18 August 2008

Onto the Classics

This post is part #8 in a series of 10 rants about my ex-books. Parts #1 and #2 will help to set the scene. Parts #3, #4 , #5, #6 and #7 contain relevant squawking. Those keeping up with the series should note that I bought a new keyboard because I got so fed up trying to type the last post without a space bar.

This is an Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman set. It is a classic.


Connoisseurs of mid-century modern furniture design will tell you there is no finer specimen than the original. Its lines and proportions are perfect. The manufacture and materials are of such high quality that there is no possible substitute. People love this chair. People love this chair enough to have it tattooed on their forearm.

The thing about classics is that people are always trying to reproduce, re-imagine or generally riff on the original. In capitalist speak: people like, people buy, people demand more, people accept cheaper knock off, people are disappointed. Well.. those familiar with the original are disappointed.

Imagine you walk into an office and to have a serious conversation with someone. They offer you a place to sit, and it happens to be an Eames Lounge Chair. You sit down and close your eyes as you cozy up against the leather. Inhale, exhale. Open your eyes. You're in another chair. One that is very similar to the one you were just in but with a few "improvements" and "updates." So instead of sitting a timeless specimen, you're left in a leather lounger that screams 1994. Now tell me: are you going to be able to have a serious conversation with the person that list likely responsible for the switcheroo? Would you trust someone implicitly with such a flawed design aesthetic?

No? You wouldn't? Well shame on you for being so shallow. And shame on me for stringing you along. That really wasn't very nice of me.

Classics are classics for a reason. We can easily identify them because they stand out as innovators and as archetypes. In many ways, our collection of classic books becomes the barometer on which we gauge our critical response for that which follows. A classic can help us decide what is good and bad about what we've read or written. It can become a placeholder in a literary evolution.

Let me let you in on a little secret, I don't like all of the so-called classics. I've sloughed through many of them just so I can snicker a little harder at all the literary references that keep popping up hither and thither. For example, though I do like Steinbeck, I'd rather pull my teeth out than read In Dubious Battle or Grapes of Wrath again. I think it's important to dislike certain books. I think it is often easier to articulate what I do not like. From these criticisms, I can paint a clearer portrait of what I do like.

Here is my list of Classic Literature gone AWOL. I like these. I miss having them in my private library. I know many readers find the classics boring or dissatisfying. As it stands, a majority of this list is from the 20th century and may therefore be easier to tackle than Edmund Spencer's The Faerie Queene.

It's a Classic...


Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

The Stranger by Albert Camus

Middlemarch by Geroge Eliot

The Sun Also Rises by Earnest Hemingway

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Dubliners by James Joyce

Ulysses by James Joyce

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck*

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Slaughterhouse Five
by Kurt Vonnegut

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf



Useless Fact: in Ireland the title of James Joyce's book (and Irish national treasure) Ulysses is pronounced YOO-li-seis whereas in America we say ewe-LI-seez.

*If you're wary of a classics list, start here.

5 comments:

Mead said...

Even the most tedious of "classics" have their uses. I have kept a copy of The Faerie Queene in my nightstand for years as an antitode to insomnia. No kidding, sometimes just looking at that tome is enough to make me sleepy.

k. crow said...

Ha! I may have to try that one.

CAWohlmut said...

I have to include "To Kill a Mockingbird", on my list of classics.

k. crow said...

Agreed! Thankfully, To Kill a Mockingbird is still on my shelf.

CAWohlmut said...

My copy is so hold and worn, it is held together by rubberbands! Perhaps it is time to replace it? I look forward to passing it on to my kids one day. Noah already loves books! But of course, his idea of a classic is "Pat the Bunny" or "house on Pooh Corner"