A literary classic. A classic of literature. A great work. A work of genius. A masterpiece. A classic. The classics.
You know War & Peace? It’s a classic. Les Miserables? A classic, too. And Jane Eyre. And Plato’s Republic. And Moby Dick. And Hamlet is a classic, as well. We call them all classics. It’s our shorthand way of assigning them a special place. Of differentiating them from others by their value to humanity, their enduring qualities, universal appeal and their apparent excellence.
Classic. The word seems harmless enough and yet when I say I enjoy reading the classics or I prefer reading the classics, I often find I have offended someone. At first I thought it was just my manner – I can be a bit of a prig – but then I realised it was more than this. The word classic itself seems to offend people. Sounds silly, but if I say ‘classic‘ and you hear ‘you’re an idiot‘ the word and the idea can suddenly seem far from harmless.
But why would anyone hear “you’re an idiot‘ when the word ‘classic‘ is used in conversation?
As someone who found himself in the bottom English class during the last three years of school, I have some idea how this can happen. While the smart kids in the top English classes were doing the classics – Thomas Hardy, Shakespeare and Jane Austen – we were making finger puppets.
When we heard the smart kids moaning about having to write essays on the classic writers, bitching about those impenetrable ‘texts’, and saw them biting their nails while reading the battered paperbacks in the playground, many of us were thankful all we were asked to debate was whether the thumb was a true finger or not.
But soon, we, the dummies, realised that there was a subtle change in the way the smart kids were behaving. Having read a classic work and written the attendant essay it was apparent they were pleased with themselves. A teenager does not carry accomplishment well. A certain haughtiness had crept into their manner. Those who had successfully completed their tasks now spoke of the classics in another way altogether. They had crossed into another realm, as it were. They were part of the elite now. The smartest of the smart. (Of course, socially, this meant we had to tear them limb from limb.)
I realised later, that while we were being taught to fear the classics in the bottom English classes, most of the smart kids in the top classes were being trained to hate the ‘classics’. Even those smart kids who seemed most to enjoy the experience, those who read more widely among the classics than was required, stopped reading them when their formal education was completed. Which seemed to reveal their real relationship with the books. They were a chore. They were a means to an end.
If you were in the bottom English, like I was, you may well hear – you’re an idiot – when anyone mentions the classics. It is only natural. Almost instinctual. The end result of all of those years of training. A reaction which is tinged with sadness not anger.
The angry reaction is reserved for those who read and studied the classics at school and university. Many of these people continue to live under the impression that they have done the classics. And as many of their peers shared their experience at school they can still afford to adopt a truly proprietorial air with the subject. Whenever the word ‘classic’ is uttered amongst their circle of friends, the self-same murmurs of delight, awe and wonder are heard – both as an acknowledgement and a dismissal of the subject.
In those educated circles any further expression of interest in the classics is unwelcome. Anyone insensitive enough to pursue the subject, or worse, to declare a present passion for them, will only draw the ire of their hearers. Why? In such a moment the esteem these people borrowed when studying the classics as youths must be paid back. They suddenly stop hearing classic and hear instead – you’re an idiot. For in that moment the classics have ceased to be their tame pets and have become the beasts they truly are and the educated are revealed as frauds, of sorts. The learnt response of the educated is to lie about the minor details of their qualifications. What they have or have not read, for instance.
The trouble with such a state of affairs is this: not enough people are reading the classics for pleasure. Those taught to fear them at school approach them with an exaggerated caution. The classic is venerated as it is more often than not regarded as a symbol of intelligence. It is an accomplishment to have read one. This often leads those excluded from them as youths to make a study of them as adults. This course of action fails even if it succeeds because such readers believe they must understand every word, comprehend every idea, visualise every description and soon become either frustrated with the books and give up the task or continue out of stubbornness turning what might have been a delightful read into the equivalent of trying to decipher the Rosetta Stone and failing.
Those who have done the classics, the educated, rarely approach them as adults, but if they do (bloody book club), they do so with great impatience. Believing they shouldn’t be forced to return down that path, sure that they’ve probably read it before, but recognising that others will expect them to have read it, they read only to be reminded, making a show of reading quickly, skimming through the pages merely to rediscover ‘the gist’ of the book.
Pride and Prejudice. The two main impediments to our general enjoyment of the classics. Pride in our past glories. Prejudice against our own capabilities.
Reading the classics as adults is one of life’s greatest pleasures. And I encourage everyone to overcome the pride and prejudices which inhibit the enjoyment of them. You did not sanction these prejudices, they were thrust upon you and it is time they were discarded. And pride? Welcome the fall.
Read the classics casually. Take them as you find them. Build up a collection so that you may fit your mood to the right book. Read a few pages, if you don’t like what you read, persevere for a few more pages, then if your opinion is unchanged, try another. There is no way you’ll ever understand everything a great work has to say. If you don’t get something, read on. It may not be that important. If it is, you’ll discover more further along. The more classics you read, the more you’ll enjoy and understand. Knowledge isn’t a shot in the arm, but cumulative process. A person’s taste in literature is not fixed, either. Reading the classics will expand your tastes in literature, art, history, philosophy and on and on. The classics are not a genre.
The classics, or the greats, or literature, or however you may describe the masses of excellent writing produced by humanity, are not a homogeneous whole. They are as diverse as humans are diverse. They stomp across the narrow confines of genre, they defy such classification. Their only shared attribute is that they recommend themselves to you by their superiority as heartily as history recommends them to you by repute. In each you will see reflected yourself, your friends, your family, your hopes, your failures, your lies, your loves and your moments of disgrace.
The classics can never be done. No one has ever read all of the classics. Forgotten classics are being re-discovered. And, believe it or not, classics are still being written. They are never a part of your past. They are never part of humanity’s past. As long as we retain our humanity they are ever present.
If you enjoyed this post you may enjoy reading
Five classics I want to read again and why.
And you may like to investigate The Dead Writers Club
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection.