Definition of classic

daphneOn another blog, there was a conversation that broke out on the meaning of the word “classic”. I gave my initial response, but decided eventually to look in the dictionary. The editors of dictionaries put a lot of work into them, so it’s only fair that we make use of them. I started, however, with my Latin dictionary, where “classicus” meant “belonging to the first class, of the highest class”, usually in reference to some segment of the Roman people. If this is where the English word “classic” originates, then it gives us some idea of what it will mean. Moving on to the Oxford Dictionary, I think every definition stated on that blog post is contained here in one way or another.

“Classic” as an adjective has two definitions. First, “judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind”. This definition combines the time criterion that showed up in many comments with the criterion of being the best of its kind, again where the fact it has lasted a long time seems more an indication of the worth, which is the more important factor. The second definition of the adjective is similar but distinct, “very typical of its kind”. Typical in the sense of “having the distinctive qualities of a particular type of person or thing” (Oxford). In this sense, the Iliad and the Odyssey are classic epics, Moby Dick is a classic American novel, and Hamlet is a classic tragedy. This definition accounts for why certain books are called classics of a genre or region, but are not unqualified literary classics.

“Classic” as a noun has two relevant definitions. The first is related to the adjective just described, “a work of art of recognized and established value”. The second is limited but related, “a subject at school or university which involves the study of ancient Greek and Latin literature, philosophy, and history”. I think there’s a way in which the Greek and Latin cultures laid the groundwork for Western notions of excellence in art, so there’s a reason why the name “classic” is attributed to them in a special sense.

golf ballThe third sense of the noun does not apply to this conversation, but is worth reporting for the sake of completion: “a major sports tournament or competition, especially in golf or tennis”. This name probably comes from the event being regular and traditional in its own fashion.

As for the word “classical“, this adjective primarily means “relating to ancient Greek or Latin literature, art, or culture”, and secondarily “representing an exemplary standard within a traditional and long-established form or style”, such as classical music and classical dance.

Now while all the respondents on the original post recognized some aspect of one of the definitions above, there were also questions about how to determine if a work is a classic. One response said, “the question is unanswerable, unless we are willing to elect some governing body the supreme keeper of literature”, indicating the difficulty of knowing who can determine the excellence of a work. Another response placed this responsibility in the reader: “I’d say we as humans determine individually what is classic to US. That’s sort of what we’re doing here in the club, I think — hunting down our own classics.”

audenThis reader is, nevertheless, guided by others. I’m reminded of Aristotle’s Topics, where he talks about how to attain knowledge by dialectical reasoning (rather than certain demonstrative reasoning), and he says you must start with opinions held “by all, or by the majority, or by the most notable and illustrious of them” (Topics, I.1). For this reason, we who read classics often look at lists of books put together by either a wide survey of readers, or by a group of notable intellectuals, or perhaps by one individual in particular who we believe to be particularly insightful.

As I was considering the role of the reader in determining which works to consider classics, I was reminded of a few quotes from W.H. Auden (that I once read on another literary blog) on the intersection of judgment and taste. These reflections indicate how a work could be a classic without necessarily being a book one enjoys.

“My taste tells me what, in fact, I enjoy reading; my judgement tells me what I must admire. There are always a number of poems that one must admire but that, by reasons of one’s temperament, one cannot enjoy. The converse is not necessarily true. I don’t think I like any poem that I do not also admire, but I have to remind myself that in some other fields–tear-jerking movies, for example–I revel in what my judgment tells me is trash.” (W.H. Auden, 19th Century British Minor Poets)

“As readers, we remain in the nursery stage so long as we cannot distinguish between taste and judgment, so long, that is, as the only possible verdicts we can pass on a book are two: this I like; this I don’t like. For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five: I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe that with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.” (W.H. Auden, A Certain World: A Commonplace Book)

Two by Balzac

As I write from the exotic-sounding but none-too-exotic city of Kalamazoo, the memory of the first novels I read this year brings to mind some journeys to more exotic places. They are two novels from Balzac: one obtained from a used bookstore at ground level of a mall in Jerusalem, the other bought brand new at a train station bookstore at Florence. Though I picked them up during quiet moments on planes and trains, I finally finished both of them on the island of Ischia (off the coast of Naples) which itself has a story worth telling.

