It was reported recently that the new television adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic War and Peace, produced by the BBC, helped spike the sales of the novel. I reach for the term classic as shorthand for a book that everyone thinks one ought to read, without anyone quite getting around to reading it. Another definition would perhaps be more to the point: a book that everyone must buy is a classic. Buy not in order to read, but merely to obtain, possess and showcase. If hanging books on the wall wasn’t an inherently foolish idea, people would be doing exactly that with classics — instead of putting their copies of War and Peace on the topmost rungs of their bookshelves, they’d have them mounted on the walls of their living rooms: out of reach and imposing, like altarpieces.
Our idea of what makes a classic differs radically from that offered in the previous century by the novelist and critic Italo Calvino, simply because the world that we live in differs radically from the one Calvino inhabited. In his celebrated essay, “Why Read the Classics?”, Calvino attempted to decode the abiding problem of how best to ascribe and apprehend literary value. “The classics,” he wrote, “are the books about which we usually hear people say, ‘I am rereading...’ and never, ‘I am reading...’” But in today’s literary landscape, the concept of rereading is as outdated as blank verse or the sonnet form.
The average reader these days — the reader-consumer — is driven and influenced overmuch by market forces, and the market demands that we rethink our concept of literary value. Better yet, do away with it entirely. The old commercial principles of extracting the most value for money spent, most value for time spent, must now be applied to literature, we’re told. And by this logic — through this calculus of commerce, money and self-interest — rereading a classic becomes a waste of time, second only to reading it.
The old commercial principles of extracting the most value for money and time spent, must now be applied to literature, we’re told. And by this logic, rereading a classic becomes a waste of time, second only to reading it.
Those who take up reading as a self-help exercise, ridiculous as that sounds, never forget to include a “classic novel” or two on their wishlists (what constitutes a classic novel here is, again, debatable). The general perception is that a book like Middlemarch will offer us certain ancient but eternal pearls of wisdom commonly hidden from view, as though George Eliot had strategically placed a number of allegorical moral enhancers in her novel, leaving it to the reader to decode, extract and absorb them. Such a view is sometimes reinforced by critics and writers. The British novelist Howard Jacobson, for instance, wrote a comment a while ago about “the power of literature and art to civilise”. “How come,” Jacobson asked in his piece, “no one has ever been mugged by a person carrying a well-thumbed copy of Middlemarch in his back pocket?” No wonder, then, that a classic, in our time, comes enveloped in the halo of truth, goodness and beauty — values that we must all aspire to, or at least pay our respects to by heading towards the marketplace and investing in a classic work of literature.
It’s now also possible to optimise this investment. You simply need to follow the many online surveys and “listicles”, appearing below tautological such headlines as, “Best Classic Books” or “Greatest Classics Ever”. True, the word classic is employed here as a synonym for “old” or “out of date”. But the term itself never devoid of its other meanings that directly connote merit: old is gold, and there’s no two ways about it.
If you key in the words “What is a classic” in your Google search bar, it takes about 0.53 seconds to provide you with just under a billion results, along with a deliciously concise and contemporary definition of a classic, highlighted at the top of the page. It reads: “A classic is a book accepted as being exemplary or noteworthy, for example through an imprimatur such as being listed in a list of great books, or through a reader’s personal opinion.” While this definition would have made F.R. Leavis squirm and Ezra Pound throw up, it is an accurate reflection of the spirit of our age, shedding light on how we, as a society, choose to think about literature: a work of art becomes a classic not when it has withstood the test of time; it does so only when it is “listed in a list of great books”, or when a reader — any reader — develops a favourable “personal opinion” about it. Thus we have the phenomena of modern classics, contemporary classics, popular classics.
This poses a serious problem for the serious reader. And it doesn’t just concern books that may be undeserving of great distinction — books that get to be called classics often at the expense of other, more formidable works. The real problem has to do with books that deserve all the accolades they get — like Middlemarch or indeed War and Peace — but are somehow weighed down by their own grand reputations. In a society awed by greatness — whether manufactured of deserved — a classic can attract only worshippers, while driving away all serious readers. And so it is heartening to find that Tolstoy’s novel has once again become a hot-selling sensation on Amazon. But the question is, who’s going to really read it?