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 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.