wild skin

The Wild Ass’s Skin, obtained in the used bookstore, itself starts with a lengthy account of a shop filled with antiquaries. Continue reading

Overview of 2018 Reading

Literary classics. I was able to finish 16 different classics this year, and each by a different author! I won’t go into detail here as I wrote a blogpost for each of them. The authors, in the order I read them, are: Virginia Woolf, Honoré de Balzac, Sigrid Undset, Evelyn Waugh, Willa Cather, Ismail Kadare, George Eliot, Chaim Potok, Kazuo Ishiguro, Émile Zola, Vladimir Nabokov, Aristophanes, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jane Austen, Stanislaw Lem, and Mikhail Bulgakov. (Clicking any of those names will direct you to my posts on them.)

Other literary books. Following recommendations from workers at a local bookstore in Rome, I read and finished a couple other literary works this year that I would not list among the classics. The first of these is Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer, an autobiographical account of the author’s attempt to write a biography of D.H. Lawrence. I had previously heard of Dyer only from a lengthy article on Rebecca West, but the recommendation was strong, so I went for it. It was an unfortunate choice. Apart from a few amusing anecdotes about Italy (which eventually led to me watching spaghetti Westerns this summer), the books is basically just a cranky monologue. Another worker from the same bookstore recommended The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. In this case, the book was entertaining and clever at parts, but ultimately left me wanting to read the real thing.

michigan

Michigan. I have often thought: Spain, Italy and Greece have all produced great literature. But what do they have in common? They are peninsulas. Should not then Michigan have an even greater literature? For it is two peninsulas. Indeed, according to the barely-known and perhaps unfortunate 1972 Pledge to the State Flag, it is:

two beautiful peninsulas united by a bridge of steel
where equal opportunity and justice to all is our ideal.

And so I searched for the literary treasure that I expected to find in Michigan, and though I did not have time to search as thoroughly as I would like, I found a very helpful book for this journey: Michigan Literary Luminaries by Anna Clark. In this book, Clark brings forth the best Michigan has to offer: from the more literary Ernest Hemingway and Joyce Carol Oates to the more popular Elmore Leonard and Donald Goines. Anna Clark concludes with a much more hopeful estimation of Michigan’s literary output than I arrived at, but she does a great job telling the story along the way. I will continue my search once I am back in Michigan.

Odd coincidence: While talking with workers at a bookstore in my home town, I found out that Anna Clark once worked there! She was scheduled to give a talk there after I left, but I was able to meet her at another venue in Kalamazoo where she was presenting her newest book on the Flint water crisis. She seemed very excited that someone had found and enjoyed her book on Michigan’s literature!

Also on the subject of Michigan literature, I mention here Michigan author Jon Oldham’s project which I recently wrote a post on.

Books I did not finish. There are probably more books than these that I picked up an put down again, but these stand out. The first is Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, an autobiographical work about a nurse in World War I. It was highly recommended on a number of blogs and had found a place among the Penguin Classics, but I just couldn’t do it after 200 pages. She struck me self-centered and I wasn’t given reasons to expect any improvement, so I decided to let that one go. Then next one was recommended by a lady working at Barbara’s Bookstore in the O’Hare airport, who said it was her favorite book: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. It starts with a boy discovering a forgotten book in a hidden library, and the drama goes from there. There were many things I liked about it early on, but the main character became less and less interesting with every chapter, and then I stopped. There are too many good books in the world to be spending time on ones that miss the mark. One last book I did not finish a was a collection of poetry by Cavafy, a modern Greek poet. This book is excellent! I dropped it when I went home for the summer and I hope to pick it up again in the new year.

