Wednesday, October 24, 2007

In a pile of catalogs I just received from a publisher (name withheld to protect the guilty) I found one which billed itself as a listing of “new” classic literature. I opened the catalog to browse and got quite confused. I consider myself a well read individual. Yet, not one of the books in this catalog was familiar- not a title, not an author. Did I pull a Rip Van Winkle, sleeping through a hundred years of literature to wake and find myself completely unfamiliar with what is now considered a “classic?”

The question then, is “What is classic literature?” Is there a literary star chamber determining this? Or, to quote a classic film (or is it a classic?) is there a secret society “known as The Pentavirate, who run everything in the world, including the newspapers, and meet tri-annually at a secret country mansion in Colorado, known as The Meadows?” Who in Dante’s Inferno is in charge of this list?

Perhaps a book hits classic status when a majority of high school English classes across the country incorporate it into their curriculum. Although I read quite a few books in high school, most classic literature sections of bookstores, including my own, have far more books than I had the time or patience to read when I was in my late teens.

To Kill A Mockingbird Does a book become classic when an author dies? If that’s the case, what becomes of all those Harlequin romances when the authors die? As I write this, Harper Lee is still living. Is To Kill a Mockingbird not a classic?

Maybe a book is “classic” because the book has fallen into the realm of public domain and the publisher no longer has to pay a royalty to the author who is dead (thus fulfilling one of our previous requirements). But then, explain 1984 by George Orwell. His estate still controls the copyright and receives royalties.

Perhaps when the book is refurbished with a new translation, or forward, or epilogue and is given a shiny new coat in the form of brand new cover art. Could that make it a classic?

Regardless of who labels a book “classic,” there’s one thing I know when I browse these supposed catalogs of classic literature- (to paraphrase a classic line from a politician), “I have known a lot of classic literature, and those sir, are not classic literature.”

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