What Makes a Book Classic?

“A classic … is a successful book that has survived the reaction of the next period or generation. Then it’s safe, like a style in architecture or furniture. It’s acquired a picturesque dignity …”

-Scott Fitzgerald, from The Beautiful and Damned

When I think of my favorite classics, I remember how much joy they brought me. Growing up I read The Velveteen Rabbit and Too Much Noise, and growing older I read The Little House in the Big Woods, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Great Gatsby, A Christmas Carol, Paradise Lost, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre … I could keep going.

I know a book is classic when it is intelligent, when it soothes or inspires me, and when it has clear transitions between its characters’ development, plot progression, and moral teachings. There is no plot summary that can satisfy the definition of a classic, but when readers from the next generations remember the most famous lines from a book, the book has survived into longevity:

  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” (Pride & Prejudice)
  • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” (A Tale of Two Cities)
  • “Call me Ishmael.” (Moby Dick)
  • “You may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden.” (The Tale of Peter Rabbit)

 

That, my friends, is the definition of a classic. I am proud to be one of the readers to enjoy and pass on these tales of wonder.

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How to Introduce a Book, and Why I Like Hemingway

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish….

-Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

When you introduce a book, you can’t simply give an imagery description of the town, or a bland description of the character’s physique. Sometimes you wait to say who the character is or how the character looks until after you say what the character does.

Here in the introduction of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, I am struck by the short paragraph which tells readers why the old man is the center of this story. Look at the following passage, which is the rest of the introduction, to see what I mean:

It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.

Although I omitted sections for brevity, I included the most important phrase—“the flag of permanent defeat”—which sets the story’s tone and shows the old man’s perpetual misfortune. My favorite lines in the next few pages involve dialogue between the old man and the boy, when they reminisce about the time they first met and how important the boy is to the man:

“How old was I when you first took me in a boat?” [said the boy].

“Five and you nearly were killed when I brought the fish in too green and he nearly tore the boat to pieces. Can you remember?”

“I can remember the tail slapping and banging and the thwart breaking and the noise of the clubbing. …”

“Can you really remember that or did I just tell it to you?”

“I remember everything from when we first went together.”

The old man looked at him with his sun-burned, confident loving eyes.

“If you were my boy I’d take you out and gamble,” he said. “But you are your father’s and your mother’s and you are in a lucky boat.”

When Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for this novella, he deserved it well. We now know who the old man is by seeing him with our eyes and understanding him with our minds. That is the importance of style when introducing characters.

This Book is Perfect for Mother’s Day

This book has warmed me for so long. It’s Love You Forever, by Roger Knapp.

The tale is simple, being a children’s book. It starts with the babyhood of the main character and goes to his adulthood, while every stage of his life is being sung to by his mother.

The refrain she sings goes like this: “I love you forever, I like you for always. As long as I’m living my baby you’ll be.”

It sometimes makes me cry if I think the main character, whom the author takes through every stage of his life—toddlerhood, adolescence, and adulthood—is unsympathetic toward his mother, or at least incognizant. But if I slip into this mindset I have to tell myself: It’s not that he doesn’t care about her; it’s that he simply lives a messy or reckless life.

The author takes great care to emphasize that the boy growing up likes messy and loud things: The boy trashes the toilet, chews bubble gum, leaves fingerprints on the counter, listens to hard-core rock music, and all around becomes a walking trash can with his laissez-faire attitude.

I think the main point of this story is that the son reciprocates his mother’s love through osmosis; because she first loved him, he loves her back.

He doesn’t at first reciprocate her love, whether verbally or physically. He is not a bad kid at all; but when she is old and decrepit, he comes to her house, tiptoes up her stairs (as she did to him every night of every year) and sings to her: “I love you forever, I like you for always. As long as I’m living my Mommy you’ll be.”

I sometimes have tears reading these lines. They are so true and so happy. Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers, mother-figures, and women who’ve been like mothers to those they’ve blessed.

Shakespeare, the Unromantic Poet

One would think the master of all poetry would have given his dame a greater sense of beauty, but I was shocked to find this piece of literature terribly unsympathetic and realistic. He gives her not just a bad review, but paints her in such a contrast to the ideal woman that she seems more like a pig than a swan.

But the real motivation for Shakespeare’s sonnet is to contradict and poke fun at his contemporary Petrarch, an Italian poet who created seemingly unrealistically beautiful portrayals of women such as his usual common thread, “My woman’s eyes are like the stars.” I don’t think there’s anything embarrassing with these portrayals, but it’s terribly funny to compare these brilliant poets and their ingenious portrayals of women.

