Friday, May 24, 2019

You Don't Have to Love the Classics

I went to the Massachusetts Library Association conference last week and had a wonderful time. I got tons of great ideas, and I've already started working with staff to see if some things we learned about are feasible for our library. On the lighter side of things, there was a vendor table that asked us, what is your LEAST favorite book?

Answers were widely varied, and I know there was a fair amount of overlap between this topic and their other question, "what book inspires you?" What struck me was the number of "classic" books that people had listed as their least favorite.

What Makes a Classic?

The first question I had was, what makes a book a classic, anyway? The fact that it's well-known, or has lasted through the years? Many people have written entire books just trying to answer this question. I can't claim to be any more intelligent than they, but I can have my own thoughts on the matter.

Italo Calvino says that a classic is "a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers." This is a lovely way to think of it, but I would argue that The Cat in the Hat is a classic and I have gotten pretty much all out of that one that I possibly can.

Mark Twain declared that a classic is, "something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read." That seems somewhat closer to the truth, though I find it very ironic that the works of Mark Twain are now, themselves, classics.

This also makes me wonder: Can a book lose "classic" status if people no longer enjoy it? There was a time when the Tom Swift science fiction books by Victor Appleton were on everyone's radar, but you might not have even heard of them today. (Fun fact: the TASER is actually named for the character; it stands for Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle.)

Do We Have to Love Them?

No matter how you define the term, we all have several examples at the ready. Do we have to enjoy them (or pretend to)?

I used to joke that I was a terrible librarian because I can't stand the works of James Joyce. I have come to the conclusion, however, that it doesn't matter whether I like him, or any other author, or not. The real question is: Will I still make sure to find these works if someone wants them, or I think they might enjoy them? If yes, then it doesn't matter what my personal views are. You want Ulysses? Here it is!

The thing is: times change. In some cases, what was once acceptable and even normal is no longer okay; the Laura Ingalls Wilder books are a good example of this. While they are a product of their time, and we can still love the stories while being aware of the bias of the narrator, they are less popular now than they were, and may have a resurgence in popularity, or may fade away (like poor old Tom Swift).

Also, people change. Attitudes change. The sweet story you loved as a child might take on a whole new - sometimes disturbing - meaning as an adult. 

So, no. We don't have to love them. We can make up our own minds about classics -- but we also don't get to judge anyone else who decides they are still perfect.

Classics We Didn't Necessarily Love

Taken from the list at the conference and conversations that I've had with other librarians, I have compiled a short list of classics that are very divisive. What do you think? 

Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister
Why didn't you love it? "The title character wants to make friends so he rips off his shiny scales to share with his friends. This isn't sharing cookies at lunch - he mutilates himself so others like him. Disturbing."

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
Why didn't you love it? "The tree gives her all for the little boy, to the point that she is left a dead stump with nothing left."

I Love You Forever by Robert Munsch
Why didn't you love it? "The mom breaks into her adult son's house to hold him in his sleep. CREEPY."

Lord of the Flies by William Golding.
Why didn't you love it? "That guy had a messed up view of human nature."

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Why didn't you love it? "I kept reading it thinking it must get better...and it didn't."

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Why didn't you love it? "Holden Caufield is such a spoiled brat!"

No comments:

Post a Comment