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Classics.

Chimera

To inanity and beyond
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This is just a little thing that's bothered me for...oh, my entire life.

First, a definition!

clas-sic [klas-ik] adj.
1. of the first or highest quality, class, or rank: a classic piece of work.
2. serving as a standard, model, or guide, ie. the classic method of teaching arithmetic.

Now, working somewhat within that definition, I have to ask...what is with the obsession with classics? Literature, music, art, movies... The status of "classic" is typically agreed upon within a society, so that has to make them good, right? (The standards that make something a "classic" are dodgy and subjective, so how a society as a whole can agree on that is beyond me, but I digress.)


So let me explain what brought this fresh annoyance up for me: in my english literature class, I've only read 1 of the books that were listed as english "classics". When I told my classmate, they were shocked. How could I have made it this far without being enlightened by Charles Dickins's Great Expectations? How could I be breathing without the wonderful insights of The Great Gatsby? Oh, it was an outrage! An injustice to humanity! A sin to our culture!

Yet when I asked what was so significant about those books, they didn't have an answer for me.
I told them that I read plenty, mostly books I picked off the shelves of the library. And don't get me wrong, I have nothing against old books, movies, or music. I'm in love with Debussy's "Clair de Lune", and I'll curl up with Kurt Vonnegut's Welcome to the Monkey House any day. And I'm intrigued by the people who analyze literature for DEEP MEANINGS and CULTURAL SIGNIFICANCE that NORMAL PEOPLE JUST DON'T UNDERSTAND.
(Even if I think it's silly and over-reaching sometimes.)

But what are the functions of "classics"? Why are they so stressed in academic curriculum across the country? (I'm speaking mainly of America here, though I'm sure it's much the same around the world.)

So what if I didn't read some book from the great depression or if I can't identify a famous symphony? There's beautiful music being composed currently, brilliant literature being printed currently...why should it make a person any less "cultured" if they're living in the present, rather than the past? And shouldn't a "classic" be a personal distinction, not what a bunch of old farts at Yale decide is "culturally significant"?


If there are any stalwart defenders of the "classics" here, in whatever field, I would love to hear your side on this. And anyone else too, obviously.

/2cents
 
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I don't care much for many classics, but I would consider Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Ender's Game to be classics.
Not having read these classics would mean that you would miss references to them in today's culture.

So maybe being less 'cultured' just means you wouldn't understand if some 'cultured' person made a reference to a classic.

I'm not sure how many references there are in today's culture, but there are many in English classes.

...I don't think The Great Gatsby matters that much, though.
 

snafupants

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Well, Fitzgerald was a drunk and Gatsby is sort of schlocky compared to even second rate Faulkner, but teachers can assign whatever they want I guess.

What!?! You haven't read Great Expectations? Read it this month! All classics weren't created equal, and that one is definitely worth the time...and it's not too long.

As far as the broader argument about the classics, I sort of agree with you. I think it basically gives a bunch of smarmy folk in academia something to discuss while sipping coffee and angling for tenure. I don't really give a shit about the semiotics of Foucault, the symbology of Dos Passos, or elaborate wordplay in Nabokov, thanks.

A good book is a good book whenever it comes out, as long as it speaks honestly to the current culture and the immutables of people.

Personally, if I were a high school English teacher I would assign Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment over anything by Jane Austen. I hate mannered writing, and that's what the Western classics usually boil down to: give me something with murder, introspection, mystery, sex, and we should be happy.
 

Chimera

To inanity and beyond
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I don't care much for many classics, but I would consider Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Ender's Game to be classics.
Not having read these classics would mean that you would miss references to them in today's culture.

So maybe being less 'cultured' just means you wouldn't understand if some 'cultured' person made a reference to a classic.

I'm not sure how many references there are in today's culture, but there are many in English classes.

...I don't think The Great Gatsby matters that much, though.
I've read Ender's Game and seen Hitchhiker's, and ironically I thought about mentioning them as classics I enjoy. I wasn't sure if people would agree with me on the status for them though.

As far as not understanding references made by "cultured" people...well, again, they're only considered "cultured" if we're saying that knowing classics makes a person cultured. Again, I would argue that a person keeping up to date on current news and happenings is more cultured than someone steeped in old things...eventually, time is going to provide us with too much "classic" material to keep track of, and detailed knowledge of history and art of old will become something to merely look up on a database.

I agree, I didn't find much worth in The Great Gatsby. I sat down to read it shortly after speaking with my classmate, and I felt like I could have lived happily without it.



snafupants said:
Well, Fitzgerald was a drunk and Gatsby is sort of schlocky compared to even second rate Faulkner, but teachers can assign whatever they want I guess.
Yes and no...at least in high school, you know? They get a list of approved/required books they must teach, and surprise surprise, that list comes from the stuffy old geezers waving a magic wand to turn things into official "classics".

What!?! You haven't read Great Expectations? Read it this month! All classics weren't created equal, and that one is definitely worth the time...and it's not too long.
I found it rather dry, to be honest. I read it after I spoke with my classmate as well. It had its moments, but for me it was like eating broccoli when I would have rather had sushi--I know it was good for me, but it wasn't a flavor I enjoyed.

A good book is a good book whenever it comes out, as long as it speaks honestly to the current culture and the immutables of people.
Personally, if I were a high school English teacher I would assign Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment over anything by Jane Austen. I hate mannered writing, and that's what the Western classics usually boil down to: give me something with murder, introspection, mystery, sex, and we should be happy.


Agreed, hands down.
 

Cavallier

Oh damn.
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Ah, is The Canon getting you down? I gotta agree with you on most of that.

Jane Austen was just as much a pop-fiction cardboard writer then as Nicholas Sparks is today.

Edit: I took an International Women's Literature class once that was awesome! New perspectives and interesting culture. None of it was in The Canon. It is a shame.
 

Puffy

Aquila
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I really don’t read that much literature, so I’m naturally selective on that front anyway, but I assume we could refer to “classics” in other media?

If I’m going to start exploring into new territory I see classics as like a handy starting point. They’re usually considered classics because of the influence they have had on the work of those they inspire, or within certain genres. So they can be handy to know as a way in to other stories I might prefer as well.

Whether we look to the present or the future, the past is significant because current models and narratives are always building upon older ones. If a classic was particularly innovative or set a trend or image that story-tellers have continued to build upon and reference today, then knowing it only opens more avenues of understanding rather than hindering. If a classic was no longer relevant, or had been grown past, then I completely agree with you, I couldn’t care less. (And we don't have to like every story we hear anyway) :P

I think Tarantino’s films are a good example though, love him or hate him. He relies so much on blending genres and changing iconic images to create new meaning. A classic structure sets a passive expectation in the viewer which, if a film-maker is aware of, can be manipulated to surprise audiences. References to classics can be used in really fun and creative ways, sometimes.

I might think this way because film is quite young, though.

Because then it also depends. People carve their own meaning out of art. My favourite films are ones that have had personal effects on me; I have felt a lot of what critics said irrelevant to my experience of it in these cases. There are plenty of ‘classics’ I didn’t enjoy either. Like you, I don’t like snobs who only go on about classics; if you hold them so highly it almost blemishes the current art in comparison, which ruins the fun of viewing it.

Delicate balance I guess. I mostly agree with you, I just think knowledge of classics has been handy to me as well as being pretentious sometimes. :)
 
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