Classic books

I’m loaning one of my daughter’s bookmarks. She got a bunch of these magnetic bookmarks from a girl’s book club she’s a member in.

What makes a book classic? If you ask a group of people that question you would probably get a lot of different answers and a heated debate. There are many definitions, but no consensus. Personally I think the book would need to have a wide appeal, one that has stood the test of time. Many seem to value an intellectual style today, the kind of literature that win the Nobel Prize. I have tried reading books like that.

I bought a couple of books by Toni Morrison once. I knew she was famous and her books popular, so it had to be good. It wasn’t exactly a style that suited me. I experienced something similar with a Norwegian author that had the same status in Norway. His books are full of difficult symbols and nothing made sense to me. These authors are successful today, but I’m not sure they’ll become classics. The great classics can be very educational, but they are still easy to understand and the entertainment value is important. I like Henrik Ibsen for example and because there is a lot of psychology and classic human behaviour in his plays, they’ll never get out of style. It’s the same with Charles Dickens and Jane Austen.

The question is why it has stood the test of time. A message or some sort of fascination could give the book appeal centuries later. I read A Pilgrim’s Progress last month, and found that book to be a useful allegory today too. I was supposed to read more Christian classics this month, but it didn’t exactly go according to plan. I’ve been struggling to find my way out of the dark forest the whole month, and writing has been my defense against the trolls (or demons) within.

My three favourite genres of fiction was science fiction, crime and classic British literature. I still read some of it, but it’s been a while since I enjoyed it. I got tired of crime, and if I still read any it’s Agatha Christie or P.D. James. I bought Death Comes to Pemberley for my wife some years ago. I finally got around to reading it myself, and I’m not sorry I did. P.D. James has written a book that Jane Austen could have written herself. It was written in the same style and it’s almost like Jane Austen continued writing after Pride and Prejudice. I hope this will bring back the joy of reading. It was the last thing I had left, apart from writing, so it was disappointing to see that I didn’t enjoy it anymore.

I’ve used this as an illustration for the odd one out in a previous post. I’m not quite like others and there’s still some Holden and Sal inside me, but fighting conventions is doomed to fail. I’m still struggling to find my place in society, though.

I also managed to read a couple of old favourites this month, Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and J.D. Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye. My wife hates the latter, and I can see her point. Holden Caulfied had every opportunity to go to one of the best universities in the country, but instead he talked about everybody being phony, and fell apart. He is a very irritating character, and perhaps even the whiny, self-absorbed little shit many have labelled him as.

My wife makes a few comments every time I read this book, and I do see her point. This was a book I liked in my teens and I still feel a certain connection to Holden. Like the protagonist in the book I had some problems with making the transition to adulthood. I thought a lot about what I saw as phony and I also had some conflicting thoughts about death. It was something I feared, as I still do, but I also found it fascinating. Today it’s all fear, though. I understood Holden’s desire for an escape.

When I was in Holden’s situation I didn’t want to grow up, and I resented my parents for what they hadn’t done and for what they had done. I guess it sounds like they couldn’t win no matter what they did. I felt the same way myself, like I was lost and being a grown up meant walking blindfolded and hoping for the best. I didn’t want anything to change, but of course everything did when my childhood was over.

I spend a lot of time thinking back on the good moments, wishing they could come back. It’s been a while since I created new ones. Many people see Holden as pathetic today. I guess I am too. The book reminds me a bit of On the Road by Jack Kerouac. The two books are very different, but they are similar in the way that they are both about a young man finding it difficult to grow up.

Like Sal Paradise in On the Road I concluded that I had to do what was expected of me, and without any guidance I had to try to figure life out on my own. Maybe Holden’s parents didn’t do him more favours than my parents did me. They didn’t give me the tool box adults need, and it’s harder to acquire these tools as an adult. I find it hard at least. I didn’t have the skills, and I am still working on getting them. It would be nice to lose the blindfold and succeed in becoming a full member. I’m a work in progress, you might say.

After these positive notes I hope the rest of my book challenge will be more uplifting to the reader.