Hence read Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130,” and see whether you agree with his method of flattery:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips’ red; If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head. I have seen roses damask’d, red and white, But no such roses see I in her cheeks; And in some perfumes is there more delight Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks. I love to hear her speak, yet well I know That music hath a far more pleasing sound; I grant I never saw a goddess go; My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:    And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare    As any she belied with false compare.

Would any man, in his right mind, repeat this devastatingly funny poem to his mistress? I think not.

As I near the wedding of my brother, I think this poem is a friendly kick in the gut to Petrarch, who would always say the sweetest things about his woman in his sonnets.

It would be a painfully humorous and sarcastic joke to repeat this aloud. I believe my brother would do a better job in complimenting his lover than Shakespeare to his.

Still, it is a humorous topic to show to young literary scholars, who should probably never repeat this to their lovers, but only in healthy jest.

Leave it on your shelf, Shakespeare. I know you created many wonderful pieces, and this sonnet in particular is reserved for literary spite than romantic gestures.

Adieu, Shakespeare.

My Inspiration, the Goose

One would think a goose to be a terribly insufficient role model for a writer, but this goose is a particular inspiration of mine. She is from the novel Whittington, by Alan Armstrong, who has reconstructed the tale of Dick Whittington and his cat in this modern adaptation with farm animals. The best animal among them is the goose, whose name is Lady and who carries herself with such dignity as to command all others’ respect for her.

Here is the excerpt which I found so diverting:

It was a curious thing, the Lady’s authority. The horses obeyed her, along with everyone else except the rats. What gave her power was how steady she was. She never rushed; she was always sure, she took responsibility. When something came up, she said what to do. Presence of mind counts for a lot in this world. The Lady was as confident of her judgment as she was of her beauty. Nothing so improves the appearance as a good opinion of oneself.

It is commanding enough to be a sermon or Sunday school lesson. Whenever there is an inspirational message or motivational piece, there should always be an example of model character. This goose is by no means real, but she is a genuinely wonderful model character.

The curious thing about the Lady is that she’s particularly ugly; though she has clipped wings, a lopsided gait, and an irregular shading of colored feathers, she does command the respect of those around her, and that is the admirable quality which I find so comforting and inspiring.

I think that even the best of preachers would give an example like this to encourage their audience. Thanks to Alan Armstrong for creating such a good character.

What Would Agamemnon Do?

When writing tragedies, one must ask himself or herself: “What would Agamemnon do?”

More specifically, what would be done to Agamemnon, as when his wife Clytemnestra stabbed him to death in a brink of fury.

I enjoy tragedies very little; most often they catch my eye when they have a faint glimpse of hope at the end, as when BBC’s Sherlock showed the return of Sherlock Holmes in “The Reichenbach Fall,” a perfect summary of emotion, tragedy, and intelligent endings.

Currently I have not written much in the art of tragedy, so my limited experience may prove vain in the discussion of how to torment one’s character. I find tragedies suffocating when they squeeze the victim’s life, yet stimulating when they prove intelligent; if the character learns something from his life, there is bound to be a happy, if not satisfied, reader at the other end.

If anything, I have yet another master of tragedy from which I can glean my mastery of literature: Scott Fitzgerald, who has stolen our hearts with The Great Gatsby, has also wringed our heartstrings with the novel This Side of Paradise, in which the lucky Amory Blaine, an aspiring genius teenager in the university of Princeton, is locked by the conventions of his time and cannot, or does not by his own convenience, escape these boundaries.

It would be my pleasure to imitate Fitzgerald, if not to write a sad ending then at least to imitate a probing sense of human psychology. No one has better claim to tragedy than the Greeks like Aeschylus, who wrote “Agamemnon,” or the American Arthur Miller, who has wrought our hearts with “The Death of the Salesman.” But if I am to imitate these masters, I must first choose whether I enjoy to write these tales or not.

I am prone to read tragedies every now and then, but until then my heart is set on happier things, by which I can glean the good from the bad in all forms of literature, both tragedy and otherwise.

Choosing to Imagine for Novelists

Photo Courtesy of Pixabay
Photo Courtesy of Pixabay

When writing our novels or stories, we ought to “replenish our imagination,” says Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, the author of Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. For just as a child has an unbounded imagination to conjure any fairy-tale castle, princess, or ugly monster, so novelists and writers must also carry this imagination if we genuinely yearn to live in our stories.

By living, I do not mean to be caught in a daydream all day, but to feel with our characters and put ourselves in their shoes so that we can most vividly express their plights and delight our readers. I enjoy that McEntyre adds a didactic element to story-writing. She says that stories can teach us “what we can know and what we must do.”

I resonate with stories that can teach me lessons of life, such as choosing a husband for his mettle rather than his beauty. If I were to read the plight of a young maiden choosing a man who seemed gorgeous yet had no character, I would sympathize with her and remember that lesson for when I am about to marry.