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Saturday, August 11, 2007

What Is a Classic?

This interesting article by Liz Foley is on the The Man Booker Prize site and tries to determine what makes a book a classic. The author quotes Mark Twain's assertion that it is a book that people "praise but don't read," before giving her favorite answer by Italo Calvino, "A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say." I can certainly agree with that...although I don't find that any of the prizes Pulitzer, Booker, etc. necessarily choose books that I would consider classics. I'm sure there are lists available to see the prize winners over several decades and determine which books have lived up to their promise of both critical and popular success.

Foley makes some good points about the way we determine classics and says that we make a mistake if we consider classic works "as historical artifacts rather than vibrant, engaging, hugely varied pieces of writing." Another point that Foley makes concerns the influence some classics have on modern writers.

"The connection between the classics and modern writing gave Vintage the idea to celebrate the launch list (Booker Prize)--the Vintage Classic Twins." I have to admit that the ten pairings (of one classic, one modern book) leave me bewildered as I've only read one of each pair and can't make much of a judgment. For example, I've readThe Inferno by Dante but not Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth and I've read Possession by A.S. Byatt, but not Middlemarch by George Eliot; I've read one of each of the ten pairings, sometimes the classic, sometimes the modern twin, but in no case have I read both. The list of ten pairs can be found here, where there is also information about a contest to find a twin for Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie--the prize is the a complete set of all ten Vintage Classic Twins--I'd like to win the prize, but haven't read Midnight's Children.

Yesterday when I arrived at the Cottage, Mr. P. bumped into me with his walker. I saw him coming, with a big grin all over his face. He pretends like he doesn't want attention, but he loves it. I told him he shouldn't abuse me, as if outraged by the gentle bump, and he said
, "Well, you have a rope down your back." My braid.

Laddie was much more talkative yesterday than he has been lately, although the words he wants often escape him, he knows what he wants to say. He was sitting at the bar eating a slice of red velvet cake and drinking coffee when I arrived, and greeted me with a big "Jenny Claire!" Very rewarding to me; so far he has always known me, but avoids using my name more and more frequently. He now will introduce me (he does this every time to exactly the same people) as his daughter to avoid having to say my name. When he got tired, he said, "Do you have everything you need?" When I assured him that I did, he said he had to leave and would see me later.

Today, off to Baton Rouge to see the grands!


  1. I have to plug Middlemarch, it's one of my favorite books ever! And I think that pair is the only pair I've read both of. Loved Possession, loved Middlemarch.

    There was also a good BBC television version of Middlemarch some years back that my mom and I watched together and loved.

  2. Those are interesting pairings; I don't get all of them either, although they are interesting to think about. Sexing the Cherry and Frankenstein? I love Frankenstein, so I'm intrigued by the other one.

  3. Actually, I'm curious about who paired the Vintage Twins - because over the years Vintage has come up with a few not-so-great excuse to repackage their classics.

    "Sexing the Cherry" and "Frankenstein"? I've read both - and I'm not convinced of any thematic link between the two books. Monster? "Sexing the Cherry" was Winterson's riff on Eliot's "Four Quartets"

    "Trainspotting" and "Oliver Twist"? I like both books - but again, the link?

    Say it with me: marketing ploy. The only good thing is you get the Vintage Twin for a good price, so I'll be buying a few of the new covers. Because I need to have the same titles with different covers.

    And I will be getting the Vintage Monster - because I love the 2 books. :)

  4. Trainspotting and Oliver Twist, what the hell!?! The only thing these have in common is London!

  5. I love the Italo Calvino quote and agree. As to prize-winning books . . . the only prize I've found to be fairly consistent is the Newbery award. I can't remember a single Newbery title I didn't love. I'm sure there are some, but nothing jumps out at me and I've found that they don't overlook books that happen to be humorous.

    Have fun in Baton Rouge!

  6. I don't really see much in common between Possession and Middlemarch. At all. I loved them both, but that doesn't seem a super valid connection! I'd like to see Virago's reasoning for their twins, although I love the idea of it.

    I have read Midnight's Children, and I've been trying to decide what to pair it with for the contest. If it weren't restricted to pre-20th century, I'd pair it w/ Catcher in the Rye, since they're both essentially stories about adolescence and growing pains. Oh well-hopefully I'll come up with something before the 31st!

  7. gentle reader -- I loved Possession so I think I'll put Middlemarch on my list. And the BBC version would be great, too!

    Dorothy -- The pairings make me curious...maybe that was their intent. If you've read one, you want to see why the other one applies.

    Orpheus -- Good point. Wonder how many people were on the committee and what the discussions were like.

    Oh, I agree, Marketing Ploy. Most definitely. A very good one, too, because even disagreement arouses interest.

    Maggie -- :) Hell, if I know. Sounds pretty implausible to me just because each one is so definitely of its own era, but I've neither read nor seen Trainspotting.

    Bookfool -- Isn't Calvino's quote great? And yes, the Newbery Award has been pretty consistent. I may need to go back in time (so to speak) and revisit the Newbery Challenge.

    Eva -- I like the idea of the pairings, too, but yes, I think the reasoning behind the pairings should be made available. Good luck on deciding on a pairing for Midnight's Children!

  8. what a timely post. my bookgroup just had it's preselection meeting discussion (where we decide whether we are going to have a theme or not). this past year we were themeless, however we going with a theme for the next 'reading year' and chose "american classics from the first half of the 20th century" ...I can't wait to see what everyone brings to offer up - in sept we have a potluck dinner and everyone brings books that they would like to offer up. then we go through the fun process of narrowing the books down to 11 and determine who takes which month - so far I have come up w/three titles to suggest - "main street" by sinclair lewis; "shadows on the rock" by willa cather; and "wise blood" by flannery o'connor. the group determined that the book must have been published btw jan 1 1900 and dec 30 1959....I'm open to any suggestions! I figure this year I'll be hosting a mtg (and thus responsible for a book) since I was skipped this past year (we have a couple more members than months so there is a bit of a rotation of 'discussion leaders' unless someone chooses to be passed up - which doesn't often happen)

  9. I think I need to borrow that Calvino quote to put it up on my blog :)
    Very interesting pairings... I've read a couple of books but not their respective twins so I can't say if I agree. I wouldn't mind having some of these nicely packaged books though.
    Anyway have fun in Baton Rouge!

  10. kimy -- American Classics, what a great selection! Our Town by Thornton Wilder is a favorite; since it is a play, it is a quick read. Faulkner, Edith Wharton, Kate Chopin, Fizgerald, Zora Neale Hurston, Carson McCullers, Richard Wright, Steinbeck, Eudora Welty...hmmm, I'm noting a slight imbalance of Southern writers.

    Your September meeting should be a lot of fun. Keep us updated!

    ilian -- I think the Calvino quote nailed it! Borrow it, I'm sure Foley won't mind.

  11. thanks for the suggestions.... altho I might not be able to tolerate the heat of living in the south year round (I'm a wimp) southern writers never fail to satisfy and have always been among my fav....did a sister post on 'classics' the other day - thanks to you!! ;)

  12. This is really interesting; I've never seen anyone (except Twain!) try to define a classic, and I like the definition you italicized.

  13. kimy -- It is tough living here when the humidity is really high, but maybe that is what makes Southern authors so distinctive...heat and humidity can certainly set one apart.

    Dewey -- I think Calvino's quote says it all for me. Can't think of a better way to describe a classic.