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 labeled “barely 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)
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?
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.
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.
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!
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