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Topic: Two questions about selecting classic books

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Subject: Two questions about selecting classic books
Date Posted: 11/17/2013 2:42 PM ET
Member Since: 3/27/2009
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After participating in the Classic Lit Challenge for about 4 years (?) I find it's getting more difficult to find classic books that actually interest me and that are mostly well known.

 

I got to wondering, is a book a classic if although it's old (50 + years) but few have heard of it?

And how young can a classic book be in your opinion? I've stuck to 50 years or older but I am thinking about pushing it up to 30 years or older because I like the idea of reading modern classics too.

 

Granted, I know all answers are merely opinons, but I am interested in your thoughts.
 

Date Posted: 11/17/2013 8:03 PM ET
Member Since: 11/18/2009
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I think the 50-year mark is a good one to maintain for our challenge.

On the other hand, I think there could be a separate challenge for Modern Classics.

Maybe next year. . .unless you want to start one sooner, TomeTrader? (I'll participate!)

 

                                                                                  Rose

Date Posted: 11/18/2013 3:39 AM ET
Member Since: 6/30/2008
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I think as far as pbs is concerned you get to decide for yourself what a classic is. Who is going to challenge your definition?

Date Posted: 11/18/2013 3:23 PM ET
Member Since: 3/27/2009
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Well, I was hoping you would, Charles. It's a lonely forum.

Date Posted: 11/18/2013 4:32 PM ET
Member Since: 6/30/2008
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It's a lonely forum.

you can say that again.

I never really thought much about what a classic was. The professors took care of that when I was at university. We pretty much read what they told us to read. I think you should be safe picking authors who wrote way back there. Find an author first and then pick something they wrote.

some old stuff that I enjoyed. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. The Ginger Man by J P Dunleavy. Seize the Day by Saul Bellow. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. Humphry Clinker by T Smollett.

Date Posted: 11/19/2013 8:21 AM ET
Member Since: 9/25/2006
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I have two standards for classics.

First, to me, a classic is a novel that influenced many writers that came after, one that set standards. For instance, Gone with the Wind was a classic of popular historial fiction. blending history and romance in ways that keep attracting new readers. Or The Woman in White, which blended mystery, romance, lurid sensation and pure narriative drive. Or Catch-22, which set standards for black humor with a serious purpose. The Bride Wore Black influenced many noir writers, as to narative style and the character of The Really Dangerous Female.

Second, to my mind, a classic is a novel that is nearly unique, few others rival it for originality or theme. Examples: The Blood of the Lamb by Peter DeVries is an extremely funny and sad novel about atheism. I'd second The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles for its story of a trip overseas gone utterly bad and its clinical detachment of tone. The Towers of Treboizond by Rose Macauley is a fictionalized memoir that combines travel narrative, comedy, impeccable style and somber meditation on love and adultery; there's no book like it.

For me, classics can also be non-fiction. For power of narrative and style: My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglas; The only war memoir to read if one is reading only one war memoir in a lifetime: With the Old Breed in Peliliu and Okinawa by E.B. Sledge;

To me, to me - my decision is final as to what's a classic, because it's my time, my effort, my appreciation...my patience......all are limited.....

Date Posted: 11/19/2013 9:31 AM ET
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you don't say anything about the age of the work. how long ago it was written.

Another of those nonfiction classics would be John Brown by Robert Penn Warren. a great read.

Date Posted: 11/19/2013 5:22 PM ET
Member Since: 10/17/2006
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"The professors took care of that when I was at university."   Me, too, Charles, but that was back in the second half of the 1940s, when literature courses in American colleges where still organized according to (1) British, OR American' (2) Prose, OR Poetry; (3) Which century, 17th, 18th, 19th or 20th.   Trying to find a way to include a lit course or two somewhere in my Journalism School required courses class schedule meant that I wound up taking "Romantic Period: Poetry" (Keats, Shelley, Byron) and Modern American Novel (Dos Passos, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Lewis etc.)  Kinda like only getting a buffet supper of a piece of liver and a bowl of tapoioca pudding!   Just like most of my school years, I had to find my way myself through the wonderland of literature in the English language.  Of course, my reading was a mixed bag-----of trash and treasures.   One could simply pick a date----say, the calendar year, 1950, and call worthy books written during the second half of the 20th century and the early years of this 21st century, "Modern" Classics.  Aren't the people who actually read, and esteem books differently (according to their "worth" to those readers) the ones whose judgment matters?   Another criterion that might be used is which books publishing houses reprint, from time to time, rather than letting "go out of print".    You know, the good ol' Law of Supply and Demand . . . .

