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.
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…
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!
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.