47 thoughts on “Classic books

  1. You read more books than I did last month.

    When I was a kid, I identified “classic literature” as that which is old, wordy and boring.

    But, I like your definition better 🙂

    It is interesting to note how people are drawn to stories which feature a personality they either relate strongly to or wish they could be more like.

    I’ve never had the opportunity to read Catcher in the Rye, but perhaps I should. It seems to be a somewhat controversial work and I’m largely ignorant of the reason.

    Based on your view of Holden and admission of seeing a personal connection, I’m going to make a wild guess that your wife dislikes for you to read that book because she does not see her husband in the same light as he views himself and would prefer that he not consider himself to be a pathetic outcast..

    But, that’s just a guess.

    Someone around here quite recently said

    Many people are more than they are able to observe. It is not uncommon that people see themselves as less attractive than they are to other people (and they see physical attraction as the only possible form) for example.
    (I don’t wish to make him too uncomfortable, so will subtly hint that his initials are J. O. Y. )

    These are wise words. I’ll emphasize that attractiveness is not just a matter of physical appeal and point out that it is often the positive qualities you are completely unaware of which can draw people to appreciate you.

    And BTW, if we were all honest, most adults would likely admit that we don’t know what we are about half the time. We all have to face our fear of the known or unknown demons which taunt us. We all experience failures that we wish we could just bury and forget.
    We make an effort to be grown up, but still long for the relatively carefree days of childhood.

    We don’t all have daughters with a generous supply of cute owl bookmarks, though 😉 😀

  2. I’ve been struggling to find my way out of the dark forest the whole month,

    Do you happen to notice an annual pattern of deeper depression this time of year?

    1. That’s too bad 😦
      I was being nosy. February/March tend to be my most unstable months, and I’m pretty sure you all live farther north.
      Still, if you have a lot of overcast days during the summer as well, it might be having a negative effect.

  3. Oh no! I’ve been hit by friendly fire. o_O

    Many think A Catcher in the Rye is plain crap, and they may be right, but it meant something to me. You are probably right about my wife. I’m sure she wants me to be JOY, and he does pop in from time to time.

    1. John,

      I wasn’t sure whether I ought to respond to this earlier; however, Craig can verify my tendency to do illogical things when I’m tired, so I’ll now claim that as my alibi while forging ahead.

      Hopefully, the previous barrage did not result in serious injury. It was intended to be a gentle criticism of the harshness with which you seem to view yourself…but not meant dismiss your experience as irrelevant.

      After reading a summary of Catcher, I believe I can see an element regarding a sense of isolation, identity confusion (ie who am I, anyway?) , generalized disappointment with life, and, perhaps a touch of cynicism which sometimes is reflected in your own writing.

      While I don’t see it directly addressed in the plot overview, I believe you also have described yourself as feeling alienated with regard to belief in God…but some things you’ve said also suggest this is due to a confused theological understanding and frustration which is directed primarily at religious forms which are not necessarily supported by scripture.
      I suppose exposure to such things would ultimately be interpreted as the kind of adult phoniness you decided you wanted to avoid?

      Have I stepped into the salad yet?

    2. You have been walking at a safe distance from the salad. If you were tired and illogical when you wrote this maybe you should make more decisions late at night. You did have a lot on your mind, and I didn’t need to go to the ER. I believe I shall survive this criticism from 3 friends. It was nice of you to make yourself familiar with the plot of the book and try to understand. I appreciate it.

    1. Thanks for the links, Nomemoleste! I book-marked both to explore in more depth. I had heard of the Gutenberg project, back when I was part of the team “choosing” literature, but I didn’t really look at it in-depth back then.

      John may want to take a look, too, as they provide options for self-publishing, and that may be of interests.

  4. Hey John,

    I really, really hate to join the “friendly fire,” but I am no fan of “Catcher,” either. Though I can understand why you relate to Holden, you seem very different from him in other ways. It is one thing to fear growing up because adulthood means change and is scary, and it is another to resist it just to avoid responsibility as Holden seemed to do. Holden seemed to indulge in a perpetual pity party. He didn’t seem to see that he was “fake” too. But I can see how you would have connected with the character, his existential angst, etc. especially when you were young.

