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  • Classic Reads 2013: What Makes a Classic?

Classic Reads: a Case for Plurality? #NewClassicReads

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Classic Reads: a Case for Plurality?

Educator and philosopher Mortimer Adler lists three criteria for books considered for inclusion in the literary canon: Contemporary significance, inexhaustibility (the book can be read again and again), and relevance to the ‘great ideas and great issues that have occupied the minds of thinking individuals for 25 centuries.

While the criteria makes sense, my own list of classic reads differs from lists created by educators, academics, and philosophers like Adler. While I loved many of the classics assigned by my teachers, there were plenty of books I didn’t care for. Moby Dick, for example, felt foreign to me. Perhaps I’d feel differently now. Or perhaps not.

The qualities that make a book significant and inexhaustible are, it seems to me, subjective. I’m deeply moved by the short stories of Andre Dubus, a brilliant author who writes about love and family, sin and redemption. I relate to his imperfect characters, their problems, their attempts to do the right thing, whatever that may be, their success and their failures. For me, Dubus’s stories are inexhaustible-I read again and again, always finding beauty and meaning, some new nugget of insight.

If there is a problem with the literary canon, it’s that subjective selections are presented as objective. We’re taught that books on the list are the great books. We should enjoy them-or at least appreciate their brilliance-and we (I at any rate) feel inadequate if we don’t. But what exactly are those ‘great ideas and great issues’ and who are the ‘thinking individuals’ to whom Adler refers?

Issues and ideas change-once primarily books by dead white men, the canon now, thankfully, includes works by women and minorities, as well as by authors writing outside the Western tradition; thus ‘contemporary significance’ and ‘relevance’ change. Ideas of love, death, redemption and so on expand to include ideas about difference or otherness. As the face of academia changes, becomes increasingly diverse, Adler’s ‘thinking individuals’ also change, as do their evaluative criteria.

I’m not suggesting the canon be chosen by populist vote (although maybe the creators should be more plural). I am suggesting that the lists are subjective-and subject to the sensibilities of elites whose criteria may differ from ours. Accepting this subjectivity is freeing. We need not feel guilty for disliking a ‘great’ book any more than we ought to feel guilty for finding meaning in a mass market paperback-an interesting dilemma in its own right, considering Dickens’ immense popularity.

As with Dickens-and Mozart-today’s popular works may be tomorrow’s classics!

I’m honored and thrilled to know and work with Christine Nolfi, Molly Greene, and Rachel Thompson-memorable authors whose brilliant work is on my classics list!

Which books are on your list? And what criteria do you consider most important?

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Please note, the views of the post author - and indeed anyone who guest posts on Day by Day - are not necessarily indicative of the views of Terri Giuliano Long and comments are moderated to filter spam/profanity only.

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2015-02-06T16:40:30+00:00 January 3rd, 2013|Categories: Classic Reads 2013|Tags: , , , |

About the Author:

Terri Giuliano Long, a frequent guest blogger, with appearances on hundreds of blogs, is a contributing writer for IndieReader and also wrote for Her Circle eZine. She lives with her family on the East Coast. Her debut novel, In Leah’s Wake, winner of the Global eBook Award, Popular Fiction, and Indie Discovery Award, Literary Fiction, has sold over 130,000 copies worldwide.

11 Comments

  1. cindy January 4, 2013 at 4:42 am - Reply

    I agree with so much you've said. I have little respect for any exclusive club including "the canon" even though it now includes (far too few) women and people of color. When I'm able, I teach outside the canon to include other works on my syllabus. But some courses still require those thick anthologies we all remember from college, with the same old authors.

    • Terri Giuliano Long January 8, 2013 at 2:59 pm - Reply

      Thank you so much for taking part in the hop, Cindy! I absolutely loved your post! I'm so glad you're able to incorporate a wider range of works into your teaching. I'm sure your students will benefit greatly from that!

  2. Jeri January 4, 2013 at 1:06 pm - Reply

    The canon does change, albeit very slowly. Even though I loved teaching Shakespeare's plays every year when I was still in the classroom, I often questioned the worth of doing so to the exclusion of so many other fabulous authors.

    • Terri Giuliano Long January 8, 2013 at 2:52 pm - Reply

      That's a great point, Jeri! So many books are introduced each year and it's important to ensure we keep re-evaluating. Thank you for taking part in the hop!

  3. David M Brown January 4, 2013 at 4:10 pm - Reply

    Great post Terri.

    I can't decide on the most important criteria for a classic read. There are so many aspects that make up a truly great book. I agree with the ones that you have covered.

    Murakami, Tolkien, Irving, Orwell and Hemingway are just a handful of authors that come to mind when thinking of Classic Reads

    • Terri Giuliano Long January 8, 2013 at 2:54 pm - Reply

      Thank you, David! You mentioned some great books in your post. Thank you so much for joining the hop!

  4. Schledia Benefield January 5, 2013 at 5:21 pm - Reply

    I think there are quite a few reads out there now that will soon be known as classics. Classics are the ones that will stay with you even after you've put them on the shelf.

    • Terri Giuliano Long January 8, 2013 at 2:57 pm - Reply

      I completely agree, Schledia! That's a great definition of a classic. Thank you so much for taking part in the hop!

  5. Elisabeth January 7, 2013 at 1:09 pm - Reply

    I think the list of classic reads and classic authors, just gets longer every year. Always more added to the list.

    • Terri Giuliano Long January 8, 2013 at 2:56 pm - Reply

      That's certainly true, Elisabeth! There are so many more classics than we will ever have time to read. Thank you for joining us!

  6. Just Jill January 13, 2013 at 5:32 am - Reply

    Hi Terri,

    I enjoyed your thoughtful blog very much. Though late on the draw, I wrote a blog about this and thought you might like to know I added a link to your site.

    ~Cordially and with thanks,

    Just Jill

I'd love to hear your thoughts!