WHAT ARE CLASSICS?
Before we can really take control of our bookshelves, we must face the classics through the lens of reality instead of the prism of our fear, and to do that, we need to have an understanding of what classics are.
CLASSICS ARE, by the simplest definition, the best written books of all time.
THEY ARE NOT condescending intellectuals sneering at thereaders who do not understand them. They are not some secret, unintelligible key to the meaning of the universe. And most of all, they are NOT intentionally vague and disguised in order to prevent people from finding out that they are actually badly-written literature.
THEY ARE well written, deeply insightful, and contain the heart, soul, and peak of achievable effort of the author. No classic author looks back on his work and says: “Oh, that old thing: I write that when I don’t care what I write like.”
CLASSICS HAVE good grammar, solid sentence structure, vivid descriptions, detailed character development, deep insights into human nature, cohesive and compelling plots and satisfying, surprising, but inevitable conclusions.
This is what SETS CLASSICS APART from the books that never make it into their ranks. If you walk into a bookstore and pull down any random paperback, chances are that it is missing two or more of the above aspects. Typically, this happens because authors pick one aspect of a story and over-concentrates on it, at the expense of all the other aspects. For example, a poorly written action story might put too much emphasis on the pace of the plot at the expense of letting us meet the characters. Or conversely, a poorly written romance may put too much emphasis on the characters at the expense of keeping an external plot moving.
THE AUTHOR’S PROCESS
When an author sits down to write a book, no matter his level of talent, he almost always leaves something vital out of the story the first time he writes it. That’s why second and third drafts exist. Some authors will write innumerable drafts before they finally decide that their book is good enough to go into print. But in our fast-paced world, where visible accomplishments tend to take precedence over the quality of an artist’s work, many authors are simply polishing superficial aspects of their stories. They are writing them, editing them, and publishing them within the span of a year or two, which is hardly enough time for most authors to develop a well-written story. Their book will, inevitably, lack depth, character development, a well-paced plot, vivid descriptions, good grammar, solid sentences, or satisfying conclusions – and even, sometimes, all of the above.
You may wonder why, if most books are badly written, so many people are still willing to read them? The answer is that, as humans, we like things that come easily to our understanding: sometimes, we like Hershey’s kisses over dark chocolate, or Bud Light over brandy. Hershey’s and Bud Light are simple and take little time or talent to appreciate, so they are good for parties and when we want to take a load off. But if you are one of the fortunate people who have taken the time and energy to appreciate dark chocolate or brandy, to cultivate your palette to understand the nuances of taste, then you know the joy that comes with dining and drinking, and you have found relaxation on a whole new level.
It’s the same for literature.
Some people, usually women, are wired to enjoy character development more than the action of the story, and may write and read more character-driven stories; while men are usually wired to enjoy the action of a story more than the character development, and so their books will contain more tight plots, explosive deaths, and one-dimensional protagonists. Of course, this is not a universal rule, but we all know that romance flicks are viewed by more women, and films chock-full of running, shooting, and explosions are more often attended by men, so there is a truth to this. As humans, we tend to like the things we already understand, and don’t often push ourselves to experience more of this richly-tapestried world.
A HIGHER STANDARD
Therefore, a book that combines the best of both worlds, character development and active, compelling plot, is often ignored as too difficult for true enjoyment. But while it might require more discipline from the reader to get through the parts that they are, personally, less wired to appreciate yet, when they read well-written character development or well-constructed plots, they can also start to lose their prejudice against them. They start to truly appreciate the good things about them, and find enjoyment on a whole new level. Their world expands.
Classics seem frightening until we realize that they are actually written by someone like us – someone who merely refused to publish something sub-par; someone who wanted to create the best product that they could. Classics are not removed from reality or full of inaccessible, lofty ideas. Rather, they are full of your ideas, my ideas, the ideas of humanity that we all think about, struggle with, and seek to understand, and their authors refused to finish writing until they had expressed themselves with sufficient clarity, color, depth, and dimension. If you take the time to read their work then you, too, will begin to find words and appreciations for things you never thought you would experience, and you will begin to find enjoyment in life you never knew was possible.