The Classics Reclamation Project, Unveiled

by Erin on December 2, 2010

The Classics Reclamation Project

I’ve been toying with a classics project for myself for well over a month. I’ve struggled with definitions and made lists of potential reads. I’ve considered what approach to take and how best to incorporate the project into Erin Reads. Now, at last, I’m ready to unleash my project on the world! Presenting: the Classics Reclamation Project (CRP).

Before I get to specifics, I’d like to explain a bit about why I need a classics project and what I expect from it. Then I’ll explain how I’m defining the term “classic” for purposes of the CRP and what form the project will take. First up:

Reclaiming the Classics

Everyone has his or her own reasons for reading classics, whether you call them “classics” or “texts from the Western canon” or “old books everyone should read.” For me, they’re personal. Allow me to explain.

Like many kids, I read classics in middle and high school because that’s what teachers assigned. Very quickly, such books took on negative connotations in my mind: they were difficult, dense, complicated, full of symbolism, worthy topics of lengthy papers, by no means to be enjoyed. I can’t think of a single classic I read for school that I really loved; most of them I hated. Since then, I haven’t picked up a classic voluntarily; even after high school I’ve continued to approach the classics with what Jenners labeledbarely disguised dread.”

But over the past year or so, I’ve revisited several classics I’d previously read and disliked. I reread Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and adored it. I listened to Sissy Spacek read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and was spellbound; the same thing happened with The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Heck, I even enjoyed Homer’s The Odyssey the second time around!

In his delightful book The Rights of the Reader, Daniel Pennac writes,

“What we need to understand is that books weren’t written so that young people could write essays about them, but so that they could read them if they really wanted to.” (p. 128)

It took me years of avoiding classics, but now I think I really do want to read them. Hence, the name of my project: the Classics Reclamation Project. I am reclaiming these books for myself.

What I Expect to Find

Italo Calvino touches on so many wonderful definitions of “classic” in Why Read the Classics? As I pondered them, however, I realized they are not particularly helpful in identifying a classic before you’ve read it. I plan to use some of Calvino’s criteria as I read each book to determine whether or not it ranks among my own personal classics. Some of my favorites:

  • “A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.” (p. 5)
  • “A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.” (p. 5)
  • “A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before.” (p. 5)
  • “Reading a classic must also surprise us, when we compare it to the image we previously had of it.” (p. 5)
  • “Classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them.” (p. 6)

Also, Sarah at SmallWorld Reads offered the following characteristic: “Classic literature speaks beyond the story.”

I expect to find many of these characteristics in the books I read as part of the Classics Reclamation Project.

What Counts as a Classic?

Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino (cover)The question of what makes a book a classic is a tricky one. A few Sundays ago, I posted about defining “classic” and received many wonderfully helpful comments that helped me nail down my definition as it pertains to the CRP. A big thank you to everyone who contributed!

I initially thought I didn’t want to define “classic” in terms of age. In the Sunday Salon post comments, Amanda, Rebecca, Eva, and Caitie all mentioned age as a factor in defining classics, but still I resisted. Then, two things happened. First, I perused Entertainment Weekly’s list of “new classics” as posted by Sarah at SmallWorld Reads and realized that, while I do recognize many of the books on the list as part of the Western canon and as perhaps destined to eventually become classics, I can’t bestow that label upon them yet. Second, I looked at my own list of books I’d like to read for the CRP, which I’ve been keeping since I began planning my project. Out of the 134 books I had listed, 102 were 50+ years old, and another 15 were published before 1970. Only 17 were published in the last 40 years, and most of those were more accurately books from the Western canon. They may be potential or future classics, but they aren’t quite there yet. Faced with such strong personal inclinations, I decided to rely on age after all.

(For strong thoughts as well as entertaining photos regarding “contemporary classics,” check out this post on readerbuzz!)

Disregarding the books published after 1969, I’m left with 117 titles on my list. 88% of them are at least 50 years old; 13% are 40-49 years old. So, I’m letting myself read the younger classics, but they may not make up more than 13% of my overall CRP reading, or roughly 1 in 8 books. I realize my dates might be a little on the recent side, but it’s my project, so there!

