Writing a Classic

We’ve had discussions over the years about what a classic is, and isn’t, and can there really be ‘instant classics?’ (spoiler: no, absolutely not, that’s an oxymoron) I’m not so presumptuous as to think I could write a classic. I’m also fairly sure that most classics were not written to be classic. It’s something ineffable that endures, this quality of a classic. Something that appeals to the generations, and…

Ok, it’s not that much of a mystery. Simply said, classics are books that are read throughout the years. I’d argue that true classics are read voluntarily. Sadly, most young people are force-fed books they are told are classics, and thereby develop a deep-seated loathing for them. For all reading. Because while they are being told ‘you must read this’ they are also told, with an elevated nose and a sniff, ‘oh, that book is trash. Sheer trash!’

You saw that, didn’t you? Maybe heard it, too.

And that’s how you write a classic. You tap into the shared human experience. Connecting with characters written long before you were born and being able to empathize with them, to have an almost alien landscape of a world that no longer exists in our time come alive in your mind again? That’s classic.

Shelves of modern fiction, in this case, the very loosely organized SFF section.

I started thinking about this not because I was at the used bookstore and finding myself much more drawn to the ‘antique’ book section (I’m a purist, by the way. Antique here means over a century old. Vintage is anything over 25 years old. So, mid 1990s is vintage… gah! No!). I bypassed the modern fiction, as I am reading for pleasure almost exclusively on ebooks, and headed right for the classics. The books loved and treasured through the years. Now, here’s the thing. Not all old books are classics. I own a copy of Ruskin’s lectures, Crown of Wild Olive and Sesame and Lilies which still has uncut pages. Given the condition of the book, it was bought, shelved, and never read at all. It came to me in a box of books that had come from a long-retired schoolteacher (I also have her teaching certificates). My mom and I, going through the box, were curious and looked up Ruskin, who seems to have been a bit of a bad lot…

This book was safely on a shelf for a very long time, and it’s almost pristine for it’s age.
One of several uncut pages in this book.

Now, the books I bought at the bookstore were intended to be read. Especially the Kipling. I came up with three of a set of Kipling, but I didn’t care they were missing volumes. Kipling’s travel memoirs are going to be fun to read. The collection of American folklore will be research material. The crime stories collected and edited by Dorothy Sayers are a scholar’s-eye look at a favorite genre. The book of A. Conan Doyle not-Sherlock stories will be a refreshing change from the inimitable (and classic, yes) detective. The book of Robert Service’s poetry, with commentary by himself written in 1914, while he was living in Paris under the shadow of the Great War. I bought the books I chose for their utility to me, but in naming them off here, I think you’ll agree I have rather pedestrian taste. Popular books, in their era. Popular still, albeit less so, because they appeal to that human nature in us all, who wants to read about people. Ruskin’s lofty concepts have gone a century unblemished. The ex-library Kiplings seen below, withdrawn from a college library, have not escaped unscathed. They were read, all right!

The new books (to me) are lying below the other Kiplings on a shelf. This is not all my Kipling – my son organized these shelves by color when we were moving the library recently and they have not been put back in order yet.

Am I going to consciously try to write a classic? No. Like the Robert Service poem I read at the intro of my Friday livestream, I’m writing to keep Hunger and Thirst and Cold at bay. I’m not trying to keep myself alive in a garret in Paris, as he was. He says, in the comment following the poem (The Bohemian), that he’d sold some of his ‘rubbish’ and was going on the town to celebrate with wine and food. That’s what I want to do. Sell my work. Go out for dinner with my Beloved. I’m not trying to leave some sort of moralistic legacy, like Ruskin was.

My book’s pages will be cut, at least. In this era of ebooks? What will become classics? There will be classics, I don’t doubt it. And in an era where Print on Demand becomes the way to get print, books in paper will speak volumes for their scarcity. Perhaps in a hundred years someone will stand in a bookstore holding one of my books in their hand thinking that if it was put on paper, in a paperless era, it must be something special.

Or perhaps not. My paperbacks are more likely to fall apart from being read, long before that descendant appears.

26 comments

  1. First off, I have a deep envy of you for your bookstore. Ooo, there’s SHE by H. Rider Haggard! :makes grabby hands:

    Ahem… Anyway… Yeah, not all old books are classics, and not every book by a known name is a classic either, but they’re fun to have. When I was a teen, my dad knew I liked old books, so whenever he saw one at the flea market, he bought it. I ended up with authors I’d never heard of. Neat to have, but not as exciting as say a super old edition of David Copperfield. One of my usual sources here for old books has implemented a policy that any hardcover printed before 1970 is vintage and therefore $5 (instead of the usual $1). No reasoning other than age. I expect the majority of their vintage stock will sit there until they turn to dust because they’re not classic in any sense of the word and the likelihood anyone around here will slap down a fiver for them is nil. (Unless they’re buying them as ‘decor’.)

    I would hope that a few of my books are worthy of one day being a classic, but I’m not holding my breath. And I’m not fooling myself that all of them deserve the title. I think most of them lack the timelessness a true classic has.