    I share your experience with Toni Morrison’s books, as I could never figure out just what she was talking about and just what was happening. Her style seemed too similar to William Faulkner’s to suit me.

    When it comes to “classic literature,” I am rather “heretical” (particularly as an English teacher). I DESPISE Faulkner, and consider Jane Austin sheer torture ( I know your wife will argue that one with me, so we will agree to disagree!). As a teacher, I was often tormented by students’ questions as to “Why do we have to read THIS?” I often found I couldn’t answer that question, depending on the piece. Of course, with Shakespeare, that answer came easily, but I found the question “what is literature” and what is a “classic,” to be puzzling ones to me.

    I guess it is not such a question of WHAT is a classic or what is literature, rather than WHO decides such things that bothered me as a teacher.

    The last year I was teaching, the English teachers in my grade level were tasked with “choosing” the “literature” for the Common Core world literature class. The problem was we had to choose texts from a pre-authorized list generated by none other than the Bill Gates Foundation! 😦 (Yes, for those who do not know, the Gates Foundation played the leading role in the creation of Common Core.)

    We couldn’t figure out why we had to “choose” something like Isabelle Allende’s “House of Spirits,” which we found nonsensical over another Allende text, “Zorro.” But “Zorro” wasn’t on the list, and we had to choose from “the list.” If you have ever read “House of Spirits” you would understand why we preferred “Zorro.” And of course, any 10th grader would prefer “Zorro.” I finally concluded that the people who made the “list” must intend to make children HATE reading. ( Unbelievably, the book, “Like Water for Chocolate” actually made the list).

    Of course, this was not my first encounter with the arbitrariness of WHO defines what is literature, and who determines the texts that are used. I remember being sentenced to teach Annie Dillard’s autobiographical, “An American Childhood” to students in a poor Delta school just because another teacher who loved the text had chosen it years earlier. I got my revenge…..when text-book adoption came up again on my watch I ordered a classroom set of an African-American literature anthology. 🙂 Since the school was majority black, it seemed amiss that weren’t any texts by black authors. However, I found such opportunities for “non-conformity” scarce most of the time when it came to choosing “literature.”

    But I digress…as for much loved literature…I must nominate Edgar Allen Poe’s stories (teenagers love them!), Frankenstein, the Sherlock Holmes books, “Ivanhoe” and other books by Sir Walter Scott, as well as books by the Bronte sisters. I think Pat Conroy’s books should be considered literature. To me William Faulkner can’t even compete with “Prince of Tides,” “Lords of Discipline,” and “The Great Santini.”

    But reading for pleasure….well, I have enjoyed Agatha Christie’s books, books by Preston and Childs, Harry Turtledove’s “alternative history” fiction, and Dianna Gabaldon’s “Outlander” series. Since retirement, I haven’t exactly been reading “the classics,” depending of course on who defines that! 🙂 As for Christian fiction, I like Francine Rivers’ novels. Other Christian non-fiction “classics,” books by Watchman Nee, Elisabeth, Andrew Murray, E.M. Bounds, Corrie Ten-Boom, etc. I suppose they are “classics.” But I can’t be sure entirely. I know they are favorites of mine.

  5. I’m not too well read as it comes to classics. I liked Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

    Other than that I read a lot of Louis Lamour. I find myself relating with the lone misunderstood fighter who is known for it, but never wanted to. Just did what he had to do, while at the same time is troubled by his ability to be ruthless.

    1. How could I have forgot about Twain? I left him off my list. I love his satire in particular, which is sort of what “A Connecticut Yankee” is to an extent. Though I almost got myself in trouble using Twain’s “remix” of “Battle Hymn of Republic” in the classroom. . Add George Orwell to the list with “Animal Farm” and “1984.”

      I read a lot of Louis Lamour as a kid. Do you read Zane Grey, too? He was one of my favorites then, along with Jack London’s books.

    2. I read a few Zane Grey when I was in high school but not lately.

      The Jungle by Upton Sinclair was instructive to me in understanding the more socialist mentality a bit better ( being conservative myself but truly wanting to understand others )

      Uncle Toms Cabin was one I enjoyed.