However, I still do not believe all old books are classics. Thus, the highly subjective personal sense of what makes a classic must come into play. In an attempt to nail down this vague feeling, here are some other people’s takes on the matter, all from the comments left on my Defining “Classic” Sunday Salon post:

  • From F. Scott Fitzgerald, shared by Stephanie at Read in a Single Sitting, who saw it on Random House’s Twitter account (whew!): “A classic is a successful book that has survived the reaction of the next generation.”
  • From Charlie from The Worm Hole: Classics are books that are “well read and known.”
  • From Carolyn of A Few of My Favorite Books: “In Susan Hill’s book Howards End is on the Landing, she says the real test of an author’s work comes after they’ve died and are no longer publishing — will their work continue to sell then without anything new coming out to keep their publicity going?”

My classics project is also a way for me to fill in some of my literary gaps. As such, books eligible for the CRP may also be:

  • “fundamental works” (Calvino, p. 3) / cultural touchstones / books from the Western canon I’ve not read; and/or
  • personal “literary albatrosses” (Dan from Atticus Books) / intimidating books I’ve always meant to read.

In summary: any book that fits the vague criteria above and was first published before 1961 is eligible. In addition, 1 in 8 books I read can have been published between 1961 and 1969.

Reading the Classics

I’d decided on my project’s format before I read Calvino’s essay, but when I read this line I knew I’d chosen correctly:

“[T]he person who derives maximum benefit from a reading of the classics is the one who skillfully alternates classic readings with calibrated doses of contemporary material.” (p. 8 )

I always have several books going at once. From now until whenever I decide to end the official Classics Reclamation Project, one of those books will be a classic that fits the criteria above. It can be in print or audio form; I can choose any book I want as long as it fits. I can read each book as quickly or as slowly as I want. But at all times, I plan to be actively reading a classic. I won’t so much be alternating book for book, but I’ll always be reading something classic and something contemporary.

Currently, my plan is to make Wednesdays Classics Reclamation Project days here on Erin Reads. I’m not sure yet if I want these weekly check-ins to include reviews of the classics I read or if I want those to be separate; I’ll decide as I go along.

The Starting Point

First up: The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, published in the 1950s. I started the series of seven novels for Clare’s Narnia Week but fell behind due to unexpected visiting. It’s a great way to kick off the Classics Reclamation Project, though, and I’m pleased to finally be reading it! The Chronicles of Narnia is definitely a cultural touchstone I’ve been meaning to read forever. I’m two and a half books in, and so far it’s both fun and not exactly what I expected.

Next Wednesday will be the first official Classics Reclamation post, and I expect it will take on this children’s fantasy classic.

Your Turn!

If you could choose one classic (according to the criteria above) that you would urge me to include, what would you recommend? There’s always room for more on my potential project reads list!

Care to share?

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Join the conversation!

40 comments
Jillian
Jillian

This is an awesome project, Erin. I like the point made about mixing contemporary literature with older works. I so agree on the necessity in that.

I look forward to your Wednesday posts. :-)

softdrink
softdrink

I promise I read the whole post, and I'm really intrigued by your project and thoughts on what exactly a classic is.

But what I really want to know is how you're saying CRP. Because I seriously giggled at the fact that it sounds like crap.

Rebecca Reid
Rebecca Reid

I really need to read my copy of that Calvino book. Sounds wonderful. I'm glad you are giving classics another try -- I always find it sad that schools push them too much so people HATE them.

I was going to saw THE WOMAN IN WHITE but i see from the other comments that you've already got him. Other favorite classics of mine: Pride and Prejudice, Huckleberry Finn, Jane Eyre, The Iliad, Robinson Crusoe, Mrs Dalloway, East of Eden (may be too modern). But Classics are all subjective and I suspect that many dislike these books, even when they are my favorites!.

Rose City Reader
Rose City Reader

I found you through a FF post on twitter and am glad I did. I'm now a follower.

Your CRP is a terrific idea! Based on Calvino's five points, my recommendation would be Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Here is my review to explain why.

