Tuesday, February 10, 2009

What's in a Name

Royce Gregerson’s article questions the literary nature of Wabash College’s curriculum, asking “where did all the great books go?” He furthers his complaint by pondering “"who even knows who Susan Gubar, Derek Walcott, Nabokov, Szymborska, and Murakami are? Who could possibly say that these represent some of the greatest books ever written?" These are very prominent authors, albeit recent ones. This dramatically argues, what is a classic?
To me, a classic is a timeless book, which I can read at any moment and feel the same spark as the first time I ever read it. Granted, there are many books written by the old masters (Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Thoreau), that I do not enjoy upon a second reading, yet these still retain their “classic” status. Based on a historic value, these authors must be “classic,” as their writing signifies a hallmark of literature in terms of literary tropes, content, and manipulation of form. The problem with this is the counter-question: does a “classic” only refer to an old book, written by someone long passed? Can there be no new classic books? There must be, as several of the “new” authors on the list above are heralded as revolutionary, and have garnered many awards. Besides, how is an author to gain the notoriety and elevated status as the Shakespeare’s of yesteryear, without being compared to them? For a class that revolves around various degrees of prominent literature, the reading list should consist of several different authors and genres, so as to get a broad spectrum of what the term “classic” really means.


  1. Reading Mr. Bustamante’s response, I was most intrigued with the line: “To me, a classic is a timeless book, which I can read at any moment and feel the same spark as the first time I ever read it.” Although many times I accept what has been declared one of “The Greats” as definitive, I would agree with Mr. Bustamante’s opinion. The act of reading is such a subjective experience, one that takes place inside the reader’s mind solely, and it has been ever since we’ve stopped having our parents read the stories for us as we fall asleep. No one else can tell me what I’m thinking as I read. Even if I have been told that “The Count of Monte Cristo” is a classic, if I read it and am bored, then to me, it is not a classic, regardless of what academia has supposed. If I were in solitary confinement, and I read “The Count of Monte Cristo,” without any forewarning of its status as “classic,” would I enjoy it the same as if I had heard? I like to think that I would. That is why Mr. Bustamante’s sentence stood out to me: while I may or may not know what other people think of a novel, I can know what I think of it.

    As for the idea that the “spark” should be retained after numerous rereads, although their literary merit has been debated, I instantly think of the Harry Potter series of novels. Having read the series as I was the real age of the fictional character (when Harry was fifteen, I was a fifteen-year-old reading his story), I have a special connection to the novels. I consider them classics. When I read them over, it’s a feeling of nostalgia in addition to the enthralled wonder J.K. Rowling’s writing evokes that I feel. The academic’s argument might be, “But what truth, what literary merit do those silly novels hold?” I would argue that the emotion I feel when reading those books repeatedly is more “true” than the response I get from the more unaffecting readings I have been assigned in class, readings that have been deemed “classics” and part of the canon. When the consumption of art is such a subjective experience, how can anyone but yourself decide what is a classic?

  2. I must agree with Joel. His idea of a "new" classic is pretty revolutionary. After all, the connotations raised by the word "classic" point to works that are often very old. Why not a modern classic?

    Case in point: the novel Frankenstein is timeless because of its Romantic tone: it dissuades the reader from the knowledge-seeking attitude of the Enlightenment. This attitude still prevails today, and while we have not created any humans from charnel houses as Victor Frankenstein did, we have certainly accomplished many things with terrible repercussions (e.g., the atomic bomb, which destroyed two Japanese cities).

    This book is timeless. It's message - the consequences of science - is still important today. Are there no books that can be written now with the same timelessness? The House of the Scorpion, by Nancy Farmer, though a children's book, is a similar work. It is about a drug lord who clones himself and uses the parts from his clones to revitalize himself and live indefinitely. It is disturbing because it brings up many of the questions that Frankenstein does. Is the clone, Matt, who is in love with a US senator's daughter, really human? Does he have the same legal and moral rights (and responsibilities) as other humans? For me, this is a timeless issue, as cloning is quickly becoming a reality, and will remain a disputed situation for a long time. This, for me, makes The House of the Scorpion a modern classic.

    This harks back to my original blog post on this topic. What is a classic, and who decides that criteria? If we cannot unanimously decide who should deem certain works classics, how can we agree that classics need to be old?

  3. I totally agree with Joel's comment about Royce's article. The moral that we should take from this story is...what is a classic? This was a "Great Books" class, not just all the old classics that most have read before. These are great books of present and past: time-tested classics of yesterday and Nobel laureates of today. We cannot discount the novels and writings of today just because they have not been tested by time yet.

    Books are what we make of them. If you dont like it, then you dont like it. A "Great Books" class is meant to introduce you to new genres, books, and authors; it's supposed to broaden your horizons as an liberal arts major. Who can really decide what is a classic and what isn't? just tons of professors and teachers/administrators saying we should teach and shouldnt teach? Why should one book be declared better than another? I believe some books are more interesting and fascinating to read, but that is not the criteria that declares it 'canonized.' Sometimes it is based on its use of language, literary elements, imagery, vocabulary, et cetera. But, if it is a profound book with beautiful language, yet no one understands it, is it still a 'great book' or a 'classic?' Well, only time will tell I guess... ;)

    I believe that this is just a horrible cycle that no one can agree on an answer. There are too many books, poems, short stories, plays, et cetera out there to read all of them during high school and college. Teachers have to make cuts somewhere and sometimes some of their biases play a role. They want to read as much stuff over many broad genres in a very short period. It is meant to expose you to 'great books' of yesterday and today, not to declare these books better than our time-tested classics.