To be a classic a book’s got to be old. It needs to have been tested over the course of two generations—about 50 years—before we can say it is definitely worth reading. But if everyone were to read only old books, how could any new books ever take hold?
We should read the classics, but we need to read contemporary works too. The point is not to let one overshadow the other. Maybe in 1000 years when our tradition has reached a stable equilibrium we can stick to the classics alone. But our world is changing rapidly and new ideas are emerging to adapt to this change. We should be cautious in trying new, untested ideas; we also need the courage to stick to a new principle once we’ve adopted it, so that we can be living proof of its truth. Only then can we help make something a classic.
Above is a graph of the works I’ve listed in my (admittedly provisional) canon. I’d wager you’d see a similar pattern whatever canon you graph. There are two main groups of dots—one during the time of Greece and Rome, and one during the modern era. These are the two periods of the most rapid growth of literary culture in the West. Though more books were written in the 400s AD than at any time before, few managed to overshadow the brilliance of the original Greek philosophers.
The modern era, you’ll notice, has a lot more tiny dots. This is because we don’t yet know which books will be the true classics of the future. Even the big ones are relatively provisional, and are likely to shrink or even disappear with time as their relevance wanes. The weeding process will always be ongoing, as truly-outdated books are neglected and new cultural heroes trumpet their greatest influences.
You don’t hear much about the classics these days. How did they fall out favor, especially if they’re supposed to be so beneficial? Shouldn’t those who read them be the most successful and admired people still today? Shouldn’t we hear them recommended everywhere? The fact is, the last century has seen an extraordinary growth in technology and industry. So the most influential people are still largely scientists and other technocrats. As a result, university philosophy itself has become overly impressed with the power of science and has bowed to its apparent might. University culture as a whole has lost an appreciation for what it already had. The myth of progress has taken hold even there, a myth that favors mass media and mass government, a myth that now controls the airwaves and the mass consciousness of our nation. Progress culture has become viral, demeaning and suppressing what was most precious and ancient. It will take some time before the far richer traditions of the past can come back into their own, but they will be helped as our decline proceeds and our material wealth collapses.
Under the pressure of more extreme selective pressures to come, the classics will return, our canon will be refined, and new classics will be forged.
There’s an interesting article over on Maria Popova’s site about Hemingway’s advice to a novice writer. The first thing he did was hand him a list of classics “every writer should have read.”
Every great thinker and writer has a list of classics that made them what they are. I can’t think of any exception to this rule. How could there be? If you haven’t listened to the conversation so far, how can you possibly contribute? Reading classic works is the beginning and foundation of any good education. The only other essential thing is having a good mentor, and a good book can be a mentor too in a pinch.
If there is a secret to creating a classic, it’s to study classics.
Hemingway wrote, “Never compete with living writers. You don’t know whether they’re good or not. Compete with the dead ones you know are good.”
Reading too many recent books is dangerous, because it gives a skewed historical perspective. It biases you toward the present. It makes you forget. It teaches you complacency with what our culture is losing.
I recently did a survey of my list of classics to see what story themes are most common. Out of 14 narratives whose main themes were “psychological” (for example Crime and Punishment, the climax of which is the inner repentance of the protagonist) 8 were written in the last 100 years, and none more than 250 years ago. By contrast, out of 16 classics with significant “political” themes (involving leaders or nations), 7 were written in the last 100 years, and 4 were written over 250 years ago. Four might not seem like many, but these particular four are the largest and most significant collections of old stories we have: Plutarch’s Lives, the Bible, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and the plays of Shakespeare.
It looks like we moderns have gotten hung up on our own internal psychology. It’s no wonder that our civic traditions are foundering. We call Ulysses the greatest novel of our time, a story that seems to encourage us to lose ourselves in the meaningless intricacies of our own broken psyches. I’ll take Homer’s wide-ranging version of Ulysses over Joyce’s self-involuted one any day.
Ancient classics are also more likely to champion tradition-respecting, rural, close-to-nature living. They are far more ecological, far less urban-centric. It is a pernicious myth that romanticizing nature is a modern pastime. The best pastoral poetry ever written was penned by Virgil two millennia ago. The Bible itself has more ecological themes than you tend to find in modern literature—according to my rough count they are twice as common. These themes include man vs. nature, the follies of pursuing power, and the follies of urbanized life. Stories such as “The Tower of Babel” and “Sodom and Gomorrah” fall into this category, as do the prophecies of almost every biblical seer, prophecies that preach the eventual destruction of decadent, materialistic civilizations—and which, details aside, have invariably proven true. Rome and Babylon were, as surviving records indicate, crushed under the weight of their own material success and psychological decadence. The Bible is profound because it is the record of those few sages who saw it all coming.
When the Bible first took hold in Rome, it was against the grain of the times. Most philosophies were Aristotle-inspired variants on Stoicism, which taught inner quietude, skepticism, and the primacy of reason. The Stoics believed that suffering was unnecessary, that by detachment from the world one can find everlasting happiness. But this is essentially to teach self-involution, an extinguishing of the relation between the inner “psychological” world and the outer “political” one. Even as invasions and plagues swept in, the non-Christians of Rome generally assumed it would all pass, that their empire would be the center of civilization for eternity.
But the early Christians cultivated the opposite attitude. Instead of detachment the Bible taught attachment: “Love takes no pleasure in evil, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Christianity taught not indifference to good and evil, but the difference between good and evil. It taught that evil would sow the fruits of its own demise, that no worldly power could attain everlasting victory, and that on the other hand—“Love never fails.”
The Bible is against the grain of our time too. As a result we consider it “outdated.” I have a feeling that, quite to the contrary, its advice will prove as prescient as it was last time we got so full of ourselves.
Or perhaps a new body of sacred literature will begin to crystallize, still more against the grain and more profound, more prescient even than anything that has come before. If such a body of writing does emerge, most of us won’t realize which it is until it’s too late. I find this thought humbling, a needed antidote to a pernicious—and ungodly—pride of culture.