Monday, September 30, 2013

What makes a classic?



Over the past few weeks I have tried to read two of the modern classics - "The Great Gatsby" (I wanted to read it before I saw the latest movie) and "The Catcher in the Rye"(The year 10's study it as a text). 

The Great Gatsby I could not get past the inane high society gossip in the first chapter, The Catcher in the Rye I managed to get past the half way point before abandoning it. Both I found tedious and boring to read and found excuses to not continue reading. I think about the students who are forced to read these books and wonder if they do the same things I did at school when asked to read a text I found painful to get through.  My disliked texts included "Pride and Prejudice" and "2001 a Space Odyssey", both famous or classics in their own right.

How I managed to do the assessment tasks was to listen carefully in class, read the cliff notes, take copious notes of what the teacher said and memorise a few key quotes to support any arguments I selected to focus on. This to me was far less work than labouring through a book I could not stand to read. Students in these times of easy access to information have so many more advantages when choosing not to read the prescribed texts. 

My latest exploration into these two books got me to thinking about what makes a book a classic when the writing or story is not particularly good. (yes - you can take me task on that last comment if you like.) 

After pondering a for a bit about these questions, I have come up with a few of my own reasons why books may become a classic, with the Great Gatsby and CiTR as the main focus. Please feel free to disagree and to enlighten me further if I am missing something.

1. The work broke the barriers of what was the norm at the time of publishing. The Catcher in the Rye portrayed the teen angst voice which had not been published at that time. It is the first young adult novel, and because it was a breakthrough, it became a classic. The story has no real plot and the writing is not particularly fabulous. Holden Caulfield is an ungrateful, spoiled teenager who has some psychological issues about not wanting to grow up. OK.

2. Mass reading allows more people to discuss the text and elevate its status. Interestingly the Great Gatsby was not a success at the time of publication in 1925, it was not until World War 2 when the books were distributed free of charge to US Soldiers that the Great Gatsby became popular, and then became required text in schools after the war. It apparently is a classic because it embodies the great American dream of rags to riches, it accurately reflects a part of society in the 1920's, and is a love story - of self, the past and a woman. If the book had not been distributed to soldiers in WW2 would it have reached the 'classic' status, or would the remainders been tossed out of the publishing house at stocktake? Was it because soldiers had nothing else to read, so many may not have read a novel before, and so many of them returned from the war having read the book that it became a classic because it was the one book that tied these soldiers together beyond the horrors of war?  Is is a classic because there was not much better at the time after the war to life peoples spirits and get them back to feeling good about life? Did it become a classic due to nostalgia?

3. There were not many people writing decent literature and these classics were the best of a bad bunch. Or am I being a little harsh? 

Please do not think I dislike all classics, I have read a number of the contemporary classics and loved them - The Scarlett letter, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, Farenheit 451, Brave New World, Diary of Young Girl, The Hobbit, The Crucible, Slaughterhouse Five, The Canterbury Tales, The Giver, The Outsiders and the complete Sherlock Holmes among many more. But what qualifies them as classics? (I used this list from Goodreads

Will any of the YA and Children's books from the last fifteen years become classics? The Harry Potter series? John Green's 'The fault in our stars' or 'Looking for Alaska'? The Hunger Games? Twilight series? Why or why not? Will 50 shades of Grey be amongst the tomes of classics? And when is it time to declare a book a classic? 10 years? 20? 30? So much literature is being published now, will we have more classics generated or less because of the abundance of excellent writers  ...  

I have recently watched the recent version of the Great Gatsby film by Baz Luhrmann and thoroughly enjoyed it. He cut the story down to its bare bones of the relationship between Gatsby and Nick and left the fluff out. I may now attempt the book again knowing the big picture and wanting to fill in the blanks .... or not.

This brings me onto my last rant for this post; Reading is such a personal and subjective pastime, why are all students required to read the same text for studying in English? What is the reasoning behind this? Maybe a post for another day.


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