Happy reading!

Rose City Reader

Jenners
Jenners

Wow ... I'm so impressed with all the thought and effort you put into this!! I've been doing a similar thing (though not nearly as organized) in picking a few books every year that I feel I "SHOULD" read because I hear about them all the time but have never read them and feel like I should. (Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables, Pride and Prejudice, The Brothers Karamazov were all ones I tackled in the last year or so.) Despite not falling in love with any of them except Anne of Green Gables, I did feel better knowing that I had read them. In 2011, I plan on continuing to read a handful of classics, including a few on on your own list. I look forward to seeing this project unfold.

Paul
Paul

Great post and idea! I've been telling myself that I would read more classics for some time now. Perhaps you can inspire me to start.

One of my favorite classes in college was "Masterpieces of Literature". We read some of the great ones like "Middlemarch", "Anna Karenina" and "French Lieutenant's Woman". I think we can learn so much from such long-lived tales.

Amy
Amy

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Middlemarch by George Eliot, Death Comes for the Archbishop & My Antonia by Willa Cather are a few of my suggestions.

I have never read Middlemarch. I was supposed to for a college class but it was my last semester, senior year and I just couldn't get into so I barely read one of the Footnote books. I am going to read Middlemarch in 2011 along with many other "classics"

This is a great idea, Erin! Good luck! Enjoy!!

~ Amy

Ellen
Ellen

i like the way you're defining "classic" here - because like you I consider it something pretty personal. we all have a different set of classics composed of some weird mix of the cannon and the books we feel we should have read but haven't, and it's tough (or impossible) to find a way of defining it for everyone. ie, one of my friends recently told me she was reading some ayn rand's "classic" books, which i have never read but would also never include on a list of "classics."

i'm going to pin my inability to come up with many book ideas on exhaustion, but here are a few: beowulf, le morte d'arthur (or parts...long as balls, so i've only read bits & pieces), canterbury tales, something by nabokov - ada, lolita, or speak, memory. and how about cheever's stories? (some of these - le morte d'arthur, canterbury tales, cheever, i've only read part of so they're kind of aspirational reading for me right now.)

Steph
Steph

I love the sound of this project you've devised for yourself. I often feel like I need to read more Classics, and certainly getting an ereader has made me more open to doing so as I can download so many for free (and not worry about their considerable heft!).

One classic that is more on the contemporary side but would still fit the bill (it was published in 1946) and is one I love dearly and think more people need to read is All The King's Men by Robert Penn Warren. It's truly a book that has a little something for everyone in it and is just SO good. I could read it over and over again... In fact, I probably need to re-read it very soon! :D

Mrs. DeRaps
Mrs. DeRaps

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison! Great African-American classic.

Eva
Eva

I feel lucky that I've been reading classics since I was a little girl, so to me they tend to feel more like old friends than anything to dread. :)

Where's your master list? Did I miss the link or are you not sharing it?

I can't tell from your critera if you consider Wilkie Collin's novels classics, but they'd be my first recommendation as far as Victorian lit goes. Either Woman in White or No Name are great and deal with societal issues as well as telling rip-roaring stories!

The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated by Stephen Mitchell, was moving and powerful, if you want to continue on the old books trend.

And looking outside the west, The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon (I read the Meredith McKinney translation) and Arabian Nights (translated by Hussain Hadawy) both delighted me.

I'm cutting myself off, because otherwise I'd suggest 100s of books, hehe. I love the classics, or older books, or whatever we're going to call them. ;)

LifetimeReader
LifetimeReader

I am so excited to hear about your project (when Amanda shared it on twitter)! I too am embarking on a literary odyssey through the classics, although I've organized it slightly differently. How wonderful to have more partners in crime!

Amanda
Amanda

Is there a place where we can view your titles? YOu said you had around 108 of them, right?