Comics. Should I include this in my reading for the year? When I spent time with my family this summer, we often watched either Marvel movies or the recent sequel series to Dragon Ball Z. Inspired by the first of those and tempted by special offers for Marvel Unlimited, I ended up reading the 1991 Infinity Gauntlet comics on which the recent Infinity War film is at least partly based. This led to reading comics about Adam Warlock as well as his Infinity Watch, a group similar to the Guardians of the Galaxy, each member of which is entrusted with an Infinity Stone. These were fun, but I decided not to renew my month’s subscription—they’re almost endless and they make new ones every day! The other comic I picked up was Jaco the Galactic Patrolman, a recent work from the creator of Dragon Ball Z. It was short and fun, but I don’t think it would reading for anyone but fans of Akira Toriyama.

breviaryPsalms. Back in June, I spent a few days the Benedictine monastery in Norcia, where I was at last convinced to switch to the older use of the Roman Breviary for my daily prayers. Instead of praying the Psalms over the course of a month (as the current Liturgy of the Hours does) the Breviarium Romanum (as it was prayed in 1962) moves through the entire Psalter each week. This takes a little more time, but one eventually gets used to the rhythm and the Psalms quickly become more familiar. Recognizing the how central the Psalms are to my daily prayer and how they are used at Mass every day, it seemed worth the effort to understand them better. I started with a commentary on Psalm 119 by St. Ambrose, and then started going back and forth between the homilies of St. Augustine and St. Jerome on various Psalms. Apart from these ancient commentaries, I read John Bergsma’s Psalms Basics for Catholics, a very simple but very helpful overview on the structure of the book of Psalms and how the entire story of the Old Testament is reflected in them. After that I read N.T. Wright’s A Case for the Psalms, which was not so much an argument for their usage as a reflection on his own experience praying and singing them. On a recommendation in that book, I started listening to recordings of Anglican choirs chanting the Psalms—truly something to work up to in our own churches. I didn’t get around them, but I had hoped to read reflections on the Psalms from C.S. Lewis and Girolamo Savonarola, and then a book recommended by Bergsma called Singing in the Reign.

Saints. I love preaching on the lives of the Saints. If there is a Gospel passage that is difficult to interpret, you can never go wrong by seeing how the Saints lived that Gospel in their own lives. The only life that I read in full this year was a small book on Blessed Margaret of Castello. She was born blind and crippled, was ignored and eventually abandoned by her wealthy parents, and attained to the heights of holiness. I highly recommend her biography by Fr. William Bonniwell, O.P.

State of the Church. With all the craziness in the news about goings-on in the Church, I read The Book of Gomorrah by St. Peter Damian, written about 1000 years ago. He writes about the awful lifestyles of clerics in his own day and about the heights of virtue which God demands of every priest. The other book I read, before any of the scandals this summer, was The Last Testament, an interview with Pope Benedict XVI. What a humble and intelligent man! Only time will tell us the full ramifications of his weighty decision to step down from the Petrine office.

tribunalCanon law. Though I don’t usually write about it on here, I would bet that over half of my reading in the last year was in one way or another related to canon law. In the first half of 2018, I was in a seminar on the power of governance in the Church and so I read many articles related to that, especially on judicial power and its delegation as this was the topic I presented in the seminar. This last semester, my focus shifted almost entirely to presumptions as a form of proof, and especially judicial presumptions, as this is the topic I have chosen for my license tesina. I have whole bibliography of textbooks, commentaries, articles, and original sources on this topic, but I’ll wait until it’s finished before I share a summary.

Books started. There are two books I am going through at very leisurely pace, which I do not think I will finish for a very long time. One of these is the Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges, which collects his many collections of short fiction. As finish each of these collections, I will write a post on it, but I am only reading a couple pages a day. The other book I am plodding through is the Disquisitiones Arithmeticae by Carl Friedrich Gauss. When I was reading Stanislaw Lem, there were many references to Gauss as if he were quasi-deity and, though I knew the name, I could not recall any of his discoveries or contributions off the top of my head. A couple searches later, I found that he wrote a textbook on number theory and sent away for it. It is an exact work and I never get through more than a page in a sitting, but it’s a pleasure to pick up something mathematical after nearly 6 years without anything of the kind. I intend to write a post on it soon, though it may be years before I actually finish it.

