Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron has been read and loved for 700 years, which, in the most superficial sense, makes it a classic. I would never tell you to read it just because it is a classic, nor would I imply that being really old and/or really famous entitles it to a special status all by itself, exempt from criticism and interrogation. When we talk about classics, there tends to be a strong association with stuff we have been forced to read in the name of education. “I read that in high school,” when people say it (and I include myself in this), often means “I was forced to read it” and/or “I don’t remember it” and occasionally “It’s basically dead to me.” It's a weird phenomenon - we both recognize that [whatever book] is a great book, because everyone agrees that it is, while we also say just as frequently that we didn't really enjoy reading it. Once we are adults who get to decide what media we consume, we’re rarely moved to revisit books that someone once forced us to read, books that we barely remember, or books that we remember actively disliking, whether from boredom or from genuine antipathy (I was probably too young to really get the significance of Tess of the D'Urbervilles as a 9th grader, but I'm also not dying to give it another shot anytime soon, so I'll settle for a vague "yeah I read it, it's obviously a classic!" in social situations where I stand to benefit from knowing such things).
If you want to meditate on why the great books of the world are great, and how to locate them within your lifespan, I recommend a beautiful essay by one of Italy’s most famous writers of the 20th century, Italo Calvino, called “Why read the classics” (the most famous essay in a volume bearing the same title, published in 1981). He gives several definitions of what a ‘classic’ is – in and of itself a worthwhile exercise – and then elaborates. Revisiting Toni Morrison, I have been thinking a lot about the second definition, which reads:
Si dicono classici quei libri che costituiscono una ricchezza per chi li ha letti e amati; ma costituiscono una ricchezza non minore per chi si riserba la fortuna di leggerli per la prima volta nelle condizioni migliori per gustarli.”
My best shot at rendering this passage in English:
We call classics those books whose richness is manifest both for people who have read and loved them and for people who have saved the experience of reading them for a time in their lives when the conditions are best for truly enjoying them.
In other words, you don’t have to be a high school kid to expose yourself to great books for the first time! In fact, you might have done yourself a real favor in saving some of them for your ripe old age. As Calvino then explains, youthful readings are frequently less than ideal, because of impatience, distraction, and inexperience – both in how to read and in how to live. Reading these books in youth can also be (possibly even at the same time) highly formative, in the sense that they give form to future experiences, creating models, containers, points of reference, schemes of classification, scales of value, paradigms of beauty. All these things can continue to operate within you, even if you remember little or nothing of those books you read in high school. Rereading the book at a more mature age, you may rediscover these constants that by now are part of your internal mechanisms, constants whose origins you forgot. There is (and this is the last point he makes) a particular force in a work that manages to let itself be forgotten as such, but still leaves its seed behind: classics exert their influence both when they are unforgettable and when they hide themselves in the folds of memory, becoming part of the collective or individual unconscious. Read the whole essay (in a much nicer translation) here.
I love this idea that some books are loud and memorable, and others are quiet and subtle. It takes both to shape a reader. I read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in the 10th grade, and I remember exactly zero plot details (at that age, I still read primarily for plot). It didn’t hit me like a ton of bricks, like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf did. Now, however, reading Morrison’s Beloved for the first time, I find familiarity in the way the prose moves. My youthful hurry to get to what happens next has given way, now, to my elder stateswoman reading pace, and I absorb what the author is doing on a more detail-oriented level. In a way, I’m both reliving my high school experience with Toni Morrison, silent though it may have been in my memory, and discovering for the first time as a patient reader what her words are capable of. I can't wait to write about it when I'm done.
What I like about Calvino’s essay is that for him, the status of “classic” is about a relationship between a text and its readers. Within his definition, there is space for a wide range of classics, many of which speak to their respective audiences in different ways and at different times. Not everyone will have the same relationship to every classic, and if anything, the disagreements prove the power of the text in eliciting different reactions from different readers. Classics, furthermore, are not entitled to infinite protection or superiority over other texts; they should, in my view, be challenged regularly. We should continually reassess whether our classic authors continue to merit pride of place in high school and college curricula, and the more we disagree on it, the more we'll ask ourselves why these books are important and why we should read them. (And I look forward to writing at some point about why you SHOULD read the Decameron, seniority aside!)