    3. I also liked Zane Grey. This was a popular genre back then and the most successful book series was a Norwgian series about Morgan Kane, Texas Ranger in the 1880’s. Great stuff, but it wouldn’t intererest me today. Trying to understand others is a good reason for reading.

    4. Craig,

      If you found “The Jungle” instructive, perhaps you might find James Wright’s “Black Boy,” an autobiography interesting. It shares some common ground with “The Jungle.” Later in the book, it addresses some issues of socialism/communism as well. Wright for a time shared those views, because he thought they offered hope for equality for African-Americans. After some time, he rejected most of those ideas. The progression of his views, shaped by his life experiences (rather like the character in Jungle) is interesting.

  6. hmm… wikinotes (as in Cliff Notes) comment: Several shootings have been associated with Salinger’s novel, including Robert John Bardo’s shooting of Rebecca Schaeffer and John Hinckley, Jr.’s assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. After the killing of John Lennon, Mark David Chapman was arrested with a copy of the book that he had purchased that same day, inside of which he had written: “To Holden Caulfield, From Holden Caulfield, This is my statement”.[39][40]

    1. I’m back after spending the entire day being very grumpy, but I am slowly starting to feel better.

      Maybe we could have a Minority Report where everyone checking Salinger’s book out of the library will be arrested before they even think about breaking the law? How about crime novels? The peaceful Scandinavians, and the British, are completely obsessed about crime novels and the Norwegian author Jo Nesbø’s novel Cochroaches has been doing very well on the New York Times Best Seller list. Perhaps there’s something wrong with people reading these books as well?

      Maybe I’m being slightly sarcastic, but it is also a serious question. This argument has been used in music. I believe both Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne have been accused in several suicide cases where their music supposedly drove these kids to kill themselves, or others. Most of these cases never made it to trial, and I don’t think they should.

      We could use the same argument against everything that influence us, even the Bible. We still have to take responsibility for our own actions. I mentioned a tool box at the end of this post. This is what young people need tools for. Tools are especially needed when we read the Bible because the Scripture can justify just about any atrocity if you use it wrong, if we listen to the wrong people, and that has happened.

      When I’m on the subject of atrocites and books. I really enjoyed the Book Thief when I read it about 5 year ago.

    2. Which brings to mind the sinister case of “The Slender Man….”

      …words (such as the doctrines of demons) can convey darkness.

      In sharp contrast too…

      “…whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.” (Ph. 4)

  7. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

    …can an author set out to write a classic?

    ps. John, you might want to try setting nested comments to “1”

  8. nomemoleste
    hmm… wikinotes (as in Cliff Notes) comment: Several shootings have been associated with Salinger’s novel,… “To Holden Caulfield, From Holden Caulfield, This is my statement”.[39][40]

    An interesting correlation.

    I’m completely unable to make an informed judgment regarding Salinger’s book.
    But scripture does admonish believers to take care regarding the kinds of things we feed into our minds. And, I do believe that there is stuff that is so evil it ought never to have made it to the printing presses.

    However, for the sake of discussion:

    It’s also notable that many people have been killed or abused as a result of someone reading (and misinterpreting) the Bible.
    Examples such as David Koresh’s Branch Davidian cult and Randy Weaver’s mountaintop shootout both come to mind, here. Mohammed and Joseph Smith also employed corrupted interpretations of scripture in the formation of their trademark religions.

    Whether the error is in cherry-picking ideas regarding racism, sexism, polygamy, or “God-ordained” genocide which is perpetrated by Christians, the Book simply provided an excuse to fuel a pre-existent inclination to commit sin…it wasn’t actually the motivating factor.

    1. Take for instance the Jefferson Bible. Ole Thomas edited out the parts he didn’t like…

      wiki quote:

      The Jefferson Bible, or The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth as it is formally titled, was a book constructed by Thomas Jefferson in the latter years of his life by cutting and pasting with a razor and glue numerous sections from the New Testament as extractions of the doctrine of Jesus.