Summer reading: Ishiguro, Zola, Nabokov

With six months since my last post, I will combine several titles under a few blog posts. Though I have not written lately, I have not stopped reading!

manuelKazuo Ishiguro: Remains of the Day. I picked up this book at recommendation of blogger, not having ever talked to anyone about this author. Ishiguro was born in Japan but raised entirely in the UK, and the novel reminds one of Downton Abbey with its setting in an upscale house. The story is told by a butler. In some sense, the novel takes place over a weekend as the butler goes to visit an old acquaintance; as he goes, he reflects on his life which turns into flashback that stretch over decades of his service. One of the constant themes is the notion of excellence—what it means to be a butler of distinction—and how this at times seems to conflict with human happiness. I myself wondered how anyone could take so much pride in being a servant without something higher in mind, something beyond this world. One of the sorrows that appears is the fall into disgrace of the master: What can this mean for a servant who has given himself entirely to the service of his master, perhaps without holding any higher ideal?

I enjoyed immensely how the book unfolded. Without any sort of ostentation, the reader arrives at conclusions along with the butler as the book goes on, though perhaps realizing before he does all of the opportunities lost. The emotion it produces is a heavy sort of sorrow, and yet a very quiet one that takes place under a polite smile. I could recommend this book to anyone who wanted a quick read.

degas interior

Émile Zola: Thérèse Raquin. What a wretched book! I was in an airport bookstore and saw this novel which appeared short enough to finish during my flights, and I was planning to read Zola eventually anyway. As far as morals go, I think it is straightforward and true enough: Guilt drives out the pleasure of sin and, indeed, one sin leads to another. Furthermore, when I say it is wretched, I do not mean that it does not accomplish its end well. Zola pulls off the horror well. There is a woman who knows of a horrible crime and is unable to inform anyone due to her inability to move or speak: you feel the horror of the guilty ones who dread the possibility of her divulgence, her despair at being unable to communicate, and the dullness of the persons who suspect nothing. Overall, I do not care for the book. It is too awful for the simple message it advances. As far as problematic literary elements, I found that there was nothing necessary about its ending—it seems the book could have ended just as well at many earlier places, and I don’t see why it could not have gone on. I have not yet recommended this to anyone.

zembla

Vladimir Nabokov: Pale Fire. This book was recommended to me about a year ago in a book store. In general, I have had little interest in Nabokov, finding the subject of his most popular work repulsive, but I happened to pick this one up in a book store. Looking inside, I surprised to find how the book was structured: it begins with a 999-line poem to which many pages of footnotes follow. And that is the book. That was enough for me to be interested! As I started to read the “footnotes”, I saw that there were three stories unfolding: that of the editor who is the author of the footnotes, that of the poem’s author, and that of the exiled ruler of Zembla who the editor wanted as the subject of the poem “Pale Fire”. Within a few pages, there was a reference to the foreword which I had skipped, so I flipped back before the poem and found that the foreword was also a fiction composed for the work! One of the things that kept the novel interesting was that each “footnote” could be entirely different: sometimes just explaining cultural reference, at other times giving a whole narrative about one or other of the persons involved. The book is funny as well. An example: Since the work is largely a commentary on the poem, the author recommends buying two copies of the book so that you can have one open to the commentary and one open to the poem—a silly recommendation when you can flip back and forth.

Nabokov’s mastery of language comes forth as well. The only evidence that English is his second or third language is the ease which with he makes jokes that cross the boundaries of different languages. To accompany his invented land of Zembla he constructed at least bits of a language called Zemblan, from which he gives occasional etymologies and a few times gives an English translation from the Zemblan version of a Shakespeare play he has lying around (it was either Timon of Athens or Titus Andronicus—I can’t remember, and my copy is on the other side of the world). There are a few needlessly perverse scenes in the book but these aren’t what one remembers after reading: it’s the language, the structure and the intersection of multiple narrative. I highly recommend Pale Fire to anyone who enjoys reading.

[These titles are #21, #22 and #23 on my classic reading challenge.]