I don't make a hard and fast age line with my classics. Generally I tend to like them to be around at least 50 years old, but there are some in that 40-50 year range that I still consider classic (notable examples: The Bell Jar, Catch-22, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and even To Kill a Mockingbird only hit 50 this year). My problem is when I get to classic authors who were still publishing across that age line. Lolita may be a classic, but what about the stuff Nabokov published in the 70s?? Or Marquez - is his 1985 Love in the Time of Cholera considered classic because he has some classics written that are nearly 50 years old? That's my biggest dilemma.

Anyway, I'm so looking forward to this project!!!! I would love to see your titles. Are you only reading books that you already once read? Or are you mixing it up with books you haven't read yet?

Allie
Allie

An admirable project.

I am focusing on the reading of 250 classics on my own blog. I did keep a bunch of younger books on my list (I developed mine from the AP literature test requirements as well as a few other sources). I regret that decision now, but I am going to stick to my list-I am about 70 titles in by this point.

I look forward to seeing what you think of all these classics. Is there a place where we can see a list of titles you've chosen?

Erin
Erin

Thanks, Jillian! I'm really looking forward to your War and Peace readalong :-)

Erin
Erin

HA. I did not think of that. I guess I should be writing it C.R.P., because that's how I say it: "C-R-P," not "crp"! But if you want to call my project crap, I suppose that's your choice...as long as you're still intrigued :-)

Erin
Erin

I haven't read many of the works Calvino talks about in the book's other essays, so I've not read beyond the "Why Read the Classics?" essay. I'd like to, though, maybe after I've read some of the books he discusses!

I've tried Jane Austen several times and never could get into her novels. I'm thinking of trying P&P on audio for the project; I can't do a classics project without reading Jane Austen! The others you listed are on my list, except for Robinson Crusoe, which I'll add right now. Thanks!

Erin
Erin

I'm glad you found Erin Reads! Thanks for your CRP suggestion. I'm planning to give Great Expectations a shot!

Erin
Erin

Without an organized project, I'd just end up ignoring those books I "should" read! I know I'll feel better having read whatever books I end up reading, even if I don't love them all. I'm trying to show myself they're not so different from the contemporary books I read -- I'll like some, I won't like others, and that's fine. I'm looking forward to seeing what you choose to read and maybe overlapping titles a bit!

Erin
Erin

Thanks! It's a project I've been wanting to undertake for a while. I hope it does inspire you to jump in!

"Masterpieces of Literature" sounds like a wonderful course. Middlemarch is on my list, but not the other two. I only added War and Peace, since I thought two Tolstoys would be intimidating, but I suppose Anna Karenina should be there too! I'll go add it :-)

Amanda
Amanda

Ooh I second the req for Death Comes For the Archbishop! That was one of my favorites of last year and I loved it so much more than My Antonia (which was still good, but not wonderful for me). Cather is my dad's favorite author and he's read nearly all her works, and he says Death Comes For the Archbishop is his fav too.

Erin
Erin

Jane Eyre will be one of my first reads -- I can't wait! Middlemarch and My Antonia are on my list, but Death Comes for the Archbishop is not. I'll add it! Maybe our Middlemarch paths will cross :-) Thanks for the suggestions!

Erin
Erin

Exactly -- what you define as classic may not match what I do! Great example with the Ayn Rand. Those aren't on my list of classics either.

I have Beowulf and Nabokov on my list, but Le Morte D'Arthur, Canterbury Tales, and Cheever's stories aren't on there yet. I'm a little scared of the first two, but maybe that's a good thing! I'll look into them -- thanks for the suggestions!

Erin
Erin

An ereader is coming to me for Christmas and I CANNOT WAIT for all the classics! I jump up and down with glee when I think about it!

I've added All the King's Men to my list -- it fits the criteria and sounds wonderful! Thanks!

Erin
Erin

Got it! Thank you! I also added Of Mice and Men on audio from your suggestion on my classics audiobooks post last week :-)

Erin
Erin

You are so lucky! I'm jealous! I'm hoping it's not too late to turn those once-enemies into friends.

I neglected to link to my master list -- sorry! It's there now, and it is also on my new Projects page. Or, for easy access, click here!

