Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Classic-ness of Classics

Or, what makes a classic a classic?

Welcome to 2013 and my tiny part of the Classic Reads Blog Hop.

My favorite book of all time is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Although I have read Pride and Prejudice I have to admit it is not on my favorites list. However, indisputably, both are classics.

This begs the question what makes a classic if, clearly, it is not whether I personally have the book on my favorites list or not.

My own personal take is that it boils down to characters. Can you, the reader, identify with the character of the book and experience their emotion? If the answer is yes for multiple generations then the book is a classic.

The reader, be they high school kids or experienced adults like yours truly, can identify with Scout's confusion over the differences in how people were treated simply because of their skin color. I can feel her terror that dark night walking back from the school. I empathize with her indignation when her sense of right is violated. Not only are readers now able to identify and empathize but readers in the early 1960s could also identify and empathize.

People I know who love Jane Austen say much the same things. (To put words in their mouths) they feel the conflicting emotions of Austen's characters and identify with their struggle. It is the emotion and the struggle that is the same even though the mores, the plot, the scene are vastly different than the reader's, the reader is transported and is part. That is a classic.

This follows in other areas of writing as well. My favorite young adult book has been thrilling, mostly boys, for over a hundred years - Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. Despite the much different setting, I was excited from the start with David Balfour and could experience the adventure through his eyes. This was true for boys when the novel first came out and boys (again, mostly, though not exclusively I am happy to say) now still grasp that excitement and adventure.

It is a similar vein for girls with Laura Ingalls Wilder's books (though, I admit, I read most of them, too!). My sister loved them and my daughter a generation later, and for the same reason. The characters were real, their troubles were real, and the reader invested in them and shared their fates, if only mentally.

I could go on with other genres and situations but, that, I think you'd agree would be beating the proverbial dead horse. Whether Scout, Elizabeth, Balfour, or Laura, it is the ability of generations of readers to connect, empathize, and see the world through the character's eyes that, for me, make a classic novel classic.

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  1. I loved To Kill a Mockingbird because it was so natural and relatable. I also loved the Little House books, and I didn't read them until I was in my forties. Thanks for the post. New follower. Java With Jambor

  2. My son read To Kill in school and asked me to read it. I got nearly all the way through but finally hit a point, I just couldn't deal with seeing the N word anymore and set it aside.

    1. It is a curious point. Joseph Conrad wrote the N* and the Narcissus well before. The term was common up until the 1960s and most recently seems to be morphing yet again. Teens here on LI are using the term with each other without any negative connotations (within their circle). But yes, I agree that it does carry a seriously negative connotation to me and my contemporaries. I read it in the book as the way things were and it provides an even sharper counterpoint (for me) with the perspective of time to Scout's angst.

  3. I've taught TKAM numerous times to high school freshmen. It's a worthwhile classic indeed, but many students simply refuse to read it (or any book for that matter). That is why I like your point about relatable characters so much. Then again, it seems none of us enjoy literature quite as much when we are forced to read it for school...

  4. Great post Greg.

    I have read and seen the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird and loved them both. I agree that the characters are key to a classic and if we can feel what they feel then I believe it's hard not to get caught up in their story and enjoy it.

  5. Greg - I whole heartily agree. The reader being able to identify with the character(s) is key to being a classic. I will check out Roger Zelazny. I must confess I have never heard of him. I am now intrigued. Elisabeth

  6. A wonderful post, Greg, with some fantastic examples of classic reads. To Kill a Mockingbird is proving very popular in today's poll, so I think it has made its mark on many of the hop participants! Thank you for joining the hop!

    My best,

  7. Great post! I absolutely agree with you - characters are possibly the most important thing when it comes to the impact a book has on us.