Eugénie Grandet: My first Balzac novel

ibalzac001p1Reading Honoré de Balzac, I asked myself the same question I asked upon reading George Eliot, “How is it that no one ever recommended this author to me?” Balzac is one of the great 19th century French authors, considered one of the founders of literary realism, and known for his series of over 90 works called The Human Comedy (La Comédie Humaine). The works in this collection (mostly novels) are divided into sequences which focus on a specific sphere of French life, such his “Scenes of private life” or his “Scenes of Parisian life”. The volume I just completed, Eugénie Grandet, falls into his “Scenes of provincial life”. Upon learning this, I was instantly reminded of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which bears the subtitle A Study of Provincial Life. Continue reading

Mrs. Dalloway: My first Woolf novel

woolfOverall, I did not care for Mrs. Dalloway. First of all, I was surprised by the way it was written, not having read anything about Woolf’s fiction before now. After reading for some time, I noticed that I hadn’t quite taken in what was going on, and one minute we were watching Clarissa prepare for a party, and then without pause, we were watching Septimus and his Italian wife, and there was so much apparent nonsense in between. What was I reading? I had enjoyed A Room of One’s Own (a prose work of Virginia Woolf) but Mrs. Dalloway had none of that work’s clarity or ease. I considered quitting after 30 pages, but a voice encouraged me to continue.

What made the book thoroughly unenjoyable was the meaninglessness of it all and the general unlikableness of any of the characters (with a few exceptions). These are the same reasons why I found The Trial by Kafka or Buddenbrooks by Mann thoroughly unpleasant (again, with a few exceptions). Perhaps one might say that there is much meaning and cleverness in the work if one takes the time to tease it out, but whereas I have a divine guarantee that I will find some fruit in the difficult words of Leviticus or Zechariah, I have no such assurance from Virginia Woolf, and so I do not anticipate returning to the work, at least not until someone has helped me see more clearly what she is trying to do. Continue reading

Overview of 2017 Reading

George_Eliot_by_Samuel_LaurenceBack in April, I started my Classics Challenge—a plan to read 50 classic works over the course of 5 years—but that was not the start of my reading for the year. Here is a quick overview of the books I finished in 2017.

The author that stands out this year is George Eliot. Having discovered Middlemarch in 2016 and loving it, I continued to read George Eliot throughout 2017:

Apart from The Lifted Veil, I could recommend any of these excellent novels. Middlemarch remains my favorite Eliot novel, but Daniel Deronda and Romola are not far behind. In addition to those books by George Eliot, I read 11 other novels in 2017. Helena by Evelyn Waugh

Some of these were excellent:

Some of them were quite good:

Some were good, but not as enjoyable as I had hoped:The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić

And there were a couple that I did not care for at all:

Toward the end of 2016, a classmate started a Shakespeare reading group which gave me occasion to read Henry VI, Parts 1-3 and Richard III, as well as the Sonnets. This group continued into 2017 where we read Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1-2, and Henry V. Apart from these plays and poems of Shakespeare, I also read the classic Metamorphoses of Ovid and the modern Rosmersholm of Henrik Ibsen.

mass photo maxThe most momentous event of the year for me was certainly ordination to the priesthood on June 24th, and with this came further reading about the saints and the liturgy. I read the Letters of St. Cyprian, the Lausaic History (about the desert fathers), biographies of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, St. Dominic, Bl. John Henry Newman (both by himself and by another), and a handful of saints canonized in 1881. In the last month of the summer, having said Mass every day for a couple months, I wanted to read more about its history and how the prayers came to be as they are, and found the excellent Organic Development of the Liturgy by Alcuin Reid and Voice of the Church at Prayer by Uwe Michael Lang. Continuing my canon law studies, I have read all sorts of articles and books (in whole and in part) that I won’t list here. All the reading in canon law spurred my interest in other legal works, and so I read Cicero’s Republic and Laws, a huge chunk of Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, and the Qur’an.

This last month, I have almost exclusively read about the history of canon law, especially in the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic tradition. With Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather in my carry-on, I expect to read more literature as 2018 begins!