      Jefferson’s condensed composition is especially notable for its exclusion of all miracles by Jesus and most mentions of the supernatural, including sections of the four gospels which contain the Resurrection and most other miracles, and passages indicating Jesus was divine.

      …which is typical of other cults/cultists of that time.

      I have to wonder if the social blindness of autism extends to social cues in written texts? Do we(*) actually see what’s in front of us? Or some filtered or highlighted subset? (* ASDs and typicals)

    2. I wouldn’t place that burden on just ASD-inclined individuals.

      I once was talking to a friend about feeling dumb that I seem to be so slow to catch on to some aspect of biblical truth.

      He looked me straight in the face and said “You are dumb. We all are dumb. Why do you think God has to tell us over and over what He wants us to know?”

      Trust me, it’s not just those who display “atypical” brain-wave patterns who miss important cues.

    3. It appears to be a matter of discernment…..

      Some years ago, a man in my state, a teacher, father, husband, Christian and pastor-in-training, while having a psychotic episode, stabbed his two year old to death. No doubt there are those who would propose that he was “inspired by” Abraham following God’s directions to sacrifice Isaac, but that would hardly be accurate.

      Though I do see your point, Nomemoleste, and certainly concur with “Whatsoever things are true…” at the same time, I think we need to exercise discernment and balance.

  9. I mentioned a tool box at the end of this post. This is what young people need tools for. Tools are especially needed when we read the Bible because the Scripture can justify just about any atrocity if you use it wrong, if we listen to the wrong people, and that has happened.

    Precisely my point, Mr Grumpy. 😡

    We often say in the US that “you can’t legislate morality”.

    While we are obligated base our system of laws on some system of ethical belief, it is impossible to force-feed a sense of morality into anyone by simply arranging external influences.

    Tools are essential. Parents are an important primary source for obtaining social skills. And the Holy Spirit is the necessary guide for those who need wisdom to understand the written Word.

    1. lol. I doubt it!

      I tell you, though, there’s nothing quite like having someone administer a dose of the truth without bothering to candy-coat it first 😯


  10. @ John

    The Book Thief does look interesting. I may have to try to locate a copy.

    Your earlier comment @ March 28th, 2015 at 20:26 brings to mind Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 I suppose it would fall into the genre of dystopian literature, and I remember it being a class reading project when I was about 14.

    1. That book is unfortunately still of current interest. I believe Bradbury wrote it because he was concerned about the political development in the 1950’s, and it looks like this future society where books and ideas are outlawed is more contemporary than future.

    2. I guess you’re right about that. Orwell’s Animal Farm was also required reading, and I picked up 1984 a while back but found it too depressing to finish.

      One would think that the warnings in these works would somehow impact those who are exposed to them while still in their formative years. But we seem to be seeing the opposite effect in practice.

      Maybe people are not actually reading the stuff…or are re-interpreting the message?

  11. With regards to Orwell’s books………….I am not sure that many young people are reading them. I recall Animal Farm being taught in some Advanced Placement classes, and I don’t recall 1984 being taught at all. Basically, I am not sure that many people are reading these books in their “formative years.” I hope I am wrong, though.

    My son did read Fahrenheit 451 in high school, and he and I had some interesting conversations about it. A few students I recall attempting to read 1984 were confused and did not seem to understand the book. Having a familiarity with the historical context in which Orwell was writing no doubt helps with comprehension.

    I agree that it is a bit depressing reading 1984 now….particularly when so much of it is now no longer fiction but reality.

    As for book burning, that has been with us for a long time……..controlling what people read, what information they have access to has a long history when it comes to tyrannical regimes…….from the Inquisition to more recent times.

    Just out of curiosity……..for those of you who have read 1984, do any of you see any similarities between the “memory hole” in the book, and the ease with which electronic books (Kindles, etc.) lend themselves to being used to create “memory holes?”

  12. re: the equivalent of digital book burning … the 666 system will likely hoover up anything not partyline … reaping full measure of same in the Lake of Fire

    1. “books as Anti-social media” Hah Hah! I love that one. My son would agree, at least with regards to me! 🙂

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