We can all name the “classics”. The books, plays and poems that have shaped generations; books that have taught us morals, history and all those fancy literary terms like alliteration and iambic pentameter. These books have been preserved for good reason, they have shaped and influenced for hundreds of years. They are the inspiration for countless spinoffs and they are attributed as the harbingers and bearers of what fiction can be if done to a point of perfection. I agree that this is the case in most instances. What set the classics apart is the narrative that’s written into them. The themes, characters and plots that have been used countless times in innumerable ways in other media. The classics are books where we get some of our more obfuscated words think “Kafkaesque” or “Wow man, that does seem to be a Catch -22”.
Most of these classics deserve our praise and adoration. However, there are a few that seem to be lumped in with all the others because generations of professors have taught from that particular book. The literary circles need to be careful with the word “classic”. It seems that when you label a book as such, to question that becomes a sin. It seems that a classic is sacrosanct, and that if you think it may be lacking in quality or theme there is something wrong with you. You also hear the phrase, “You don’t read classics, classics read you”. That’s a short way of saying “you’ll never change my mind”. We all know that books read you as much as you read them. We read books (not just classics) because we want a view of the world. We want to see how others (even if they’re imaginary) deal with struggles and joys.
The point is we don’t want to get lazy with our classics. If they are truly the beacon of great literature then they should meet criteria and strict guidelines for literary excellence.
That being said, here is my list of “classics” that should never have made the cut.
Jonathon Livingston Seagull (Richard Bach) Regarded as a classic of “self-improvement fiction and philosophy” Seagull has been on the reading list since its inception not long ago. The challenge with such a book is its overt, artsy nature, and its anthropomorphism of the Seagull into the philosophical struggle of the human. You read the book and feel cheated. First, you find that it reads like a children’s growing up book, and second, you wonder if it’s not actually a photographic book of seagulls. The book takes itself too seriously, with Jonathon seeking out the meaning of his existence in an inept story filled with hoi polloi writing at best. Also, here’s a fun fact: Richard Bach said that a demon told him to write the book and he doesn’t actually remember writing it! And you said you don’t like to read horror.
A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess) Literary critics get sidetracked with violence. There is a growing number of people who ascribe to the belief that if you put grotesque violence in a fiction book, that means you’re “fearless”. (For some reason this does not translate to the horror genre) The violence in the book is defined as an allegory for, “the depravity of man, the decadence of society or ‘insert reason for evil society here’”. I’m not saying that classics can’t be violent, but when books are violent just for kicks, it’s not a classic. People will argue saying, “well it shows the impetuousness of youth and the need for better education”. Yea, no that’s wrong. Have you ever noticed in real life that really violent people tend to stay that way? They don’t just grow up. Kids do dumb things and make mistakes, but unadulterated violence and reeducation is a lifelong problem. Some don’t like Orange because it’s hard to understand. The main trio of boys have their own language called Nadsat, which Burgess got from mixing English, German and Polish. I don’t think this is where the book falls short. It is creative, and many gangs of today have their own code. The main problem with the book is the perpetual violence and the unjustifiably illogical end. However, if you read this book, at least you’ll have a cool code language you can use with your friends!
The Space Trilogy (C.S. Lewis) I love C.S. Lewis, but his only adult work of science fiction falls short of the magnitude of everything else he’s written. Though full of very interesting religious philosophy (If you go to another planet and find alien life, are they under the umbrage of mans sin?) it is poorly executed with cut and paste characterization. The third book in the series, That Hideous Strength can be read as a standalone, and is decent by itself. Critics tend to fall into the, “classic author” trap. That being, if the author has written another classic everything they write is considered one. This is a prime example of such a trap.
The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner) Few classics fail on so many scales, but Fury happens to be one of them. Though prized by high school English teachers worldwide, this book is a farce. It lacks essential quality and plot, and the characterization is a little hackneyed. The fault comes from the authors writing more than anything else. Faulkner is one of the few southern, American writers who failed to capture the imagination or his time as well as others like Hemingway. How good of a writer can he be, if he did so when he was drinking? Fury is the “wolfs in sheep’s clothing” of the classic world. It looks like a classic, acts like a classic, but is really not a classic.
Pride & Prejudice (Jane Austen) I know I’ll get flak for this one. Prejudice suffers from an overblown syndrome. Though Austen is a good writer and has some valid points in relation to love and relationship, too many movies, and critics have bastardized this book into way more than it actually is. Prejudice is like the Gossip Girl of its time. Both Darcy and Elizabeth are characters who suffer from ignorance and dishonesty. Their love is something of a letdown, and they’re story of finally ending up together is full of literary potholes. You can almost see Austen writing the first book of romantic fan fiction with Prejudice. In the end she creates a story that leaves everyone unsatisfied and unfulfilled. Sure there’s happily ever after, but who actually cares? If you want a true story about lovers may I turn you to Austen’s counterpart Bronte.
“The way a book is read, which is to say, the qualities a reader brings to a book can have as much to do with its worth as anything the author puts into it.”
~ Norman Cousins