Thursday, August 13, 2020

What Makes a Book a Classic? Some Thoughts About the Classics, Reading, and Venomous Snakes

I'm a Texas Master Naturalist. I've only been a master naturalist for about a year and a half. In all honesty, I'm not much of a scientist. But I love nature and science, and I love to learn about it.

I do know young children. I worked in a primary school for the last ten years of my career in schools.

So here's the story: I was working at an open house at the Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge. Some young children---probably three or four years old---were looking at our live snakes. I was holding a king snake. The children were fearful to approach the snakes. Don't worry, I told them. This snake is not poisonous.

One of the other volunteers at the refuge that day has been a volunteer for almost twenty years with the TMN. He's one of those sorts I've very nervous around, a degreed scientist. He comes across sometimes as condescending. Venomous, he corrected me. That snake is not poisonous; it's venomous. And he proceeded to pontificate on the difference between the words "venomous" and "poisonous." All said with one of those little smarty-pants smirks.

Inside I fumed. These kids are three years old, I thought. Is that really an important distinction? Wouldn't it be more important to use words the children know, and to use those words to make the children feel comfortable around snakes that don't threaten them? And to encourage me, a newbie and a nonscientist, to learn more about science? Not to make me feel like I don't belong?

That's my attitude to the classics. As a librarian, I've learned that many people have been confronted with others who have put them off reading, teachers primarily, who have made them feel small around books, others who have made them feel like reading is something they cannot do well, so perhaps they should just clear off the field and leave the reading to the experts.

Is that what we really want? Do we want people to step away from reading? 

That certainly is not what I want. I want people to approach reading, to approach classics. I want people to try books, to try classics. I want people to feel like classics are something they can do, too. I don't want people to think classics are something only certain people can read, the well-educated, the big readers. I don't want people to think classics are only the books an elite group says they are. For many years that was true, and it forced many amazing books out of the canon, simply because they weren't acknowledged by the book experts.

My attitude to the Classics Club is that it is a wonderful way-in for people, a great way to read books that connect you to the best of the past, an excellent way to read and think about themes and experiences and feelings of the finest minds of our world. To join the Classics Club, you create your own list of at least fifty books you want to try to read in the next five years. These books can be any book you regard as a classic, a word you define for yourself. There is no one there telling you that this book is or is not a decide. Certainly, you may want to take a look at what books others have read and deemed a classic. But you can go beyond those definitions. You decide for yourself what classics you would like to try. You decide for yourself what a classic is. You know. You don't need me or Italo Calvino ("A classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it”) or Mark Twain ("a book, which people praise and don't read").

Becoming part of the Classics Club allows you to expand your ideas of what you can do, to push yourself a bit farther than you thought you can go. It's not a way of saying, Hey, I'm better than you. It's a way of saying, Here are some amazing books that people have read and reread and shared for many, many years...Do you want to try some of these, too? And, hey, tell me what you consider a classic, and share books you have read and loved that may have been overlooked.

What do you think? Am I wrong? What makes a book a classic? What are your thoughts about reading classics? Do you think people find classics too intimidating? What books would you consider classics? What is stopping you from joining the Classics Club?


  1. As a Lit major, I was taught a classic is "a book that has stood the test of time." How many years and how much time, I have no idea. Usually classics have universal appeals and universal themes, things that apply to everyone everywhere and "everywhen."
    I don't know what is keeping me from joining the Classics Club except laziness and lack of ambition. I always took someone else's list of "classics" and read those. I have read multitudes of classic books.

  2. I love classics because they challenge me. I try to read a few every year. I should probably join Classics Club. One of the great things about classics is that we have the Internet now! If you come across something confusing, there are websites that can explain it. I had to read a ton of challenging stuff while getting my English Lit degrees, and I was never ashamed to bust out my phone and Google what I was reading.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

  3. what a great comparison and i do agree
    sherry @ fundinmental

  4. I learned so much. Thanks for sharing. Love it.

  5. There are some teachers that will put a child off from reading I think. I had a really good English teacher who didn't care what we read as long as we were reading something. I loved that about her.