    1. Books as decor is a thing. I follow a couple of sellers on Instagram that sell bundles of books sorted by cover colors … most of the titles I don’t recognize or realize are trashy. Because there are trashy books.

      Heh. Which She may be, but I don’t care. I read Haggard for the pulpy goodness.

      1. I do like Haggard. I’m currently pulping my way through the ebook of “Queen Sheba’s Ring”.

  2. — Sadly, most young people are force-fed books they are told are classics, and thereby develop a deep-seated loathing for them. For all reading. Because while they are being told ‘you must read this’ they are also told, with an elevated nose and a sniff, ‘oh, that book is trash. Sheer trash!’ —

    Forcing a book on a young reader is almost always a terrible mistake. So is denigrating some variety of fiction he’s already grown to like. But “educators” have always been impatient about getting teens to read the works they find “important.” Rather than “sell” them, they impose them coercively. The usual reaction is negative.

    Ironically, among the books designated “classics” — which to my mind means “at the pinnacle of its class” — are many that were wildly popular when they were new. For instance, The Forsyte Saga novels were the most popular works of their time and place. They spoke to their readers of conditions and classes of people who were important in late Victorian / early Edwardian England. Today’s young readers might think they’re no longer “relevant.” However, they remain powerfully evocative of a time, place, and social conditions that have passed into history.

    It should surprise no one that young readers prefer fiction that speaks to them of things and conditions they find “relevant.” Their perspectives are barely developed, not nearly as broad as they will be decades hence. It’s the acquisition of perspective, and the appreciation of how little that’s genuinely important really changes, that make old books enjoyable. Just means more for us old farts, I suppose.

    1. Hrmph. I prefer to think of myself as a young fart thankyouverymuch.

      My son has been devouring history – and that includes some fiction. He has declared that he wants nothing to do with current events (can’t say that I blame him). Then again, he’s growing up in a house full of books as pictured.

      1. (chuckle) Young, old, who cares? It’s the “fart” part that matters. That’s our shibboleth, our token of membership, our iconic commonality! And it may be one of the reasons why the patrons of used bookstores tend to stand far apart.

      2. I have a copy of the Sayers book on detective stories through the ages. It was given to us by a good friend who had a used bookstore (he specialized in vintage and antiques), knowing that both my husband and I enjoy her detective novels. Which were written for the popular audience and to make a living. She actually was very happy when she could afford to stop writing them and was able to go back to researching Dante’s Inferno. Medieval literature was her passion.

    2. I was just thinking of the Forsyte Saga. Hugely popular, then forgotten, then read again when PBS produced the tv show. The books remain unchanged despite the passage of time and they still speak as they were meant to.

  3. My students giggle when I talk about the penny-dreadfuls and other Victorian era “trash.” Especially when I grab an especially “lurid” cover from the Internet to show them the moral corruption inherent in such “garbage.” (I can keep a straight face, most of the time, but it’s hard.)

      1. So it’s in Dayton, OH, huh? Google maps claims that it’s less than an 18 hour drive. If I start now, I can be there by noon tomorrow….

          1. Ooooo … daughter lives in Fairborn; son in Columbus … next visit scheduled for April … let me pencil in a little side trip.

  4. The closest I can think of to an instant classic would be OSC’s Ender’s Game. But with all the identity politics BS the last few years I’m not sure how it is perceived by today’s readers, it might have fallen out of favor after 30 years. (checks Amazon, #3000 in all books, not bad for book that came out in 1985) To be considered a true classic though, we’ll have to wait and see how it does with the public in another century. I doubt I’ll be around then.

    *I want a used book store that has books older than 1990 on the shelves. Of course then I would have to find someplace to put my purchases. Probably a good thing we don’t have that available here then.

  5. My Kipling books are contemporaries of yours, but acquired back in the 50’s and 60’s. I used to scan for that distinctive rust-colored binding in second-hand bookshops.

  6. I think fashion and changing tastes are involved too. Luckily, properly bound paper — if stored properly — can keep well enough to be read a few decades later. The words don’t fall off the page. Then, an intrepid reader can rediscover something wonderful.

    Didn’t Jane Austen fall out of favor for decades, only to be rediscovered?

  7. We used to scour used bookstores for the works of Rafael Sabatini. It’s been years since I’ve seen any of those books in the wild. Fortunately, our bookshelf is well stocked, and ‘megapacks’ of his stuff are available as ebooks.

    1. Oh, Sabatini! I’m so old that his books were in the public library when I was a kid, and I devoured them.

      I confessed to my online book group that my understanding, such as it is, of Renaissance Italy is almost entirely derived from reading Sabatini.

      They said, “Who?”

  8. I suspect that saying that Sabatini wrote the books that two of the best Errol Flynn movies were made from won’t get a lot more recognition.

  9. “I hope they say/ When I am dead/ [Her] sins were scarlet/ but [her] books here read!” With apologies to Hilaire Belloc.

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