What makes a book a classic?
Lionel Shriver was a guest on my favorite BBC program A Good Read. You can listen to the program here. It was the dullest episode of my favorite program ever. Knowing something of what Ms. Shriver is like in person, I almost didn’t listen, but I thought I’d be open-minded, give it a try.
The conceit of A Good Read is that the host along with each of two guests suggests a book which they all read and then discuss. I love it in part because it often brings books to my attention that I otherwise would never have read. Oddly, maybe not all that oddly, the best episodes feature guests who are neither authors nor involved with publishing. Ms. Shriver brought John Knowles A Separate Peace as her good read.
She began the discussion with a dig at teachers when the host mentioned that most American high schools use the book in their classes. Fortunately, Ms. Shriver quipped, I didn’t suffer that fate. Or something like that.
I no longer have any patience with people denigrate the teaching profession in any way. We didn’t ruin any book for you, we don’t have that power. If we did, we’d use it against Twilight. Own your nonsense. You don’t get to blame your teachers for anything anymore. Be a grown up. Or face my wrath, ’cause I bite back. Hence this post. Okay, not much in the way of wrath but it’s what I’ve got.
Apparently, people in the U.K. do not read A Separate Peace; Shriver was the only one on the program who had heard of it. So the host brought up the question of what makes a book a classic. I don’t recall what Shriver said, but my instant answer was high school teachers.
If you think John Knowles book A Separate Peace, published in 1959 would still be in print if it weren’t for generations of high school teachers bringing it to their freshman English classes, you are slightly delusional. The reason a book remains in print generations after it is published, honestly even 10 years after it is published, is that some group of teachers somewhere in the world loves that particular book enough to carry it into a classroom or to encourage their students to read it on their own. Teachers. Even popular classics like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings owe their success to teachers. We were the ones getting our friends to bring book two back from trips to England so we could read Chamber of Secrets to our sixth grade students. My seventh grade English teacher brought The Hobbit to class.
Teachers, Ms. Shriver, are the ones who make a book a classic.
Later in the episode, the host mentioned the homoerotic element of A Separate Peace which Ms. Shriver pooh-poohed immediately as wrong-headed and isn’t is a shame we can’t appreciate non-sexual friendships between men anymore. Yes, I suppose, but wasn’t it worse that any hint of same-sex attraction had to be immediately denied so forcefully that it often led to acts of violence between those who felt it? And just what makes you so uncomfortable with this idea, anyway, Ms. Shriver? Is A Separate Peace not quite so wonderful if Gene really is in love with Phinny?
End of rant. Now a cat video.
Last week, C.J. and I got a cat. Floyd, who came with that name, is not our first cat, as long time readers of this blog may recall. We had one that ran away, and several rounds of foster kittens, but I think this one will stay. Here’s a video of him on the day we brought him home.
This year, for the first time, I am reading along with The Tournament of Books. It’s been a lot reading, almost all of it good, some if it great. I didn’t set up a full field of brackets, since I was not able to read all of the books in advance, maybe next year, but it wouldn’t have mattered if I had.
The tip in round in which three books compete before the tournament officially begins went to Alvaro Enrigue’s terrific historical fiction Sudden Death. My review is here. While this book was not quite my pick, I was pleased with the result. I did not get a chance to read C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings, but my favorite, maybe my favorite of all the tournament contenders so far, was Chris Bacheldar’s The Throwback Special. My review is here. While it garnered high praise from the round’s judge, as did all three books, it did not win. It won’t be the zombie round winner either. I knew there was no way a book about a group of straight white men facing middle age would win, and I’m okay with that, but it’s a wonderful book.
While I came to admire Michelle Tea’s book Black Wave and was genuinely moved by the ending, I knew it would lose to Colin Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. Underground Railroad is a contender to take the contest or at least come in second to Homegoing. My review of Black Wave is here; my review of Underground Railroad is here. While I feel a little bad about Black Wave, this was the right choice as far as I’m concerned.
Inexplicably, Charlie Jane Anders science fiction/fantasy novel All the Birds in the Sky defeated Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. Things like this do happen, but when they do, they make you wonder. Ms. Ander’s novel is good. Though I did not read it all, I can see its appeal and I admit it is well done. But it’s been done before. Two young people, a boy genius capable of inventing a time machine with spare parts he finds around the house and a girl gifted with powers of witchcraft beyond her control, become friends before they are each sent to different schools where they will learn to control their abilities until things come to a climatic head in a battle of some sort. I didn’t make it to the end so you’re own your own. If it all sounds familiar, that’s because it is familiar. Very familiar.
Han Kang’s book is not like anything I’ve read before. That alone gets my attention and my praise. You can read my review of it here. A window on another society, a study of one woman, a study of a family, a metaphor for modern Korea. There’s a lot going on in what looks at first like a fairly simple story. I wonder if Han Kang has a chance to take the zombie round. I think she’s a long shot.
Of course, there’s no way one could ever agree with every decision the judges make, little chance of it anyway, and that probably wouldn’t be any fun. Disagreeing is part of the entertainment. The commentary and the comments make for very interesting reading. I’m struck by how insightful and how interesting the commenters are. Book people are the best people.
Could that be because so many of us are teachers?