Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Classics

I have a theory about the classics of literature that attempts to explain the reason why most are boring to the point of narcolepsy. It distills down to a conspiracy either out of a haughty pretension or a malicious sense of humor. Also note that this theory may isomorph to any fields where certain works are said to be "classics".

The first supposition goes that in order for the experts to remain experts they all have to agree that the best examples of great literature are those which are so dense and unreadable that the laymen would never be able to muddle their way through them. This ensures that the uninitiated will not be able to easily usurp the experts. This also gives the experts a feeling of vague superiority for their virtuous march through the classics just defined on the basis of said march.

But because they're classics everybody who reads feels obligated to make the attempt at reading them. When they unsurprisingly fail, they feel guilty and more importantly inferior to the experts who not only read, but analyze and even define the classics through the analysis. Twain once said that a classic is a book that everyone wants to have read but that no one wants to read. Twain was an observant fellow.

The other theory, or perhaps a corollary as they are not mutually exclusive, suggests that experts are merely playing a tremendous and well orchestrated prank upon the average reader. "Gentlemen!" a literature professor at a prestigious university might inquire, "which book shall we foist upon the masses this year?" This literati might then all go about writing deep analyses (reviews are only for recent works and in any case are not up to academic standards) and start covering them in their upcoming classes. Suddenly we have a new classic solely on the basis of a small group of people who wouldn't know taste from touch, at least not taste as it relates to the average reader.

I honestly believe this is how classics are born, it is only a question of intent as to whether the elite are pranking themselves or pranking us. My new philosophy of books is to read what I like or am interested in and ignore the rest no matter how classic. Besides, enough unread classics already sit on my bookshelves always ready to impress anyone foolish enough to be suckered in by this prank.


Aurelius said...

Here's my piece. I'm fairly opinionated on this matter.

The classics seem dreary 'cuz we live in a world of instant credit gratification. Yeah, those who study literature are the superior minds, but we can't pretend to hold a candle to those who literally held a candle while reading.

Secondly, the 'classics' (and here I refer to the 'canon', not the recent trend where someone is expected to have read a few books from every known ethnic group that has ever endured oppression at the hands of English speakers) were the combined combination of words and Ideas that every person of education was expected to have read. Thus they provided a lot of memes to the writers of the next few eras. Having these in common allows large, complex structures of Ideas to be conveyed to a reader in just a few allusions. More context can be unpacked by those who have studied the alluded works. Indeed, sometimes true meaning can be slipped past the ideological censors of the day via such techniques.

That's my two cents

Josh said...

I confess to purchasing some books purely for the gravitas they'd add to my bookshelf (Paradise Lost, for example).