By J. Peder Zane
Italo Calvino defined it is as a work that “has never finished saying what it has to say.” Ezra Pound said it possesses “a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness." And the 19th century French literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve declared that “[it] has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered.”
At first glance, these definitions of classic/great books seem on the mark. Under their umbrella of excellence we can fit undisputed works of genius from “The Iliad” and “The Divine Comedy” to “Pride & Prejudice,” “Anna Karenina” and “Invisible Man.”
Unfortunately, they rest on a fallacy – that any and every book that exhibits these qualities will be considered a classic. In fact, there are many works graced with eternal and irrepressible freshness that are not considered part of the canon. I could mention “A High Wind in Jamaica” by Richard Hughes, “With” by Donald Harington and “The Night Inspector” by Frederick Busch. Some readers will dispute those picks; most have their own list of unheralded masterpieces.
The definition of great books will never be settled by competing arguments. There are no objective criteria that can establish the qualities exclusively possessed by a small handful of works deemed classics. That doesn’t mean that we should stop trying to define what makes some works better than others – this is possible, necessary and great fun. But it suggests that other, long ignored factors drive our definition of classic/great books. Read more ...
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“Jonathan Lethem’s extraordinary career is a reminder of the not-so-distant past when working novelists published their new creations regularly and with a seemingly free-flowing hand,” Michael Greenberg writes in the New York Times Book Review. “If one book wasn’t up to snuff, there would be another to redeem it a year or two later. It was all part of the ebb and flow of a lifetime of work.
“During her long and distinguished career, Joyce Carol Oates never has shied away from the controversy that can come with using celebrities and tabloid news stories as the inspiration for her fiction,” Jon Michaud observes in the Washington Post.
Ron Rash has received many glowing reviews, but it would be hard to top the mash note he received from Janet Maslin last week for Something Rich and Strange, “a major short-story anthology that can introduce new readers to this author’s haunting talents and reaffirm what his established following already knows.”
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (1945). Waugh was one of the twentieth century’s great satirists, yet this novel, widely considered his best, is not satiric. It is, instead, an examination of Roman Catholic faith as it is used, abused, embraced, and rejected by the Flytes, an aristocratic English family visited by alcoholism, adultery, and homoeroticism.