Thursday, January 25, 2007

A Great Book or Classic?

What makes a great book or classic? If I were asked this question I’d answer that what makes such a book would be (i) its sense of timelessness – that it has as much relevance today as to the time it was written, (ii) that its story is universal and can be understood anywhere in the world, (iii) that its characters evoke passions in us – whether love or hate and (iv) that the way it’s written could not be improved upon, i.e., that the quality of the written word is superb. That’s my take on what a classic is, or indeed should be. I’m not so sure how many would agree with my parameters as to what makes a classic, but that the topic is of interest to the reading public is surely undeniable.

These thoughts were inspired by my reading an article by author Tom Wolfe on this very topic. He was reviewing a book called “The Top Ten Writers Pick Their Favourite Books” on the Time Magazine. See the two links at the end of this post.

To make a long story short the books were picked by the following acclaimed writers: Norman Mailer, Annie Proulx, Stephen King, Jonathan Franzen, Claire Messud, Margaret Drabble, Michael Chabon and Peter Carey and I’ve only heard of four out of these 8, so I obviously don’t read widely enough. The following are their top 10 books.

1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
2. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
3. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
4. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
6. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
7. The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald
8. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
9. The Stories of Anton Chekhov by Anton Chekhov
10. Middlemarch by George Eliot

Again of these 10 I notice that I have read numbers 1, 3, 6, 7 and 10 – 5 out of 10. Now I’m not too unhappy with this fact. Hamlet and The Great Gatsby were on our Leaving Certificate course in 1976. I loved both immediately and they have long remained firm favourites with me. When I got to college I was introduced to Russian literature by an excellent teacher of Philosophy Rev Patrick Carmody, M.A., M.Phil. As a result of Paddy’s influence I read as much of Dostoyevsky as I could get my hands on – the Russian novel of the late nineteenth century was a highly philosophical pursuit in many ways. Dostoyevsky led me to read Leo Tolstoy who also became a firm favourite author. Therefore, I had read War and Peace, The Death of Ivan Ilych and Anna Karenina in my early twenties. I loved the philosophical take on literature of these Russian writers as philosophy had long been a passion of mine. As I did English literature as well as theology and philosophy during my first college course I had to read George Eliot’s great masterpiece Middlemarch. It was and is a tome of a book with marvelously well painted characters. This also was a wonderful find as it deals with deep emotions linked with exceptional human intelligence. Consequently, this novel, too, had a philosophical as well as a literary appeal for me. Therefore, I find that I have read five of the so called 10 greats of Literature. Strangely enough I have most of the others except The Stories of Anton Chekhov on my bookshelves, still waiting to be read. This list or listing may possibly lure me into reading the other 5 on this particular list. Maybe in a future post I’ll get around to naming my ten classics or my ten favourites at least. This might not be an unrewarding task at all!

The above photograph shows one corner of my study.

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