Wilkie Collins definitely counts, and The Woman in White is already on my list. If I like it, I'll move on to No Name! Gilgamesh is there as well -- I just requested the audio version of the Stephen Mitchell translation from my library. Glad to hear it's a good choice! I also added The Pillow Book and Arabian Nights. I'd love to read more from outside the Western literary tradition, but I know so little about non-Western classics that I don't even know where to start. Thanks for the help!

You're welcome to keep recommending. :-)

Erin
Erin

Agreed -- the more, the merrier! Thanks for stopping by so I know to follow your project as well!

Erin
Erin

I had to pick a cutoff or I'd have managed to justify reading books published just a few years ago! My distinct age line is jut for CRP purposes; generally I don't plan to be quite so strict. I let myself have books from the 1960s in moderation, since that's 40 years old. The across the age line thing is tough -- I chose earlier works for all of those crossover authors, but if I end up loving any of them, I'll probably sneak in the later works!

Only a handful on my list are books I'd be rereading. My "classics I've read" list is seriously (embarrassingly!) anemic, so a project to reread the ones I've read already wouldn't take long! There are a few I've read, though, that I suspect I'll like much better if I read them on my own instead of for school.

By the way, I've added a link to the Google spreadsheet list to the intro post as well as to the CRP explanation on my new Projects page. I'll keep it up to date as I add / read books.

Erin
Erin

Thanks!

250 is a lot -- talk about an admirable project! I decided not to set a number for myself to avoid feeling intimidated. I think if I were going to pick a number and set a definite list, I'd probably end up including some younger books on there. I was surprised that some of the books I'd originally thought to include were so young.

I've added a link to the Google spreadsheet that is my potential reads list to the post above, or you can click here!

softdrink
softdrink

It's now stuck in my head, so I'm afraid I will forever think of it as Project Crap. I promise it's more of a "holy crap, that's an impressive project" thought, than a "those books are crap" thought, though. :-D

Eva
Eva

I think Anna Karenina is a better introduction to Tolstoy than War and Peace, since it's more of a straight-up novel than the genre mixing of W&P. :)

Erin
Erin

It's been added to the list! I already own My Antonia, but I'm starting to think maybe I should put it off in favor of Death Comes for the Archbishop!

Eva
Eva

I'm actually mulling over a post re: reading classics while seeking out POC authors, so hopefully that'll have enough recommendations to inspire you!

Thanks for the link to the list: I'm off to check it out. :)

I'm glad you're going to start getting to know Collins with The Woman in White; I started with The Moonstone, which is my least favourite of his that I've read so far (I think I'm around 5 or 6). Good thing I always try to give authors two chances before writing them off! lol

Erin
Erin

Alright, if you must! I suppose I should be honored that my project has been "Jillified," eh?

Erin
Erin

I just found out that Jilian at A Room of One's Own is doing a year-long War & Peace readalong -- a chapter per day. I might have to participate! Surely I can handle a chapter a day? I've not read Les Mis. I think I can only handle one such novel for the time being!

Eva
Eva

It's up to you! :) I LOVED War & Peace (read the Pevear & Volokhonsky edition the first week of 2008), so feel free to jump in. I was just thinking of your starting point...have you read Les Mis? It's a bit like that. Tolstoy includes big chunks on the philosophy of history as well as 'novel' stuff.

Erin
Erin

Yes...well...I wanted to read War and Peace because of how much Renee adores it in The Elegance of the Hedgehog. The way she talks about it makes me want to read and love it! But, I suppose for an introduction I should choose the easier novel, eh? :-)

Erin
Erin

Amanda recommended The Return of the Native on audio to me when I posted about classics on audio. I added it to my C.R.P. list...we'll see how it goes!

Eva
Eva

I'm thinking next year I'll be giving Thomas Hardy a second chance...I read Tess of the D'Ubervilles when I was in middle school, and I didn't like it so I've avoided him ever since. lol

Erin
Erin

Ooh, excellent! I'll watch for your list. The Woman in White is the Collins novel I've seen mentioned most often, so I figured it was a good place to start. I usually try to give an author several chances as well, though sometimes the second chance doesn't happen for a while!