Friday, November 9, 2007
CLASSICS FOR PLEASURE
By Michael Dirda
Harcourt. 341 pp. $25
Perhaps the most difficult thing about the "classics" is deciding what they are in the first place. Michael Dirda, whose taste is impeccable, has written a group of short essays, arranged under useful headings, about a rather iconoclastic and unusual roster of authors whom he regards as "classic." Some of them -- not many, frankly -- are books and writers almost any educated person would accept as "classic" by definition (if any such person other than Dirda still exists in the United States) -- "Beowulf," Sappho, Petronius, Heraclitus, Cicero; others will raise the average educated person's eyebrows in surprise: Edward Gorey, S.J. Perelman, Georgette Heyer, H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling . . . Well, I'm a huge Kipling fan myself and know whole chunks of it by heart (not that anybody these days wants to hear me recite them), but Georgette Heyer? The author of innumerable Regency romances too genteel and stilted to be classed as "bodice-rippers"?
Of course there is no reason to question Dirda's taste for Heyer -- I recall reading many of her books with pleasure myself, when I was about 16, and going through a brief Regency dandy period, when I thought of myself as a budding Beau Brummell -- but does that make her a "classic"? By that standard, one wonders why he failed to include Ouida or the Baroness Orczy.
Let it be said at once that Dirda writes brilliantly, concisely and even convincingly about his choices, odd as they may seem. But he has a distinct agenda in mind, which is to subvert or overthrow the "standard" definition of the classics, as taught in colleges and universities (or those few that still bother with the classics at all), and as outlined in popular form by Clifton Fadiman in his Lifetime Reading Plan. Fadiman, for those who don't recognize his name anymore, was a successful literary popularizer of the 1930s and '40s, host of a hugely successful quiz show called "Information, Please," a judge of the Book-of-the-Month Club in the days when that mattered a lot, and one of my predecessors as editor in chief of Simon & Schuster. His lifetime reading plan was a product of the between-the-wars wave of self-help and self-improvement books -- akin to Charles Goren on bridge, Arthur Murray on dancing, Emily Post on behavior -- the idea being that if you spent an hour or so a day following Fadiman's list (and directions), you could hold your own in conversation with your social betters when the subject of Virgil or Shakespeare or "Don Quixote" came up.
Of course today, this seems quaint. Then, the driving ambition of American life was to rise from the lumpenproletariat to the educated middle class, but now the rich and the middle class are as poorly educated as the lower classes, no more likely to want to talk about Cicero or Dickens than the poor are, and just as unlikely to have read, or even heard of, either. When it comes to culture, ignorance has indeed become bliss, even among successful hedge fund billionaires and digital entrepreneurs who own their own private jets.
Given this reality, it is perhaps optimistic to believe that Dirda can jump-start a return to reading the classics with his lively and brief summing-up of the books and authors he likes, but, of course, stranger things have happened. One problem, however, is that his approach is rather like eating the icing instead of the cake. The value of the classics is not just that they are "good reads" -- indeed, many are not -- it is, surely, that we learn from them the unchanging reality of the human condition, from age to age. That is why the Greek classical plays, though written thousands of years ago, still seem relevant to the moral dilemmas of modern life, or why "Lear" was just as popular in Yiddish theater in the late 19th century as it was when it was first produced in the early 1600s, or why Pip's aspiration to rise to the level of the upper middle class, as represented in his eyes by Miss Havisham and Estella, seems undated a century and a half later.
Mary Shelley, Edward Gorey, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammett are all interesting writers, and have demonstrated a certain staying power, but are they truly "classics" in the full meaning of the term? A classic ought, I think, to provide not just longevity, reading pleasure and the ability to transcend the barriers of time and language ("War and Peace" can be, and is, read in every language, whereas Gorey is not), but above all the shock of recognition, the sudden realization that somebody, long ago, in a different age and culture (or language), understood what we are going through and put it in dramatic form.
Dirda certainly makes literature come alive, but one wonders if people will really be drawn to the classics by being told that the popular books they've been reading all along deserve to be in that category (as in the case of such perennial favorites as Agatha Christie), and whether his book ought not to have been called "My Favorite Books," rather than "Classics for Pleasure." In any event, he himself is a pleasure to read. Nothing could persuade me to try reading ¿mile Zola again, but I fully agree with Dirda about the joys of reading S.J. Perelman, that prickly and acerbic humorist with the acid-dipped pen, whom I edited for several years and whom I too regard as a classic of some kind -- perhaps, from a publisher's point of view, a classic difficult author.
Sunday in Book World
¿ Charles Schulz's good grief.