Thursday, September 30, 2010
"Is the book good? Is it a classic?"
One of the occupational hazards for an English teacher is being asked to recommend books forreading for pleasure. The hazard becomes greater just before a long vacation because both his students and his colleagues pester him to suggest them novels which they can read during the vacation. Once he complies with the request, he should be prepared to answer these two questions which invariably follow: Is the novel good? Is it a classic?
Both questions are difficult to answer. When I was a student, I was told that War and Peace was good. “You ought to read it. It’s really good”, said one of my professors. Sure enough, it was: the very first page put me to sleep. Even now, whenever I want to read myself to sleep, I pick up that soporific book. The results are terrific.
But the effect is far from being somnolent when I read Milton, Thomas Hardy, Graham Greene or Herman Hesse – writers who are known for their high seriousness. They have done a lot of good to me. But I’m not sure if they are good for others, too. I once recommended a PG Wodehouse to a friend who later came and complained that the book was tedious. To me Raja Rao’s The Serpent and the Rope is an excellent read. But some of my friends whose tastes are by no means plebeian tell me that the novel is a pain.
The second question (“Is the book a classic?) is much more formidable than the first. What is a classic? The term comes from the Latin classicus. The second-century Roman essayist Aulus Gellius distinguished literature between classicus (‘for the upper classes’) and proletarius (‘for the lower classes’). In its etymological sense, therefore, a classic novel is one meant for the upper classes or at least intellectuals. But there are several modern definitions also. The Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary defines a classic book as one “that has been popular for a long time”. PG Wodehouse’s amiable nonsense (the phrase is Chesterton’s, not mine) has been popular for a long time. Can we call it a classic? Is Sherlock Holmes also a classic in this sense?
But there are other definitions as well: a classic book must have “a high quality that is recognized and unquestioned” (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary); it is a “standard against which other similar things are judged” (Collins Cobuild); it is “a piece of literature...of the first rank” (Longman). Eggheads won’t have any difficulty in categorizing War and Peace and Vanity Fair as classics in terms of these three definitions; that these two novels are unread is beside the point. I don’t think Mark Twain had his tongue in his cheek when he said that “a classic is something that everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read”.
Let me go back to the two questions I have referred to in the first paragraph. This is how I’d answer them: If you like the book I’ve suggested, read it. If you don’t, stop reading it. Don’t bully yourself into liking a book just because a white-haired man has said that it is good or that it is a classic.