Tuesday, September 30, 2008

What is a Classic? Part 1

I read this article in the back of an older 2 for $1 book from Walmart- The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. I cannot find who is the author of this article but want to give credit where it is due. This was the best article I have read on what makes a book a classic. It is a rather long article, so I will be dividing it up into parts.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could know whether a book or movie, tape or CD was worthwhile just by looking at it? Imagine what it would be like if every form of entertainment, every work of art, had a special label on it that said " This is the Good Stuff" a label you could actually trust to tell you: "This is really worth it. This is the best there is."
Imagine the hours of time you'd save. You'd be browsing in a bookstore or record shop, looking att hte weekend movie ads, considering a concert or play, and you'd see that label and relax, knowing your time wouldn't be wasted.
There actually is such a label- at least for books. The label is "classic".
It means "of the highest quality," or "of enduring interest and value." You've heard the word before, used for everything from soft drinks and sporting events to hairstyles and antique cars. But it's also used to describe something that's one of the best examples of its kind, whether its the dialogues of Plato, the music of Mozart, the architecture of the Renaissance, or a cherry-red 1957 Thunderbird convertible.
When book publishers use the word "classic" to describe a book, they really mean it. There's a kind of honor system operating. They've set aside that word solely for books that have passed the test of time, that really are amonf the best works of their kind ever written. The book you're holding in your hands is one of those books (The War of the Worlds).
Unfortunately, a lot of people think "classice means something else. They think it means "old" or "boring". As a result, they miss out on some of the most interesting, engaging stories ever told.
It's not too difficult to figure how this idea got around. First, it's a fact that a lot of "classics" are "old" in a purely chronological sense. They were written fifty or a hundred and fifty years ago, and some people think a story has to be brand new to be interesting.
Second, some of the people recommending that you read "classics" are the same people who recommend that you brush your teeth, or wear a motorcycle helmet, or save money for the future- things that are good for you, but not all that much fun. So it's not surprising that people, especially young people, are suspicious when someone tells them that a book that's required reading in school is actually enjoyable.
But it happens to be true.
To explain why it's true, it might be helpful to explain how a book becomes a "classic" in the first place. There's a very simple answer. People keep reading it. People just like you. It's like a popularity contest, or a public opinion poll, except that it goes on year after year, generation after generation. A book that people are still reading fifty or a hundred and fifty years after it was first published has to have something going for it to keep people interested.
Another reason books become classics is that they are genuinely entertaining. People who take the time to read classics are usually pleasantly surprised to discover just how interesting they really are.
That's especially ture of the books selscted for this classics program. They deliver as much excitement and entertainment as anything that's sitting on the "new releases" shelf of the local bookstore.
Imagine what it would be like to be a child, abandoned in the jungles of India, facing certain death from the deadly predators that prowl its paths. Suddenly, when you're certain you can't survive another day, you are rescued by a she-wolf who brings you home to her pack, raises you as one of her own, adn teaches you the languages of the forest animals. That's just one of the stories Rudyard Kipling tells in his Jungle Book.
What if you wer a brilliant scientist who had discovered a secret serum that unlocked the wildest passions of the human soul? Would you take the risk of testing it on yourself, knowing that it might transform you into a hideous, violent monster? That's one of the questions Robert Louis Stevenson answers in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
What would you do if a lucky punch from a local bully knocked you all the way back to the time of Merlin the Magician? Would you dare to challenge the awesome power of his dark sorcery with stage magic and modern day science? That's what happens to the hero in Mark Twain's A Conneticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
How would you survive if you found yourself trapped in a deadly, prehistoric world in a hidden cavern at the Earth's core, menaced by deadly creatures and warlike giants? That's the problem a band of explorers face in Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth.
These stories don't sound all that boring, do they?
End of Part 1.
The next article will contain the authors notes on the "marks" of a classic. Just a reminder, this is not my article, but found in the back of an old paperback put out by Walmart years ago. The author of this article is not named, although it was Aerie Books LTD. that did the publishing.

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