The term ‘Classic’ has been used to exclude. Throughout history, small, exclusive groups have decided which books deserve the label and refused to change their miniscule library list of epics or poetic verses about whales. That hierarchical style of reading choices was harmful to readers who were not interested in the top shelf, but you can’t say ‘Classics’ are the same thing today.
Independent publishers have moved away from the circles of long-dead English lecturers to create their own Classic collections with their own rules and inclusions. Penguin has 9 different Classic collections, each with different editors pushing different books. In the early 2000s, genres like science fiction were still treated as pulp writing, but now there is a sci-fi masterworks collection published by Orion with over 73 different sci-fi classics that are easier to access.
What the term has meant recently is a celebration of past works we enjoy reading. We still have ‘The Classics’ that those closed groups suggested (many of which are still good reads), but we have also introduced works popular in their original print, novels which relate to us more today, and failures that didn’t have a chance of recognition.
Now the only limitation with Classics is time. Instant Classics are talked about, but you won’t find them in a collection immediately, and there’s a few good reasons for this. It makes the title of Classic enticing but not corruptible, giving time for society to decide its fate with the work.
It can’t be said that every book that deserves to be a Classic will ever be labelled so, but it doesn’t remove the honour. A Classic is a book we enjoy reading, recommending and accepting as being important to us. That’s why we should defend them.
I think there’s a collective assumption that all English Literature students slobber over a good Classic, but I’ll open with my favourite and oldest-standing controversial opinion: I don’t think Shakespeare is that good, actually.
Now that I’ve outed myself as a traitor to my degree, I can keep digging my grave beneath the literature canon. Sure, ‘Hamlet’ shaped my whole personality, and I really enjoyed ‘Les Misérables’, and ‘Frankenstein’ is a beautiful exploration of nature and identity – I’m not too prideful to admit the anomalies. But, as my Goodreads history can testify, it’s incredibly rare for a Classic novel to get more than a 3-star ‘eh, it was okay’ rating from me.
I don’t mind a bit of verbosity in a book, but it really does frustrate me when it takes a page-long paragraph to say what could have fit in two lines or less. I find the writing difficult, convoluted, and oftentimes boring. This would be okay if the plot itself was engaging, but too often I’ve found myself baffled by the lack of plot in these 400-page novels; you’re telling me they go to a room and talk, before moving to another room and talking more?
While I also think it is important to acknowledge the blatant disregard of human existence that existed at the time, it doesn’t mean I have to like it. There’s nothing more excruciating than having to force myself through the casual anti-semitism and misogyny of an old, rich, white man who lived centuries before I was even born.
I’ve spent too much of my life reading books I don’t enjoy because they represent the apparent apotheosis of literature. I’ve since shed the mindset: just because someone has read all of Dickens doesn’t make them better than me. With that disillusion disbanded, I could move forward and read for pure enjoyment – not to fulfil an expectation.