 



Last Edited on: 11/19/13 5:23 PM ET - Total times edited: 1
Date Posted: 11/19/2013 6:26 PM ET
Member Since: 9/14/2009
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Since "classic" is such a nebulous term, I am sticking to the "50 years or older" guideline. Within that timeframe, I look for works that have stood the test of time for whatever reason, especially literature that has been continually republished. After so many years reading "classics", though, I've read 90% of the better known works, and I'm now reduced to lesser known authors or lesser known works by the more well known. I say thank goodness for my Kindle, because now I have access to the more obscure stuff via Project Gutenberg. I think newer works should be classified separately as "modern classic", and should be a separate challenge.

Date Posted: 11/20/2013 3:57 PM ET
Member Since: 10/17/2006
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Yes, Barbara B.   One of the curious things that happens, sometimes, is how an "old" book receives renewed attention from the critics or scholars or reading public.  For example, It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, got some renewed notice a few years ago.  It wasn't a very good book, as literary works go, but it happened to deal with the way some home-grown fascists in the United States seized power and instituted the "Corporate State."   It was one of those "alternate history" literary efforts, hinged to the 1936/1940 quadrennial elections here in our country.   I suppose you might find it available on Kindle, after you have read Main Street, Babbitt, Elmer Gantry, ArrowsmithDodsworth, and Lewis's short stories.

The other thing about "old" books that changes over time is the way alternate translations from the source languages in which the books were written keep coming along.  Remember how Oprah Winfrey got a buncha viewers to read a "new" translation of Anna Karenina?  (Personally, I didn't see that it made all that much difference.)  I did notice that a reviewer of one of Emile Zola's novels commented favorably on a "new" translation into English, saying that the 'flavor' of the original French was somehow retained better in the "racier" American English employed by the 21st century translator.

Then, as with BBC's decision to "adapt" The Ladies' Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames), by Zola, to a TV series, "The Paradise", the tale not only gets translated out of the French into English, but the setting of the story gets moved from La Belle France to Merrie Olde England!   I suppose what prompted the decision by the British television biggies to produce it was the way Money and Power have come to rule the day these days---in the same way they did in 19th century Paris, much to Zola's despair and disgust.

I sure hope Cattriona, who is reading The Ladies' Paradise and watching the TV series, is going to tell us more about this curious literary metamorphosis.

 



Last Edited on: 11/20/13 4:01 PM ET - Total times edited: 2
Date Posted: 11/22/2013 12:39 PM ET
Member Since: 9/14/2009
Posts: 611
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I really enjoyed your comments Bonnie. I read It Can't Happen Here a couple of years ago. I liked it; however, I thought he made mere caricatures of the villains. I could see where something of what he described could come to be, but to my mind, he didn't develop the events with enough subtlety. I felt like I was being beaten over the head with the theme so I'd "get it".

I watched PBS'  The Paradise with interest. It was really enjoyable, yet having read The Ladies Paradise by Zola last year, I can't help feeling I would've liked it better if they had stuck to the book. The book was much richer and more involving! They simply changed Zola's work far too much.

Yes, current events have been well known to trigger republication of older literature. I suppose that is legitimate, as well as what may be gained from more accurate new translations; yet, I think it is really all motivated by potential profits. I am easily annoyed by publishers current affinity for dredging up older or more obscure works for publication, I guess I'm suspicious of the hard sell they give it all. So often I've fallen for the glowing reviews and been underwhelmed! I'm much, much more cautious now. I should have been all along, but when you love literature you yearn to give it (in all its morphs) the benefit of the doubt.

Date Posted: 11/22/2013 2:24 PM ET
Member Since: 6/30/2008
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I think the movie Meet John Doe by Frank Capra plays with some of the ideas from It can't happen Here. There is no explicit connection between the movie and the book but I think you can definitely see the connection.

Date Posted: 11/22/2013 7:17 PM ET
Member Since: 9/14/2009
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Charles, it is certainly possible there is a connection. Lewis' book was published in 1935, and the Capra film came out in 1941. Perhaps the screenwriter referenced the book in writing his script. Stranger things have happened for sure.