Quick Question for the Controversial Classics

We are a culture of consensus (just look at the power invested in Yelp), and “the classics”– books that are assumed to better than all other books via their perseverance through time– are an attractive place to start looking for good books.  There already exists a vague sense for the illustrated classics– think Where the Wild Things Are, Corduroy, and Green Eggs and Ham. 

Now I personally am a sucker for the whole idea of “classics,” I can’t lie. When somebody tries to tell me that I should read an old book, that time has proven that it will make me a better, more viable person, my English Lit student perks right up, and says, Yes, please. That’s why I want to just take a wee moment to consider the implications of this sticky, slippery– all the slimy “s” words you can think of, really– label. 

A classic, broadly, is a work that has been found to be exemplary or noteworthy. Alright.  That’s broad for sure.  Another element of the classics is that they are books that are culturally important.  Something that, ideally, contains some universal element of humanity that crosses boundaries and borders of times and cultures.  Cool.  But a long-standing debate has waged over exactly how to identify a classic.  Ideally, they are books that are innately “exemplary, noteworthy,” and universal.  There’s a large group of people, however, who think that really “the classics”, or those choosing them, have a personal agenda.  That universities, professors and publishers over the past 150 years or so have guised certain texts as the “timeless masterpieces of human writing” simply because those are the texts they personally deem worthy.  How else, they argue, do you explain that classics are only written by dead white guys?

Whatever side you take on this debate, it is obvious that no one knows of anything inherent about a classic that has given it that label, of determining exactly what “exemplary and noteworthy” mean or how they manifest.  Ideals are ideals because they often fail.  Even after my many years of schooling, I still don’t know how the hell to identify a classic unless someone points one out to me. And that’s the crux of the matter.  The word itself is dangerous.  It comes pre-loaded with the assumption that, one, the classics are set in stone, agreed upon by large groups of smart people over a very long and drawn out period of time.  We’ve already looked at the problem with that.  And two, that the classics have more often than not undergone the test of time. Otherwise, they should have fallen off the radar as an anachronistic piece of fluff.  But even the time test is not fool-proof. Who really decides that a text will be available to the reading public? That we will be exposed to it, even know of its existence? Libraries. Schools. Universities. And overall, publishing houses. So, there is plenty of room for bias and plenty of room to manipulate the reading public. And what’s a more effective manipulation than the tautological argument that something is valuable because it is?  Throw in some big academic words and an academic seal of approval and bam, sold.  We’re left with that age-old question of what came first: Barnes and Nobel printing copy after copy of cheap Jane Austen books because there’s a demand for them, or the public buying them because they are always there, advertised as classics?

While the ideal of the classics is a superb one, it’s application is a little trickier.  And really, the question is just as difficult with illustrated books.  First, of course, there’s the problem that people don’t really care to imagine that picture books can be valuable beyond teaching moral lessons, like, don’t pee your pants, love your mom, share, etc.  Kind of dismisses that ethereal and intangible element of a timeless piece of writing.  We don’t make lists of classic fourth grade science texts.  Second, ever notice how the books that are considered the classics tend to hail from around the same time period?  Say, 1930 to 1960?  If someone had a mind to, they might feel suspicious about the fact that all the classics are the books our parents read when they were kids.  Weren’t there illustrated books prior to 1930?  (If you happen by the Legion of Honor before June, check out the Making the Modern Picture Book exhibit.  Answers that question.)  Tying in to that third question, that same issue of nostalgia.  I’ll read The Day Jake Vacuumed because my dad read it to me.  It’s a terrible story, but I can’t see past my own warm fuzzy feelings when Jake sucks his whole family up in the vacuum.  And do warm fuzzy feelings brought on by a personal sense of value really warrant calling something a timeless and universal masterpiece?  I’d say no.

What we need, then, is a refreshing of this idea of the classics.  It’s a long rant, I know, but I couldn’t begin a category called “The Classics” of picture books without a healthy caveat around what that means, what tricks and trips that word holds.  So let’s start it on the right foot: with a sound suspicion of the books that other people tell us are  innately good.  And yes, even do it with illustrated books.  Just ask yourself: are they good for you? Good for me? Good for the taking of toast and tea…?  And most importantly, good for the bigger than you and the bigger than me and the bigger than any amount of nostalgically and unthinkingly consumed toast and tea?

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