books like these round out a person’s education even if there is no book report due at the end. The fact that so many acknowledged classics are familiar to us without actually having been read firsthand (or only in the Illustrated Classics comic book series) goes to the point that they are a part of our makeup, like being able to recognize the Statue of Liberty even if you’ve never climbed her stairs.

What do we want from a classic? Simply put, we want to see ourselves, or, at the very least, we want to see how human beings cope with grievous circumstances, how the writer manipulates not just the characters, but the reader’s emotions. We want to be tested on our vocabulary, to be challenged by metaphor and wined and dined by simile. We want, in short, to think. We also want, when we’ve undertaken the reading of a classic, to feel pleased with ourselves. A little chuff of superiority as we say, why yes, I’ve read “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.” The movie wasn’t nearly as good.