There’s reading and then there’s Reading; just like there’s literature and then there’s Literature (if I were speaking rather than writing, the difference between these two sets of statements would be air quotes surrounding Reading and Literature).
These second elements of each statement suggest a higher standard; greater intellectual depth and rigour; a broader scope and more culturally complex explorations; dazzling eloquence. They suggest superiority, I think.
When you read the first sentence of this blog, what pops into your mind? Do your thoughts line up in an order akin to this one?
reading/ literature Reading/Literature
-Harlequin Romances! –Madame Bovary, Lady Chatterley’s Lover
-Murder mysteries! -The Collected Works of Edgar Allen Poe
– Fantasy and Science fiction! – The Odyssey, The Iliad
– Anything by Stephen King! – Anything by Charles Dickens
Maybe. But maybe not. Because what matters is whether you’ve enjoyed any of these books; whether they captivated you, transported you to another time, place or mindscape.
Is there such a thing as a literary hierarchy? Should there be?
Just this week, a challenge popped up among my closest Facebook friends. Like many of the games and quizzes that circulate on the social network, I don’t know exactly where this one originated, though I think it’s with one of my son’s friends.
The challenge was presented to me this way:
In your status list 10 books that have stayed with you over the years. Try not to take too long or to think too hard about it. They don’t have to be the “right books” or the greatest works of literature, just ones that have affected you in some way. Tag as many of your friends as you want, including me so I can see your list!
Guess what I did first?
I checked out the lists of others who had answered before me. Now why did I need to do that? The challenge made it clear that this wasn’t an intellectual exercise―that it was simply about the books that had left the deepest imprint. And yet I was a little worried that my choices might not be “right”, and I had to make a conscious effort not to overthink and to simply share the titles of books that will always be close to my heart.
This is the list that I eventually posted. They are books that evoked feelings of exhilaration, sadness, safety, intrigue, compassion, outrage, hilarity, poignancy, tremendous tenderness and even love, and finally astonishment (usually by their originality) and which, upon finishing the last page, caused me to sit very still, because I wanted to hold on to them just a bit longer:
La Vie devant soi, (Émile Ajar/Romain Gary)
The World According to Garp (John Irving)
The Intuitionist (Colson Whitehead)
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Michael Chabon)
Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides)
Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
What’s Bred in the Bone (Robertson Davies)
Ensemble, c’est tout (Anna Gavalda)
Black Swan Green (David Mitchell)
Little Lost Angel, (Janet Field Heath, Janet Laura Scott –illustrator)
I Am the Messenger (Marcus Zusak)
La Serpe d’Or (René Goscinny et Albert Uderzo). My first Astérix!
Lists like these are always too short (I know, I cheated and included twelve titles), and we inevitably forget personal treasures. I could have named 40 in a matter of minutes. And in a sense, that’s why this challenge works: because there are only good answers and because it invites us to conjure up happy reading memories and reminds us again how much joy literature has brought to our lives.
What’s most striking about the other lists that popped up on my son’s and then my own Facebook page is their variety. These were the lists of both twenty-something and fifty-something readers, and they included The Shadow of the Wind (Carlos Ruiz Zafon), All Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Maria Remarque), To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee), A Damsel in Distress (PG Wodehouse), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter S. Thompson), Cat’s Cradle (Kurt Vonnegut), The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, (Douglas Adams), Gulliver’s Travels (Jonathan Swift), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (William Shakespeare), Le Grand Meaulnes (Alain Fournier), The Old man and the Sea (Earnest Hemingway), Calculating God (Robert Sawyer), Anil’s Ghost (Michael Ondaatje), A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens), The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America (Joe Posnanski), and so many more!
And the lists keep popping up, as people embrace the challenge with relish. They make up a fine catalogue indeed.
It is a profound question I think, and I was expecting some sort of survey or perhaps a critique of the syllabuses of modern university humanities and literature programs.
Happily, Calvino subverted my expectations and instead wrote a lovely and slightly rambling exploration of the parameters of the term “Classic” as it applies to literature.
Although he begins with references to the more daunting ancient classics, such as the works of Herodotus and Thucydides, Lucretius and Lucian (the type of works usually tackled in the classroom); and though he includes a later, European bibliography featuring Balzac, Dickens, Emile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, Kafka, Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, Dostoevsky’s The Possessed that is firmly planted in scholarly tradition, Calvino nevertheless offers a meandering and very personal expression of what reading the Classics should mean to readers everywhere.
He begins in a tongue-in-cheek manner, saying that:
“The classics are the books of which we usually hear people say: “I am rereading…” and never “I am reading….”, suggesting that as readers, we all have our insecurities.
And then quickly goes to the heart of the experience, explaining that:
“The classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory, camouflaging themselves as the collective or individual unconscious.”
For Calvino, “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”
His view of the reading experience is at once personal and intimate, creating a far more emotional than intellectual connection:
“The classics are books that we find all the more new, fresh, and unexpected upon reading, the more we thought we knew them from hearing them talked about. Naturally, this only happens when a classic really works as such—that is, when it establishes a personal rapport with the reader. If the spark doesn’t come, that’s a pity; but we do not read the classics out of duty or respect, but only out of love.”
What strikes me the most about his essay is that it offers a definition of the Classics that embraces the same spirit that animates the Facebook challenge, and if I look at the lists still being posted on Facebook, it’s clear that most if not all the books listed have indeed entered the collective imagination as well as our own, and will quite likely stand the test of time.
So, how about meeting this week’s challenge? List 10 books that have stayed with you over the years. Try not to take too long or to think too hard about it. They don’t have to be the “right books” or the greatest works of literature, just ones that have affected you in some way.
And have fun doing it!
“Then I ought to rewrite it yet again lest anyone believe that the classics ought to be read because they “serve any purpose” whatever.The only reason one can possibly adduce is that to read the classics is better than not to read the classics.”