What are literary classics, and why should we read them? Some of my ideas on that are spelled out in my post “Four Qualities that Make Great Literature Special.” What do some other prominent thinkers, writers, and literature lovers have to say? A quick survey of famous critics and writers suggests that the classics are the books that are not only good to read, but great to reread. We can come to them again and again, and still reap new pleasures and new ideas from the experience.
Nabokov and Calvino: Great Readers are Rereaders
Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita and other highly-praised works, was also a literature professor at Cornell. This statement from his Lectures on Literature is famous:
“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book; one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” –Vladimir Nabokov
We might agree with Nabokov that the best readers are rereaders, while still acknowledging that not every book is worth rereading. Italian author Italo Calvino wrote a famous essay in 1986, “Why Read the Classics,” where he defines classics precisely as those works people find worthwhile to read again:
“The classics are the books of which we usually hear people say: ‘I am rereading…’ and never ‘I am reading….’ –Italo Calvino
Calvino went on to elaborate, explaining that classic literature seems to offer us something more, or different, every time we read it, especially at different stages of our lives:
“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.
“There should therefore be a time in adult life devoted to revisiting the most important books of our youth. Even if the books have remained the same (though they do change, in the light of an altered historical perspective), we have most certainly changed, and our encounter will be an entirely new thing. –Italo Calvino
The Classics are Enriched by Generations of Interpreters
Calvino and other critics state further that classics don’t just offer individuals something new through multiple personal rereadings, but they also collect multiple re-interpretations from the culture throughout a whole history of readers rereading them. These interpretations of the work become part of the culture, and therefore part of any individual reader’s experience of the work.
Longtime literary critic Harold Bloom explained this idea in an interview with the Parisian Review in 1991:
“The old test for what makes a work canonical [another word for “classic”] is if it has engendered strong readings that come after it, whether as overt interpretations or implicitly interpretive forms.” –Harold Bloom
To restate: classic literature invites multiple interpretations, inspiring readers to write about the work itself, and writers and other artists to produce artwork that extends, applies, or comments on it.
Criteria for Greatness: How Do Most Books Stack Up?
I can’t help but like what Bloom has to say about the qualities that define books that are truly worth reading and rereading. Here’s what he told Eurozine.com’s Ieva Lesinska in 2004 when she interviewed him about the publication of his book Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? :
“I remark in this new book that I have only three criteria for whether a work should be read and reread and taught to others, and they are: aesthetic splendour [sic], cognitive power, and wisdom.” –Harold Bloom
I like this list so much, I might embroider it on a pillow.
How do a lot of the books on current bestseller lists stack up under these terms? Do we find true Aesthetic Splendor—artistic excellence, beauty, sharpness, memorable expression—in the writing? We’re more likely to find tired old pop fiction formulas re-warmed, super-simplistic unmemorable prose, or something I’m seeing more of in new fiction these days: self-conscious writing that tries too hard to be new and clever, but just ends up sounding contrived and mechanical.
What about Cognitive Power? Which current bestsellers offer complex presentations of serious and enduring human experiences and problems? Which challenge readers to grow their minds and see the world in truly new ways, helping us conceptualize a new aspect of the topic every time we read the book? And what about Wisdom? This quality is as rare to find in books as it is among our acquaintance in general.
The books we have identified as classics, over time, have become treasured precisely because they embody these qualities. No doubt some of today’s books are destined to join this collection, but we may have to read a lot of mediocre books before we stumble upon one that is destined to be a treasure. On the other hand, you will never waste your time or mental space reading Middlemarch or Wings of the Dove or War and Peace.
Great Literature Can Change Us
“The whole scope of [Culture and Anarchy] is to recommend culture as the great help out of our present difficulties; culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits. . ..” –Matthew Arnold
I think there are two interesting things to notice here:
1. Arnold assumes that some ideas and some ways of communicating them are better than others.
Many folks today might be uneasy about agreeing with that idea in theory, but in practice, it’s hardly controversial. What are all those reviews on Amazon.com about if all works are equally good? In practical terms, we certainly can argue about which books or poems are good and which aren’t, but no case can be made that all writing is equally good, interesting, well-written, or wise.
2. Arnold argued that reading good ideas can actually change people, and ultimately their culture, for the better.
From the 19th century to the mid-20th, people agreed with that idea. Sometime in the 1960s, many started to believe that Freudian drives, genetic make-up, or bad environments determined behavior and character more than persuasion by great ideas. Others accused literate culture as something that oppresses people rather than frees them.
Such suspicion of culture is based on a misunderstanding or lack of knowledge about the history of ideas. History shows plainly that great literature has indeed helped to change people, and ultimately their culture, for the better. It’s not hard to establish on a smaller scale that reading great literature can change people. Ask any devoted readers to tell you how they were saved by good books, and how they changed as a person.
To make a lesser but still important point, it’s not much of a stretch to say that reading Great Expectations or The Great Gatsby or Moby Dick or Portrait of a Lady is going to challenge your thinking and stretch your empathy more than reading Twilight or Fifty More Shades of Gray. I would even go so far as to say that reading any of the first four books will bring you deeper and more lasting enjoyment than reading the latter two.
I do want to point out that my project on this blog isn’t to stop people from reading non-classics. Enjoy reading everything from pop to mystery to thriller to romance to sci fi! But I also want to encourage everyone to try reading some more of the works that time has shown to be our classic treasures.
The sooner you read a great book, the sooner you can reread it. That’s a worthwhile goal, given that some of the best writers and critics claim that good reading is really rereading. Therefore, we need books that can stand up to rereading, yielding more interest, aesthetic pleasure, challenging perspectives, and wisdom with every read.