  6. Until quite recently, I think classics in Western society have been defined as ponderous tomes written by white men. That is slowly - probably too slowly - changing. Personally, a classic for me is a book that is unforgettable, that entertains, and in some ways informs my life. I don't know, for example, that Daphne du Maurier's books would make the traditional classic list, but I first read them in my twenties and was highly entertained and have never forgotten them.

    1. I would agree with this. I loved reading some of the books written by Fitzgerald, Salinger and the like from that era. But I have always dreaded Shakespeare, Tolstoy and those types of books. Blech. It takes me a lot of willpower to read those classics.

  7. I knew nothing about the classics club (Had to look up your link!). I view a classic as a book that stands the test of time. Hence, "Goodnight Moon" would be on my list. I guess I read some every year -- I just never thought about it as reading a classic, just reading a book that looked really good.

    What would I consider a classic? Well, pretty much all of Jane Austen, To Kill a Mockingbird, Diary of Anne Frank, Dickens, Some Edith Wharton and Agatha Christie, Anatomy of a Murder, Rebecca, Jane Eyre, Gone with the Wind... do you count play scripts? I'd add in a good pile of O'Neill, Shaw, Sondheim, Ibsen, Moliere. A Gift from the Sea... This is fun!

  8. One very new endeavor that puts women squarely back in the list of classics: "Reclaim Her Name" -- 25 novels by women who published under a male pseudonym are being reissued with the author's REAL name, that is, a woman's name. A few examples: Mary Ann Evans (pseud: George Eliot), Aurore Dupin (pseud: George Sand), Violet Nickerson (pseud: Laurence Hope). The Bronte sisters aren't included though they did use male pseudonymns when their works were new.

    I agree with your assessment of how classics are used more as a cudgel to show someone's (a teacher's) superiority than promoted as offering their own reward if you read them. I think it's even worse with poetry, which is really taught with that superior attitude that only with a professional guide can an ordinary reader hope to comprehend the wonders.

    be well... mae at

  9. What a great post! I so agree with what you wrote.

  10. I love this post. The example of the poisonous/venomous snake guy is right out. Exactly! It is hard to decide what is a classic book but if it keeps someone from reading and enjoying reading, then forget the list and just get out of the way. Let people enjoy books!

  11. That is exactly the kind of reason why I don't like science. All my science teachers were like that. My language teachers, on the other hand, were totally different and instilled in me my love of books AND of classics.

    Thanks for this post. We should all be more aware of what we're doing to those little ones.

  12. I thoroughly agree - books weren't written to be Classics - they were written as stories to be read and enjoyed by the audience of the day. That's one of my problems with some of the modern literary reads, as they self consciously try to be clever. As for snobbery and elitism - sadly, the literary world is riddled with it.

    I am allergic to such attitudes - well, I'd have to be, wouldn't I - I write science fiction and space opera! But as the Creative Writing tutor, I very quickly squash any of those types of attitudes in my classes. Of course some Classic stories resonate with genius and ring with the glory of the words - but they aren't necessarily all that helpful to raw beginners struggling to put words down on a page. And most of them use outdated literary devices anyway, as writing is subject to fashions, just the same as everything else.

    Classics are books that have stood the test of time, that's all. So they have to be wonderful stories, otherwise they wouldn't go on being read:)).

  13. I am definitely not a reader of the classics. They just don't seem to resonate with me. That said, I love the BBC versions of them, so maybe it's the reading of them that doesn't work for me and, I'm sure, a lot of that stems from high school English classes.

  14. Excellent post... I love this comparison!!

  15. Hi Deb! I've marked this post since Sunday and I finally get to reading it. LOVE IT!!! I read a lot and yes, I do love a classic. But I haven't read them all and some of them I've actually tossed aside.

    Sign me up!! I've been looking at the Classics Club since I started blogging 3 years ago. As you know, I then stopped with the blog. Mainly because of a terrible personal trauma and I didn't want to "connect" and otherwise because I didn't know where I wanted to go with the blog.

    This time around, I'm starting to find my "tribe" and yes, you are part of it. And I think The Classics Club will work for me!

    I'll have a look and start doing the "paperwork". Will ask your help if I get stuck (will click on notify me on this post as well).

    Have a good day, it is terribly cold and rainy here with us.

    Lots of love, xxxx


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